Ssssshhh! Conservative Catholics may exist at Georgetown

When the news broke about the election of the first Jesuit pope, several on-air commentators offered variations on the following line: “You know, I bet they are popping the corks on champagne bottles right now out at Georgetown University.”

The assumption, of course, is that all Jesuits would be equally exhilarated about the election of Pope Francis, a man who at first glance appears to be a quite loyal, traditional Catholic. If he is as doctrinally conservative as it appears that he is, then perhaps it is relevant to ask if Pope Francis could land a faculty position at the prestigious university here in D.C. that has long served as the May pole around which progressive American Catholics dance.

I bring this up because of feature story that ran the other day in the Style pages at The Washington Post about life behind the scenes at Georgetown. In particular, it focused on recent online controversies about a secret network — cue appropriate sounds of amazement at the thought of Jesuits involved in a secret operation — called the Second Stewards Society.

Here’s the key: It’s a society that thinks some of the old-time values found in Catholic education are (wait for it) good and worthy of defense.

Now, note the key word in this following factual summary early on:

The all-male group, which doesn’t identify its members or detail its activities, has long been a source of rumor and controversy on the 104-acre campus, where some students harbor suspicions that group members are pushing a right-wing political agenda — charges the Stewards call absurd.

The last time the society made big news was back in the late 1980s, when, after students’ complaints about elitism and sexism, the Stewards declared themselves dead. Now, thanks to an anonymous blogger with the very Washington moniker “Steward Throat,” the Stewards are back at the center of Hoya scuttlebutt. The most entertaining conspiracy theories — cabals, power grabs, sinister alliances — sound a lot like a campus version of “House of Cards,” the Netflix political drama.

“Whenever our name comes up, immediately a lot of people come to the conclusion that something must be awry,” acknowledged Chief Steward Sam Schneider, a Montgomery County senior who is authorized to speak to the media on the group’s behalf. Some people think that the Stewards are seeking political power, he said, “but that’s simply not true. Our anonymity is about our public service. We find that not taking credit for service can be much more rewarding, in the same way people make anonymous donations to buildings.”

The key word, of course, is “political.”

It is in this context that the name Manuel Miranda surfaces. This is a conservative Catholic activist whose path I have crossed a number of times while covering events linked to Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), the “apostolic constitution” on Catholic education issued in 1990 by Pope John Paul II. It’s considered a master work by pro-Vatican conservatives, in part because it says things like this:

“Catholic teaching and discipline are to influence all university activities, while the freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected. Any official action or commitment of the University is to be in accord with its Catholic identity.”

This is not the kind of sentiment that causes champagne corks to pop in many faculty offices at Georgetown.

Thus, the Post report on the Second Stewards Society notes:

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