“An omen over Catholic Colleges: cognitive dissonance and the tyranny of sentimentality”

on August 6, 2013

Kyle Spencer of the New York Times has done a remarkable service for American Catholic higher education. In a recent celebratory feature on homosexuality at Catholic universities—most notably Georgetown—Spencer gives a largely sympathetic inside look at a growing trend that has largely passed unnoticed. Spencer’s is no investigative expose; it is the boast proper to a victor.

Spencer provides key insights into the thought process and strategy of those who seek “to bring the Catholic identity into the 21st century.” This notion reveals the manipulation of language that is at work. “Bringing the Catholic identity into the 21st century” means, of course, rejecting traditional and biblical Christian truths about the human person and human sexuality. With a prophetic air, campus crusaders for this new “21st century” “Catholic” identity make ex cathedra pronouncements like “Society is changing, and God is in that change.” Student government leaders have appointed themselves the augurs of the third millennium and may now be found taking the auspices around campus. Why worry about town-gown relations when there are national political issues wherein one may make his name?

This is not to be flippant, but rather to highlight how a great deal of the rhetoric of the gay movement at Catholic schools like Georgetown has been cloaked in religious language. Indeed, the cause carries with it a religiously prophetic certainty, and even eschatological dread. The righteousness of the movement is as undeniable as the cocktail of politics mixed with religious fervor is intoxicating. Here, one recalls Voegelin’s discussion of political religions.

The gay movement at Catholic colleges has attained such success precisely because it has couched itself in such religious terms. At Georgetown, this was evident in a series of articles (14 September 2012: Tisa: Distorted Religious Identity Divides GU2 October 2012: Gavin/Honjiyo: Limited Labels Obscure True Sexual Diversity12 October 2012: Tisa: Faith, Sexuality in Harmony) in the student newspaper last fall, all essentially distorting the Church’s true teachings on homosexuality so as to demand the repeal of those teachings. Those who shape the issue on campus are able to co-opt religious language by adopting an approach to religion that I will term the “tyranny of sentimentality.” Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman held sentimentality to be the acid of religion (see his discussion of liberalism in Apologia Pro Vita Sua). It is evident that the students Spencer writes about have reduced religion to the sentimentality of which Newman speaks. The emotional affirmation of the individual, rather than any supernatural realities, truths, or normative claims, becomes the basis of one’s religion. Because this basis is inherently the subjective creation of the individual, the religion of sentimentality is tyrannical, as it becomes a means for the furtherance of one’s will, ruled, not by reason or conformity to the divine or natural law, but by one’s passions and whims. Plato recognized as much about the tyrannical soul.

The tyranny of sentimentality may be summed up in this statement by one student: “You stay Catholic because you have a love of the institution and you want to change it.” That is to say, one is only saved from joining Gary Hall and friends at the National Cathedral by one’s ethnic identity. Absent is any notion that the Catholic faith – or even Christianity more broadly – may be true or that it may be the means by which one is saved or that it may make moral claims on the individual that are based in the order of things rather than in the creations of one’s will. Instead, one is Catholic only for sentimental reasons: Catholicism is part of one’s upbringing or familial and ethnic heritage. A sentimental ground of faith replaces a rational ground. Gone is the humility of conforming oneself to a higher reality that one receives rather than wills for himself. Instead, a tyrannical pride is manifested, whereby the will creates a system in which its desires can be justified. Because this system is created through pride rather than received in humility, it is not sufficient to remain as a merely personal construct. Because this system is the will’s attempt to justify itself, the approval and justification of others – including whole institutions – is ultimately and supremely required. A moral tyranny results.

Some Catholic colleges, like Georgetown, have been increasingly taken by the demands of the tyranny of sentimentality. This stems from decisions over the last several decades to reduce religion to sentimental terms. Catholic identity becomes largely shut up in a convenient, controllable, and clean “office of campus ministry” – another administrative unit like the counseling center, career center, or academic resource center – to help students deal with the stresses and anxieties of college life. Catholicism becomes just another flavor on the menu of religious choices in this well staffed department that fits somewhere between counseling and personal development. Talk of truth or salvation or morality becomes largely unnecessary, perhaps even offensive.

Yet, as institutional Catholic identity is increasingly hushed, there remains a perennial cognitive dissonance about the reality on campus. This comes through quite clearly in remarks from Georgetown’s spokeswoman who cites “the university’s two required theology classes and up to seven Sunday Masses at the main chapel as evidence that it is deeply connected to its Catholic identity.” She claims, “[Georgetown’s] Catholic and Jesuit identity on campus has never been stronger. Academically, we remain committed to the Catholic intellectual tradition.”

The idea that the number of Masses celebrated on campus translates into a robust Catholic identity is a complete and total non sequitur. One could reasonably envision a secular university with a Catholic chaplaincy that held seventeen Masses on a given Sunday. That doesn’t make the school any more a Catholic university. Indeed, Catholic University of America, the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ own university, only boasts three Sunday Masses on campus. Evidently, CUA is half as Catholic as Georgetown!

Georgetown’s weighty six-credit, two-class theology requirement similarly offers little to recommend a strong institutional Catholic identity. One may very easily – and indeed many do – skate through this requirement without ever doing an ounce of theology. A world religions approach (incidentally not the approach envisioned by the course’s designer) to “The Problem of God” (THEO-001) or a historical-critical account of Sacred Scripture in “Introduction to Biblical Literature” (THEO-011) are fine gateways into offerings of immense theological depth such as “Buddhism and Poetry” (THEO-028), “Judaism and Gender” (THEO-066), or “Jesus Christ in a Pluralist Age” (THEO-091).

At this point one begins to wonder what it exactly means to be “committed to the Catholic intellectual tradition.” If it means employing the one remaining Jesuit who actually teaches Augustine, Aquinas, Newman, and Ratzinger, then this seems more the reluctant commitment to a Catholic intellectual ghetto, the regrettable outcome of professorial tenure. There is simply no evidence that Georgetown has any substantial commitment to hiring for its Catholic mission, to standing up for its own religious freedom , to ensuring all students receive a basic education in the Western philosophical and theological tradition, to promoting the teaching of subjects like politics, economics, history, literature, or philosophy from a distinctively Catholic point of view, or to fostering Catholic intellectual life outside the classroom.

This later point is perhaps the most important. What is needed – what Georgetown’s administration and its spokespeople cannot or will not grasp— is a Catholic culture that permeates the institution through all academic departments and in all facets of student life beyond one hour on Sunday. The establishment of such a culture is certainly a herculean – perhaps even sisyphean task, which is all to highlight the cognitive dissonance underlying the assertion that Georgetown’s Catholic identity has “never been stronger.” What the administration and its spokespeople fail to acknowledge is that the institution’s Catholic identity is largely held together (sometimes by a limb) by a relatively small group of committed students, very often acting in spite of the administration.

One senses the same institutional cognitive dissonance at play in Georgetown’s embrace of the gay movement. The school clearly senses a need – even if subconsciously – to justify its LGBTQ resource center by invoking the language of ‘Jesuit Values,’ especially the perennially misappropriated notion of ‘cura personals.’ Once a rubric by which Jesuit superiors gave consideration to the human and spiritual needs of each man under their charge, today, virtually anything can be justified under the guise of ‘cura personalis’ at many Jesuit institutions.

Georgetown’s LGBTQ resource center is no exception. The center’s website states: “We seek to appreciate the inherent mysteries and paradox of our common human condition, and find ways to support all community members to achieve a full range of expression of their own humanity.” This rather eerily echoes the irrational nonsense of the infamous ‘mystery clause’ in Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1992): “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” There is no sense here that there is anything intelligible to be gleaned from reason or revelation about human existence, human nature, and human living. Absent from the center’s credo is any notion that Georgetown’s Catholic identity and tradition have anything substantive to contribute to the center beyond its justification in existence by an imprecise appeal to a notion of ‘cura personalis’ that has been conveniently and totally stripped of its original context and meaning. The Catholic identity of the university – by way of Catholic moral theology on the reality of the human person and human sexuality – certainly has little or no bearing on the activities of the center.

Curiously and conveniently absent from the talk of care for the whole person is concern for that which is immortal in the human person, namely the soul.  The whole project is couched in vague and ephemeral language so that, as one top administrator says, the university cannot be accused of directly promoting things contrary to Catholic teaching. If that is the case, then neither can the university be accused of directly (or even indirectly) promoting the wisdom and truth of the Church’s teachings on human sexuality. The absence of the later equates to the de facto triumph of the former. The Papal Theologian, Fr. Wojciech Giertych, O.P., recently offered insightful analysis on how the mere affirmation of the gay identity, and adoption of its language, begins to distort the reality of the human person.

Two conclusions about the future of Catholic higher education vis-à-vis homosexuality are to be drawn from Spencer’s account of the state of affairs at Georgetown. Both considerations have a distinctively – though by no means exclusively – pastoral dimension. Firstly, as Spencer reports, students who hold to Christianity’s traditional and biblical teachings on homosexuality increasingly find themselves silenced by a popular consensus that views such teachings as nothing more than prejudice. These students find themselves the recipients of an emerging bigotry and intolerance for any ideas that would challenge the new gay orthodoxy. Responses to expressions of Christian orthodoxy at Georgetown have ranged from dismissive to plainly hostile .

As Catholic universities will be forced to deal with backlash against those students brave enough bear witness to the truths of Christianity, they also have a continuing moral obligation to “speak the truth in love” to those students who find themselves dealing with same-sex attractions. Fr. Giertych is clear when he says that “the best way of treating people with dignity is to tell them the truth, and if we escape from the truth, we are not treating them with dignity.” To that end the pastoral plan of the University of Notre Dame represents a positive development that ought to be seriously studied and adopted. It calls for a loving, compassionate approach to supporting students with same-sex attractions and encouraging the virtues of friendship and chastity for all students. Until Catholic universities like Georgetown move the issue of homosexuality from the realm of the political to the realm of the pastoral, they will persist in living an institutional lie for which their leaders will ultimately be called to account.


  1. Comment by Dan H on August 6, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    It is sad, but not surprising, to see this development. Once you shut the brain down and cut yourself loose from the Bible and Christian tradition, your values will be formed by whatever group can scream the loudest, something gay activists discovered 40 years ago. People are letting their political and religious opinions be formed by the most aggressive and immature elements in society.

  2. Comment by Tony M on August 7, 2013 at 2:09 am

    The seed for this were sown prior to my attendance at Georgetown in the early 1980s. Having arrived, like many, from a very old and very traditional all-male Jesuit High School, I was shocked by the lack of both Jesuit and Catholic traditions and teachings. And worse, it seemed to me that the Administration was proud of that fact.

    It is heartbreaking and wrong for the University to celebrate un-Catholic behavior in articles of the Alumni Magazine, to the cover up of any and all religious symbols when VIPs appear on Campus, and to accept funding from anti-Catholic institutions.

  3. Comment by Eric Lytle on August 7, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    Tony, I think it has to do with how university administrators see themselves. You and I would assume that the head of Georgetown, an RC school, would be hoping to be faithful to the RC church. But in fact the heads of Georgetown, Notre Dame, etc, are concerned about the impression that make on the presidents of Harvard, Yale, Columbia, etc, so that means learning to give a tolerant smile when the prez of Yale boasts about his school’s “Sex Week.”

    Please men, or please God? That’s the great dividing place, isn’t it?

  4. Comment by TomD on August 7, 2013 at 7:49 pm

    Georgetown, and many Catholic institutions, wish to be of the world . . . not in Christ. They seek the approval of the world. The Church is beginning to look more and more like Israel in the OT . . . unfaithful to the covenant.

    This need to conform to the world is why the rhetoric of so many faculty and students, affiliated with nominally Catholic universities, use language in ways that mirror our secular culture, not the teachings of the Church.

    Is it too late to fix this? Who can, and has the courage, to fix it?

  5. Comment by Kit on August 8, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    Unless the Jesuits are willing to fix themselves and rediscover their vows of obedience to the pope — now one of their own — and to the teachings of the Church, and put those in importance over their love of their own intellects, the arrogance of dissent and the blatant immorality of many in their own ranks, nothing can change at this institution or any of the other ones they run, which are remarkably efficient in turning out apostates, atheists and agnostics.

  6. Comment by James Swetnam, S.J. on August 8, 2013 at 10:35 pm

    Kit Decades ago someone asked Fr. Arrupe (the Jesuit general at the time) if it was true that there were two Societies of Jesus. “At least two”, replied Fr. Arrupe. “Maybe three or four”. Keep that in mind when speaking of “the Jesuits”.

  7. Comment by Alphonsus Jr. on August 9, 2013 at 10:21 pm

    Regarding the putrefaction of the Jesuits, Malachi Martin’s book on them is essential reading.

  8. Comment by Bill Dempsey on August 10, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    I suggest it is incautious to recommend other schools adopt the Notre Dame plan. On paper, it is unexceptionable. So, too, is the school’s Mission Statement pledge to have a majority of committed Catholics on the faculty, which fell by the wayside some years ago in the course of the university’s quest to climb the rankings ladder. The fact is that the university reversed its long-standing policy against the recognition of a gay student club — applications were denied 15 times or more — under the sort of intense faculty and student pressure rooted in precisely the “tyranny of sentimentality” you deplore. And the newly elected president of the student body was the principal leader in this drive and is a public advocate of gay marriage. In this faculty and student culture, the chances that “on the ground” the club will operate as an advocate of the gay agenda are exceedingly high. Catholic University denied a student request two days after Notre Dame reversed field. CUA made the far more prudent choice. The way for a Catholic university to proceed is to establish a chapter of Courage. The new ND student body leader said the gay students didn’t want that. Now, there’s a clue.

  9. Comment by Dick Prudlo on August 11, 2013 at 7:08 am

    I think GT and most of the rest of the Jesuit Institutions teach what the Church wishes. The hooligans in charge have cast aside all that is authentic and replaced it with something else. I can not come up with a name for it, but it is not Catholic and it is not from God.

    A super apostasy has been in the making for five decades and its support has come from the top like all the great apostasies in the past: Lucifer and Adam come to mind. While the modernist’s smirk and the NeoCatholic’s support every nonsense this will finish the Church.

    The edifice built by our Lord is now a third rate Church protesting it’s own self.

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.