In 1964, 52 Jesuits taught classes at Georgetown University. Today, that number is 13.
According to a thorough examination of the faculty directories in the Georgetown University Archives, the school has seen a steady decrease in Jesuit professors over the last 60 years. Additionally, this decrease accompanied greater interfaith incorporation into campus ministry and an increasingly pluralistic student body.
Today, chaplains of five different faiths occupy offices in Healy Hall. Jesuit professors span five departments compared to the 17 departments they did in 1970.
In the past, Jesuits could be found in biology, linguistics and economics classrooms. Beginning in 2004, however, more than half of Georgetown’s Jesuit professors have taught exclusively in the theology or philosophy departments.
At first glance, the oldest Catholic university in the United States seems to be becoming less Catholic. Yet even as the physical presence of Jesuits in Georgetown classrooms dwindles, Jesuit principles are increasingly promoted and practiced.
In fact, these trends do not mark a deviation from Georgetown’s Jesuit roots: They prove that this 230-year experiment in Jesuit education is realizing its full potential.
Georgetown’s increasing inclusion — marked by the presence of Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Orthodox Christian chaplains on campus — has drawn frequent criticism of the school for being anti-Catholic.
Yet these critics misunderstand the nature of the school’s mission. Georgetown’s incorporation of many faiths is not a retreat from its Jesuit roots; it is a fuller realization of their foundational principles.
Yes, Georgetown employs fewer Jesuit professors than before. Yes, fewer students today are directly exposed to a deep education in Catholicism than in 1964. Yet this difference exists because the Jesuits chose for it to be this way — one Jesuit, in particular.
Fr. William McFadden, S.J., flew straight from Vatican City to Washington, D.C., to join Georgetown’s theology department in 1963.
When he became the department’s chair in 1967, he realized that incoming freshmen did not need courses in Catholic doctrine. Rather, they needed to experience “serious, thoughtful, critical thinking” through religion, as McFadden said.
Under his leadership, the department began offering classes that provided students and professors alike a space to explore fundamental questions of existence through lenses that were not exclusively Catholic.
To teach these new courses, McFadden sought out “young, aggressive thinkers” who were open to a new brand of religious teaching. This quest resulted in a deluge of Protestant and lay professors — non-Jesuits — including the first female theology professors at Georgetown.
When McFadden stepped down in 1989, he was replaced by the first layman to serve as chair of the theology department. It is also worth noting that the current chair, Dr. Francisca Cho, lists such diverse topics as Buddhism and science among her interests.
With McFadden’s new classes, Georgetown was able to embark upon a wider conversation about religion. The university’s leadership listened to myriad views of the student body and concluded that more faiths needed to be brought into the discussion.
As McFadden said, there “wasn’t a diminishment of interest in Catholic theology; there was an expansion of interest in other religions.”
The enumeration and codification of the Jesuit values, a fairly recent innovation that now adorn banners across our campus, reaffirmed how open the school’s Jesuit community is to interfaith education.
Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., an associate professor in the government department, noted how the Jesuit values would have been unfamiliar to Georgetown’s Jesuit professors in 1964.
“We as a community now intentionally emphasize those in a way that, when they had large numbers…it was less carefully and conscientiously thought out. Now, we very carefully think about Jesuit values, and I think our lay colleagues do too,” Carnes said.
Carnes’ fellow Jesuit Fr. Otto Hentz, S.J., said that University President John J. DeGioia — who, since 2001, has served as Georgetown’s first lay president — has completed two Ignatian retreats and is widely recognized by Jesuits nationwide as “the best Jesuit president in the country.”
DeGioia is “thoroughly imbued with Jesuit spirituality,” according to Hentz.
The embrace of Jesuit principles by laypeople has extended to the faculty. Hentz estimates that 20 faculty and staff are currently participating in the 19th annotation Ignatian retreat, a 30-week process during which participants spend one hour each day praying, reading and meditating.
Lay professors have become some of the best messengers for the establishment of a Jesuit environment. The environment they have cultivated fosters a natural — yet purposeful — commitment to Jesuit practices.
“You can’t be on this campus three or four days without hearing about social justice,” Hentz said.
McFadden, Hentz and Carnes believe that, at a Jesuit university, there are essentials and nonessentials to maintain our Jesuit identity.
Over time, certain aspects have been revealed as nonessentials — for example, a Jesuit president and a Jesuit at the helm of the theology department. The preservation of dialogue and a commitment to social justice are far more important than the individuals who oversee their implementation.
When asked about the future of Jesuit professors at Georgetown, McFadden dismissed the idea that there need be any at all.
He told a story about Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order.
When asked if the Jesuit order was dissolved, Ignatius said, “If the society should be suppressed, I believe that it might take me fifteen minutes at prayer to be at peace.”
“If the Jesuit order were to be dissolved, Jesuits would go back to God and say, ‘What do you want me to do now?’” Hentz said.
Today’s Jesuits at Georgetown are not actively looking to play a more public role in education. Rather, they seek assurance that their founding principles shape the students who walk Georgetown’s campus.
Right now, according to Hentz, we’re doing pretty well.
“This place is much more Catholic than it ever has been,” Hentz said.
Will Simon is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service.