Born from the Heart of The Church

     Georgetown University has existed in the eyes of the Church and the Christian faithful as a Catholic university since its official founding in 1789 by America’s first Bishop. In Georgetown College, Archbishop John Carroll placed all his “hope of permanency and success for our Holy Religion in the United States.”i Today Georgetown stands proudly in the capital of the United States as a historic symbol of American Catholicism and the struggle of Catholics to succeed as a repressed minority, and, by the repeated pronouncement of successive pontiffs, as “the Alma Mater of Catholic colleges in the United States.”ii

     The early history of Georgetown College and that of the young Church in America are inexorably linked not only in the person of John Carroll, America’s first bishop and Georgetown’s founder, but also in the work of Neale and Marechal of Baltimore, his successors, and DuBourg of New Orleans, Fenwick of Boston and Vandewelds of Chicago; all venerated American bishops who first served the Church at Georgetown as her presidents and professors.iii

     Contrary to popular belief, Georgetown was not founded by the Society of Jesus, which was in 1789 (and until 1814) suppressed by the Brief of Clement XIV. Rather, at the outset John Carroll sought the approval and support of the Church to found his new academy.

     In 1786, Carroll informed the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith of his wish to establish a school and seminary, and requested Cardinal Antonelli in Rome to furnish him with a ratio studiorum.iv In response, the Sacred Congregation advised Carroll to formulate his own ratio studiorum and then submit it to the consideration and approval of the Holy See.v

     In 1787, Carroll appealed to Rome for financial support in erecting the first building for his new academy, and, in 1789, he was informed that the Sacred Congregation had subscribed one hundred crowns a year for three years to aid in its

     In 1790, Georgetown received the first great boost to its academic vitality when, with the help of the Papal Nuncio in Paris, John Carroll obtained the cooperation of the Society of St. Sulpice, which, beginning in 1791, supplied Georgetown with its first prominent faculty members, including Fr. Marechal (later the third Archbishop of Baltimore), and Fr. William DuBourg who would serve as Georgetown’s third President.vii

     Georgetown would gain de jure recognition from the Church of its de facto existence soon after the official restoration of the Society of Jesus in 1814. This juridical personality would be obtained in two steps.

     First, in accord with the wishes of John Carroll, Archbishop Neale of Baltimore, on April 13, 1816, signed a Concordat between the See of Baltimore and the new Jesuit Provincial “relative to the stations of missions to be assigned permanently to the care of the Society of Jesus. Georgetown College was one of these.”viii The Concordat gave Georgetown status vis-a-vis the See of Baltimore. This event Georgetown’s historian considered important, stating: “Legal formalities now confirmed [Georgetown’s] existing de facto status.”ix The See of Washington is, of course, the successor to the See of Baltimore in rights and interests.

     Second, on March 30, 1833, Georgetown College “was erected” by the Supreme Pontiff through the Sacred Congregation De Propaganda Fide “to the status of Pontifical University.”x The Charterxi was granted to Georgetown at the initiative of the Jesuit Father General who requested that Georgetown receive the same privileges to confer degrees in Theology and Philosophy, as had been granted to certain other Jesuit universities by the Briefs of Julius III in 1552 and that of Pius IV in 1561.xii

     The obtaining of the Pontifical Charter was described as follows in the Commemorative History of Georgetown University published in Georgetown’s 1939 Ye Domesday Book on the occasion of the University’s 150th Anniversary:

[after being appropriated $75,000 worth of city plots by Congress], the College, in March of 1833, was even more importantly favored by the Holy See, when the Sovereign Pontiff, Pope Gregory XVI, raised Georgetown to the standing of University, and our Alma Mater took her proud place as the First Catholic University in the United States.”

     Georgetown today retains this ecclesiastical status, rare among her sister Catholic colleges and universities in the world and in America, giving her undeniable juridical personality in the eyes of the Church.xiii In the words of Georgetown historian, Fr. Joseph Durkin:

According to the prescriptions of Canon Law with regard to such matters, the privilege would continue to be Georgetown’s until expressly revoked; and the latter circumstance has never occurred.”xiv

     This special status was confirmed in a decree issued by the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington in December 1991. The continuing validity of the Pontifical Charter signifies a contractual relation with the Holy See which in the eyes of the Church is abrogable only by the Roman Pontiff.

     Georgetown’s Catholic identity is also well recognized by the civil authorities in the jurisdiction of its legal incorporation. The University’s relationship with respect to the Church is matter of public record, by Georgetown’s own sworn testimony.

     The following is the public record of Georgetown’s Catholic identity as painstakingly established by Georgetown’s own advocates with the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia:

In 1789, the year in which the Constitution was ratified and the federal government created, Georgetown University was established. Its founder was John Carroll, a Jesuit priest,xv a friend of George Washington and later, as Bishop of Baltimore, the first Roman Catholic prelate in the nation. “On this academy” he declared, “rest all my hope for the flourishing of our holy religion in the United States.”

In 1805 Georgetown College, as it was then known, was formally committed to the control and guidance of the Society of Jesus. [Footnote omitted.] In 1815, Congress bestowed on Georgetown College the first university charter to be granted by the federal government. Act of March 1, 1815, 6 Stat. 152. This charter was signed by James Madison as president of the United States. By decree of the Holy See in 1833, Georgetown College was given the status of a Pontifical University. This grant from the Pope empowered the University to confer the highest ecclesiastical degrees in Philosophy and Sacred Theology. To this day Georgetown remains one of only two universities in the nation with this distinction. In 1844, Georgetown College was incorporated by a special act of Congress. Act of June 10, 1844, 6 Stat. 912. Its charter was amended in 1966 to allow it to operate as a nonprofit corporation and to adopt the name Georgetown University. Act Oct. 4, 1966, Pub. L. No., 89-6311, 80 Stat. 877.

Today, approaching the bicentennial it shares with the ratification of our Constitution, the college Carroll founded on the banks of the Potomac is a major private, co-educational university and the oldest Roman Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States.

Through two centuries of growth Georgetown University has been guided by the religious hope of its founder, John Carroll. All of its forty-six presidents have been Roman Catholic clergymen. On four occasions, the University has been headed by a bishop. In particular, Georgetown has continued a close relationship with the Jesuits. Since about 1825, without exception, members of that order have filled the presidential office.xvi


NOTE: We will add more in the next few weeks, and I invite you to join me in writing the happy ending. –W.P. Blatty

i Letter of J. Carroll to C. Plowden, S.J. March 1, 1788, MS Woodstock College Archives 202 B 17; cited in John M Dale, S.J., Georgetown University: Origen and Early Years (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1957)) at 294.
ii Pope Paul VI, September 26, 1964, on the occasion of Georgetown’s 175th Anniversary. The designation was first granted by Pope Pius XI.
iii Leonard Neale became Georgetown’s fourth president in 1798. Bulls for his consecration had been issues in Rome in 1795. Even after his consecration, Bishop Neale serves as Georgetown’s president for eight years. After John Carroll’s death, he was raised to the See of Baltimore.
iv Daley, at pp 32-33; Carroll to Antonelli, August 18, 1786; Georgetown University Archives, Shea Transcripts 255.1.
v Ibid. at 44, Antonelli to Carroll, August 8, 1787; Shea Transcripts, 30.6.
vi 46 and 57, Antonelli to Carroll, July 11, 1789; Propaganda Transcripts, Georgetown University Archives, 30.6.
vii Fr. DuBourg would later serve as Bishop of Louisiana and Florida. His presidency is credited for great advancements in Georgetown’s management and reputation, the design of the Georgetown seal, and for opening the college to non-Catholics, including the nephews of George Washington. See Daley, supra, p. 86 et seq., and the 1939 Georgetown University Ye Domesday Book, page 21.
viii See Daley, supra at 200, citations omitted.
ix Id.
x See Joseph T. Durkin, S.J., Georgetown University: The Middle Years, (Washington, D.C. Georgetown University Press 1963) p.224; see also Daley, supra at 275.
xi See Pontifical Charter
xii Ibid. at 224
xiii See Annuario Pontificio listing Georgetown University as a Pontifical University.
xiv Durkin, supra at 225. In fact, according to Fr. Durkin, Woodstock College has operated as a school of theology “by virtue of the powers possessed by Georgetown’s pontifical charter.”
xv Although Georgetown misrepresented to the Court that John Carroll was “a Jesuit priest,” this was not true at the time of Georgetown’s founding. John Carroll had been a Jesuit priest prior to the Jesuits’ suppression, but never rejoined the Order, even after its restoration. He is buried at the old cathedral in Baltimore.
xvi Georgetown’s 48th and current president is the first layman to hold the post.