Two Commentaries on Obama at Georgetown without Christ

A note to readers: as we finish Easter Week and our spring fund drive, we bring you a first: two columns on one day that look at a single subject from two points of view: President Obama’s recent speech at Georgetown University at which religious symbols were covered up. Father Schall and Mary Eberstadt are well known to readers of The Catholic Thing. Help keep them coming to you and to thousands of others around the world by supporting The Catholic Thing today.

By James Schall

The day before President Obama spoke in Georgetown’s lovely Gaston Hall on April 14, the university community received an e-mail from the university president about the event. Tickets were to be assigned by lottery. The topic was the economy.

Immediately, I received e-mails that equated this situation to Notre Dame, and others designed to deny as much. Perhaps, but it sounded to me, at least on the university’s part, more like Arizona State, which explicitly invited President Obama to speak but did not award a degree of honor. The president just needed yet another place to speak (though there are plenty in Washington). Gaston Hall is the loveliest academic hall in the city, often used for speeches by domestic and foreign potentates.

The day following the speech, a student asked if I had noticed that the usual pendant over the stage of the hall, the cross under which are the letters of the Jesuit motto, IHS, the Latin letters symbolizing Christ, were covered over. Subsequently he sent me two graphic photos, one scene in the hall when the president was there, one when he was not. Sure enough, the Christian symbols were covered over by a background cloth, never to appear in the media coverage.

What we did not know was who did the cover-up? Did it come from the office of the U.S. president or the university president? Nor did I recollect what happened when other major figures talked there. Did they always cover it up? I doubted it. Did the university have a policy that says: "Speak here in the hall as it is, or not at all?" I doubted it also.

Public relations folks think they can improve venues for media and other purposes. In any case, I received a report from a generally reputable source. Indeed, the request to cover the Christian symbols did come from the White House. The source asked the White House for a confirmation, but no response. What a good request! Why no response, as the issue goes to the heart of what this country is or was?

What interests me here is this: If this president speaks at a synagogue, or a Baptist church, or the Crystal Cathedral, or the mosque on Massachusetts Avenue, the Ravens Stadium, the George Washington University, the headquarters of Planned Parenthood, or the hall of the local atheist society, will the same policy be followed? Will all signs of what the place actually is and stands for be covered over? If so, it represents equitable treatment, but is it wise? Is the president never to appear in any venue with obvious particular commitments, and why choose religious and not secular signs? Should, say, a university seal be exempted, but a crucifix not?

Will presidents be able to appear anywhere outside government buildings if the rules are really equally applied to both religious and secular? And this raises a real question: Is it American? George Washington once talked before our New North Hall; so did President Clinton. I guess a porch does not need much cover-up. But is the American understanding of state and religion designed to hide any religious or cultural sign whatsoever? If a president is buried at a local church, as Woodrow Wilson is, must the funeral be covered over so that no signs of a church are seen?

This country does not hide its religious presence. If a president does not want to speak in a given place, fine. Don’t ask. But if he does, it should not be on condition of the place’s ceasing to present what it historically is. Much ink has been spilt on the churches that the president went to in his earlier life, likewise much controversy on whether he "bowed" to a Saudi prince.

Father Martin Casey, who died here, was pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown when John Kennedy was president. Casey was often pictured after Mass with a cassock and biretta. He used to tell me delightful stories. He would get irate letters from people about his wearing a hat in front of the president. Kennedy had no problem with it. The point is pretty obvious. The Jew wears his yarmulkes in the public square and in his home. That is where the biretta probably came from. Sheiks seem to wear their headdress everywhere.

The "lesson" of Obama in Gaston Hall is evidently that this president covers over at least all Christian signs. Why? He expects, of course, that Christians will not be offended by this little restriction. Just as, on the same principle, he expects Muslims, Jews, Presbyterians, Anglicans, atheists, Ravens fans, Masons, Planned Parenthooders, evangelicals, and any members of our society when he, carrying out the logic learned here, covers all their identifying signs?

This approach used to be called, not the separation of church and state, but the establishment of a new vision in which the only thing allowed to be visible is the state.

James Schall, S.J., is a professor at Georgetown University, and one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America.

SECRET MEMO: Making Vatican City Safe for Obama
By Mary Eberstadt

"Georgetown University says it covered over the monogram ‘IHS’ — symbolizing the name of Jesus Christ — because it was inscribed on a pediment on the stage where President Obama spoke at the university on Tuesday and the White House had asked Georgetown to cover up all signs and symbols there." -Christian News Service, April 16, 2009


April 17, 2009
TO: Msgr. Fortunatus Nwachukwu, Chief Protocol Officer, Secretariat of State, Vatican City
FROM: Office of the Chief of Protocol, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
SUBJECT: Advance Work for President Obama’s Visit to Rome in May

Dear Sir or Madam:

Buongiorno from your amici americani! We hope you share our enthusiasm about our president’s forthcoming visit to the "Eternal City" (we mean "eternal" in a purely figurative sense, of course!).

As you may know, President Obama has deeply engaged Catholics and Catholic issues and Catholic institutions in the United States for months now. Given that record, a successful and invigorating exchange of ideas during his visit to Vatican City is guaranteed!

A few small protocol items will really help us get that exchange off the ground;

- First and most important: Re. the scheduled one-on-one between our president and your pontiff, we respectfully request that your principal cover up that gold religious talisman hanging in the middle of his chest.

We’re not asking him to take it off. We’re just observing that a little creative camouflage would go a long way toward soothing certain sensitivities. Perhaps he could just clasp his hands over it for the duration of the interview, say, or fold his arms yoga-style. Or he could just cradle a book over it. Almost anything but the Bible would do; we’re open to suggestions.

- Second: our attempt to arrange a photo op for POTUS somewhere (anywhere!) in or around St. Peter’s Basilica is turning into quite the mal di testa.

For starters, we need to put as much distance between him and that Pieta as possible. The loving-mother symbolism there is totally off-message for our position on reproductive rights. We’re not singling out Michelangelo. Our friends on various American Catholic faculties have compiled a list of other artists whose representations are equally problematic as visual backdrops: Bramante, Giuliano da Sangallo, Raphael, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, Pirro Ligorio, Vignola, Della Porta, D. Fontana, Maderno. . . You get the picture.

We therefore propose that the basilica photo op take place in a visually neutral place – on the walkway outside the dome, pigeons and blue sky and view of the city as backdrop. N.B.: any stray crucifixes appearing in the skyline can easily be photo-shopped out.

- Third: the exterior of the basilica, especially the area of St. Peter’s Square, is similarly challenging. After much mapping, we believe it safest to pose the president directly before the Heliopolis – in such a way that the obelisk’s column covers the crucifix atop the basilica in the background.

Of course we are aware that the obelisk itself also has a you-know-what atop it. Given its particularly in-your-face location, we respectfully request that it be taken down for the duration of the visit. Perhaps it needs a good cleaning. Now could be the time.

- Two other visual challenges need addressing before Air Force One takes off: first, the 140 statues of "saints" atop the Colonnade; and second, the equally controversial statues of sectarian followers topping the basilica’s facade.

Thaddeus, Matthew, Philip, Thomas, James the Elder, John the Baptist, Christ the Redeemer, Andrew, John the Evangelist, James the Younger, Bartholomew, Simon and Matthias: say whatever you want about them, but appropriate visual accompaniment for this president they aren’t!

Fortunately, we have what we think is a fantastico solution here. How about just covering them up with some of those blue shawls that you keep on hand throughout the square for tourists? Such creative recycling, we submit, both fixes the statue problem and has the added benefit of demonstrating our mutual commitment to re-using items in the environment. Something for everyone there, non e vero?

- Re. the scheduled photo op with African seminarians in the Vatican Gardens later that day, we request, first, that they be tiered behind the President on risers. This arrangement maximizes the visual effect of their numbers. It also may reduce unwanted visual intrusion by any of the more potentially troublesome statuary in the gardens (the Fatima lady, "St." Peter, the replica of the Lourdes Grotto… etc., etc., etc.)

Also, as one more piccola concession to our administration’s sensitivities, our secretary of state wants to know: could you also please arrange for some female seminarians to join the male ones on the rafters?


- Finally, re. your offer of a dinner in the apartments on Saturday night: rest assured that we are all looking forward to mangiare molto in Italia! But please be sure that no bread or wine, nor any other substances of sectarian religious significance, are present at the table.

Ciao ciao for now. And don’t forget our final photo op at the Trevi Fountain! If you get a chance, do please flip over any coins already lying face up with the motto "In God We Trust." Molto grazie in advance.

–Your amici americani

P.S. On a more personal note, please don’t let that unresolved ambassador business get you down. We just know our president will find somebody to send to the Vatican who’s less enthusiastic than he is about abortion! Between us, we suggest you keep your silent about the a-word. Our president is many things, but used to moral criticism isn’t one of them – especially coming from Catholics.

Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a contributor to The Catholic Thing.

(c) 2009 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


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  • Liz

    Hubris. I just can’t think of anything else to say. The arrogance of this administration is just unbelievable. And, the cowardice and arrogance of these Catholic institutions leaves me appalled – maybe its time for some of these so-called Catholic Universities to be taken over by the government – I am sure that would make them all wiggle just a bit – imagine those Jesuits bowing and scraping to Obama et al. I would like to see them chat about academic freedom then.

  • Brad Miner

    Long night
    Just a quick note to any readers of The Catholic Thing who came to our site during the wee hours–you know who you are! We experienced some glitches in the progamming that took some hours to . . . un-glitch. We hope nobody went away unsatisfied. -Brad

  • William Dennis

    Non e vero?
    The Lucifer Times


  • theCOB

    ….in the US of A, some seem to be adding a new dimension to the “Sorrowful Mysteries”.

  • William Dennis

    After Thought
    To the Eds.  Next time call “Mike” to  fix the website.

  • Michael

    The Jesuits did bow to BHO… The onetime most ardent supporters of the Church, just folded …How easy do you think it will be for the BHO crowd to bow over the Holy Cross Boys….Pretty easy I bet…I can just see Jenkins and Hesburgh bowing and kissing the ring of BHO when he “decends” on ND

  • Joe

    After cleaning up the vomit that I spewed from reading of the arrogance, I pray for Mr. O and his administration.

  • William F. Cavender

    In obliterating the name of Jesus and having a strange god, Obama, stand before it, Georgetown administration shows its contempt for the First Commandment.
    As if that sin was not grievous enough, add Scandal.
    To refresh memory in what our Lord said about that one, see Mt 18:6 and/or the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2285.
    No, Georgetown is not a Catholic University though we do pray for the Catholic presence there.

  • Dan

    This is indeed a scary situation. This an outrage! As a Catholic Christian, I am so deeply disgusted by this situation that I can barely think of what has happened. I feel totally alienated from our government. I hope that Georgetown and Notre Dame are severed from any connection to the Catholic Church!

  • Andrew

    Brilliant writing. I commend both of you. Let us pray for at a minimum, an increased sense of reverence for 2000 years of history…

  • Keith Toepfer

    LCDR, USN [ret]
    I concur with Andrew @ comment 10. Both pieces are indeed brilliant.

  • Joe Reilly

    If the request came from the Whitehouse, what stopped the Jesuit leaders at Georgetown from refusing? Was it out of politeness to an invited guest or out of political correctness, fearful of offending? Whatever the reason, as Fr. Schall’s article makes clear, it sadly led to making Christ invisible. Past Jesuit martyrs and St. Ignatius must be turning in their graves at the thought of some Georgetown Jesuits assenting to what on a profound level is surely a process of self-suppression. Joe R.

  • Theresa Anne

    Mother & Grandmother
    I am completely outraged that Georgetown University would bow to the likes of Barrack Hussein Obama. You are in leagure with Lucifer, and no longer do I ever want to hear about you, or Notre Dame. You are a disgrace to the Catholic Church!!! “Live by the sword, and you will perish by the sword”.

  • Pio

    Pendants and birettas?
    There is an emerging pattern in finding fault with everything Obama does. I can imagine the next outrage if he happened to wear a purple necktie to Notre Dame (“He’s mocking our liturgical colors!”) Is complaining about covered pendants and birettas how we should proclaim the glory of Risen Christ? President Obama is baptized and celebrated Easter in church. While he errs (VERY seriously) on the matter of abortion, he is our full brother in Christ (Cathechism 1271). Let’s treat him as such.

  • David Gregory

    As a Georgetown student who is highly critical of Georgetown’s identity, I have also devoted my collegiate life to its Jesuit-Catholic identity, and am the first to defend it. I can assure you that neither he nor the Jesuits were implicated in this decision. Most harsh critique from the orthodox faithful (which I adhere to) tends to be grounded in thorough ignorance. Fr. Schall (my professor for three semesters and counting) is thoroughly on point; Georgetown messed up, and they have to own up.

  • Liz

    Michael, I agree that the Jesuits did bow to Obama – out of choice – if they were a state run school they would be forced to bow – and the Jesuits have never been told what to do and when. The Vatican needs to step in. And to Pio, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck guess what? It is a duck. Pres Obama celebrated Easter is a heretical church – one that believes in abortion, homosexual marriage, women priests, druids, trans-sexual priests, and the list goes on. He is no Christian.

  • Livia

    “A forum for intelligent Catholic commentary”. I think you need to change your tag line. Idiotic piece.

  • Gabriel Austin

    IHS is the Jesuit motto? I thought [though I have never grasped the theology behind it] that it was AMDG.

  • Livia

    I think the best description of Fr. Schall’s piece is slander. Look it up.

  • Pio

    To Liz
    To Liz: President Obama worshipped at an Episcopal Church, which has a wide number of doctrinal differences with the Vatican, though you overstate some and misstate others. That being said, our Cathecism still stands: according to Catholic belief, Barack Obama, by virtue of his a baptism, is a Christian….unless, of course, your “personal magesterium” informs you otherwise.

  • Jim Stagg

    Right on!

  • Donald R. Nelson

    God’s opinion about those who are lukewarm according to Rev 3:15: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.” Georgetown University officials committed a mortal sin.
    1. It must be of a grave matter;
    2. It must be committed with full knowledge that it is a mortal sin;
    3. It must be committed with full consent.
    Why did you allow Jesus to be silenced?

  • Bob Cheeks

    I am so ashamed of Georgetown University, yet so proud of Fr. Schall….by the grace of God, he will speak the truth.

  • Mark

    As an alumnus and rather former large financial supporter of GU, I am writing a letter to Mr. DeGioia. In the letter, I include this: “However by complying with the White House, the University has sent a message that its heritage since 1789 is not set in the bedrock of the great Healy Hall’s granite, but a former legacy that can be forgotten with cheap plywood. Furthermore, since it did not please the White House, the Jesuit tradition is nothing more than an ‘inconvenient truth.’” Thank you.

  • GB

    Fr Schall, With all due respect, your take on this misses the point…Every citizen in this country has come to expect this type of behavior (“O won’t speak unless Jesus isn’t visibly present”) from the President & his staff. The fact that they rqstd this isn’t surprising nor is it news.
    As a lifelong Catholic, I still am surprised though that GU & the Jesuits would agree to such a betrayal of our Lord & our Faith. The fact that the world betrays our Lord isn’t what’s surprising.

  • Stephen B Smith

    Will Touchdown Jesus be covered up during Obama’s speach ?

  • Jim

    Covering up the symbol of Our Lord at the request of a Protestant, pro-abortion president is an insult and a disgrace. Georgetown should no longer be known as a Catholic University

  • manic mechanic

    Many of us already knew that Georgetown U. and Notre Dame were no longer Catholic Universities before these scandals even broke. So in a way I think their actions have been a good thing to open the eyes of practicing Catholics, so hopefully they no longer support these institutions or send their children there. They have exposed themselves to the masses as the frauds we already knew they were.

  • Liz

    Pio: A Christian is a follower of Christ. Does Obama follow Christ?

  • Daniel McEleney

    It is good to see this article, speaking for the Church. GOD should always be first, and the universities that are permitting Obama and other politicans to take Christ from a CATHOLIC university should not be permitted.

  • James


    I’m no authority on Barack Obama, but I think there is some doubt over whether he has actually ever been baptised.

    As far as I know, no baptismal certificate with his name on it exists.

    IF that is the case, he is no Christian.

  • Pio

    To Liz/James
    I don’t think it is the business of Catholics to be “carding” other people for their baptismal ID. He describes himself as a Christian, so I will take that at face value. As I’ve said he is SERIOUSLY WRONG about abortion. The question is: how should we respond? Our Lord didn’t hurl invectives and judge those who sincerely sought him. We should follow his example: acknowledge Obama’s faith (though imperfect) while bearing witness to the complete truth about life’s sanctity with humility/love

  • Jo

    You indicated that the president worshiped in an Episcopal church? Would this be the same denomination as the recently appointed president of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Dr. Katherine “Abortion is a blessing” Ragsdale? He can call himself a Christian, God knows his heart. Given his support of abortion as an apparent sacrament in whatever church his attends, Obama’s faith appears to be far beyond “imperfect”. How should we respond? Pray God performs a mighty work!

  • Karen

    Only the Anti-Christ would want Christ covered. We have our Messiah/Savior which is Christ the Lord. Let’s not forget that. This is truly a sad day when Christians bow down to this type of request just to be politically correct, I guess. A Christian is a follower of Christ and has to be “born again.”

  • Liz

    Pio – you need to be a bit more discerning – Just because someone “says” something doesn’t necessarily make it so. Again, a Christian is a follower of Christ. Obama is no follower of Christ at face value. And Christ did get angry – remember the money changers in the temple?

    Jo: you are correct – The Episcopal Church has a dean at one of their divinity schools who does believe that abortion is a blessing. In fact, the Episcopal Church in general does condone abortion among other things

  • William A.

    This famous school has disgraced itself by covering up its religoious symbols. As a Catholic I am greatly disappionted by the action of the school. If what we are and stand for offends others, let them make the decision not to be seen with us and make it public.

  • Marie P. Dennis

    Agreement to cover the IHS symbol at Georgetown to accomodate the White House denotes shame for one’s Catholic/Christian identity, religious tenets and heritage as well as a willingness on the part of the institution to place false gods before the one true Messiah, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Shame on you Georgetown! You don’t deserve the privilege of being called Catholic.

  • Buckeye70

    This whole debate, of course, is based on the assumption that Georgetown is Catholic. Is it? Really???

    The Jevies are fine at Boston College, Marquette, Xavier, Saint Louis, John
    Carroll, Saint Joseph’s, Creighton, etc. But Georgetown? Where less than 50% of the students are Catholic and twitting the Church is a cottage industry?

    Georgetown: Catholicism :: Hugh Hefner: Morality!


  • DON

    I am ashamed of OBOMA and our Leaders….to imbrace Abortion [the shedding of innocent Blood] …GAY RIGHTS [KNOWING WHAT SCRIPTURE plainly says about it ]..And above all INSISTING ,HIDING and not ACKNOWLEGING “THE LORD JESUS CHRIST…And now to here the church bows to his request, makes me sick…as for me i really think he could be the ANTICHRIST…[ HE FITS THE DESCRIPTION SO FAR …SMOOTH TALKER,..REFUSES TO PROCLAIM CHRIST ..ECT..ECT]…..HE SPENDS MORE TIME HIDING AND REJECTING CHRIST…

  • Elizabeth Johnston

    As a former alumnus who graduated in that same hall, I’m disgusted that anyone would feel the need to cover up any part of “the lovliest academic hall in the city”. That hall has been used many times by many different leaders, and this “request” (or more likely demand) is the first. The university has greatly gone downhill since i graduated almost 20 years ago, and I’m surprised the Jesuits bowed to the pressure, but not too surprised.

  • AnPiobaire

    First of all, it’s Greek, not Latin.

    Secondly, there was no request that all religious symbols be removed and, indeed, they were not. The covering of the one IHS emblem (dozens more remained uncovered, along with the Jesuit motto and stained glass windows) was a decorative by product of the stage setting that was put in place for the event, nothing more, nothing less. No censorship and no apostacy.

    Stop the witch hunt.

  • Liz

    Sorry AnPiobaire, but those religious identifying symbols, which would have been shown with Mr. Obama in the foreground, were covered – I didn’t see him anywhere else on campus. And, I think he and his administration are the perpetrators of the witch hunt – think about it.

  • Carol

    When I first heard of this, I could not believe anyone that calls themself a Christian would ask such a thing? As a Christian, if someone came to my home, but asked that I put my Holy Bible and crosses away before they would enter, my response, ABSOLUTELY NOT! No one comes before my Lord! I am utterly disturbed that a so called Catholic school could do this! They have denied Christ as Judas did! And Notre Dame SHAME ON YOU!!! Are we now in the later days? READ: Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelations.

  • christine

    who would allow any symbol or picture that represents or is god to be covered up.?this counrty was founded i(in God we trust) and the head figure that has be en put in office does not believe. shame on the church, shame on anyone who stood there and watched this disgusting display. It should have never been allowed. this is what is wrong with this country today.

  • Janice Eble

    President Obama, White House, & Catholic Church, I want to say how you have made a mockery of Jesus Christ. When you don’t have enough backbone & guts to stand up and say we will not cover up a symbol pertaining to Christ.You should all be ashamed of yourselves. I truly hope you repent and ask God for forgiveness. This is the worst kind of compromise. I have to question that you are even born again. So you need to ask Jesus to come into your heart & forgive you of your sins.

  • Vincent Sicurella

    I am a Catholic and I am appalled by the hate that comes from so many Christians in regard to our President. The republican party has a well organized propaganda society whose sole goal is to win back the White House at all costs. I have been receiving emails from my fellow Brethrens since Obama was President elect which obviously were race related and hateful.
    First, their is no proof that the cover up of the IHS came from the President. There are people in charge of protocol in our government and this could have transpired without his knowledge as is the case in many incidents.
    If we are to be appalled, it should be that most Protestant Christians are opposed to our religious statues, calling them “IDOLS”.
    If we are to be Catholics, lets practice our faith the way JESUS would want us to be.