Two final battles for author of 'The Exorcist;' Washington Post buries a key local angle

Anyone who interviewed William Peter Blatty in the final years of his life knew that there were two major issues that were constantly on his mind.

Both subjects were linked to his Catholic faith and, from his point of view, the reality of evil in the world. Both were linked to his education at Georgetown University.

The first challenge was making sure people really knew what was going on at the end of "The Exorcist," the Hollywood blockbuster that loomed over everything he did in his career as a novelist and screenwriter. This meant tweaking both the movie and the novel, to add a bit of clarity to what was happening between God, a demon and a courageous priest.

The second subject involved Blatty's appeal to the Vatican seeking actions to pull Georgetown into line with the 1990 "apostolic constitution" on the core values of Catholic education issued by St. Pope John Paul II, entitled "Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church)." If that failed, Blatty wanted his alma mater stripped of its "Catholic" status.

Blatty could understand why the media was still obsessed with "The Exorcist." He couldn't understand why journalists -- especially in Washington, D.C. -- were not digging into the issues behind his intellectual and spiritual wrestling match with Georgetown.

Now Blatty is gone and, as you would expect, "The Exorcist" dominated the mainstream media features about his life and work. But what did The Washington Post do with the other major Blatty story, right there in its own Beltway backyard? This question takes us -- literally -- the the final lines of the Blatty obituary:

In recent years, Mr. Blatty had a public dispute with Georgetown University, charging that it had abandoned its Catholic heritage. He organized a petition that he sent to the Vatican.
But Mr. Blatty remained inescapably linked with the book and movie that brought him the fame he sought for so long.
“I can’t regret ‘The Exorcist,’ ” he said in 2013. “I always believe that there is a divine hand everywhere.”

That's all there was to it, apparently. Don't you love the word "but" at the start of transition from the brief mention of the Georgetown dispute, back into Exorcist material? In other words, Blatty thought the state of Georgetown's Catholic witness was crucial, BUT now we head back to what really matters.

The problem is that the Georgetown dispute is not over, as implied by the Post, at least not according to public statements from the Vatican.

Thus, the National Catholic Register piece on Blatty's death offers tons of information about that ecclesiastical battle. The headline: "'Exorcist' Author William Blatty Has Died, But His Georgetown Reform Campaign Continues." A sample of that report:

... Perhaps the effort which had the greatest impact within Catholicism was not Blatty's published writing, but a Canon Law petition which Blatty authored, regarding his alma mater, Georgetown University. In the petition, which was signed by more than 2,000 concerned alumni, students, faculty and parents, Blatty asked Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, to remove the label “Catholic” from the school because of its continuing embrace of secularism. ...

in May 2012, William Blatty launched a new organization, the Father King Society, after the university honored Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius at the university’s Public Policy Institute’s Tropaia awards ceremony. The Father King Society, named for the late Fr. Thomas King, S.J., of the theology department, had as its mission to “make Georgetown honest, Catholic and better.”

Also in 2012, Blatty announced plans to file a complaint against his alma mater. ... On May 31, 2012, the petition -- some 198 pages including 476 footnotes, 91 appendices and 124 witness statements documenting 23 years of “scandals and dissidence” -- was delivered to the offices of the Archdiocese of Washington.

What is the status at this time, in terms of public statements?

In 2014, in a letter which gave hope to the complainants, the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education seemed determined to investigate the situation at Georgetown, and to work with the university to enact reforms. In a letter dated April 4, 2014, Archbishop Angelo Zani, secretary of the Congregation, wrote: “Your communications to this Dicastery in the matter of Georgetown University . . . constitutes a well-founded complaint.” Zani added: “Our Congregation is taking the issue seriously, and is cooperating with the Society of Jesus in this regard.”

Now, it's clear that "The Exorcist" angle of Blatty's life is the more important news topic -- for readers at most newspapers. The Georgetown dispute is primarily of interest to (a) Catholics and (b) readers near Georgetown, as in readers in Washington, D.C.

This raises an obvious question: Why did the Post team bury the Georgetown dispute in its Blatty obit?

Why leave readers with the impression that this subject -- the driving concern in the final act of Blatty's dramatic life -- is dead and buried? Isn't this part of Blatty's life a major local angle for a newspaper in Washington, D.C.?

I can understand why, oh, The Los Angeles Times did little or nothing with these Catholic angles in the Blatty story. Well, come to think of it, there is a Jesuit campus in that paper's backyard, as well.

The same is true for The New York Times. But at least the Times team did a fine job of trying Blatty's faith into material about "The Exorcist" and his attempts to produce a definitive version of that horror classic.

Thus, here is the end of the Times obit:

Mr. Blatty became reconciled over the years to the overwhelming dominance “The Exorcist” -- most recently adapted into a 2016 TV mini-series -- would have on his reputation as a writer. ... But one thing bothered him.
Many moviegoers, including the president of Warner Bros., had interpreted the movie’s climax -- in which the younger of the two priests (played by Jason Miller) goads the demon into leaving the girl to take up residence inside him instead, then jumps to his death -- as a win for the demon.
That was not how Mr. Blatty meant it. For years he pleaded his case to Mr. Friedkin, a longtime friend. In 2000, Mr. Friedkin relented, issuing a re-edited director’s cut of the film that made the triumph of Good over Evil more explicit.
With the same purpose in mind, Mr. Blatty rewrote parts of the original book, even adding a chapter, for a 40th-anniversary edition of “The Exorcist” published in 2011.
It was essential to him, he told The Times-Picayune of New Orleans in 2000, that people understand the point of “The Exorcist”:
“That God exists and the universe itself will have a happy ending.”

Or, as Blatty explained to me:

If readers and moviegoers pay attention, said Blatty, the chills caused by the demonic acts on the screen are merely the first step in a spiritual process that should drive them to look in the mirror.
"My logic was simple: If demons are real, why not angels? If angels are real, why not souls? And if souls are real, what about your own soul?"
Please respect our Commenting Policy