Reflections on Our Way of Being an American Catholic and Jesuit University

Joint Board Leadership Meeting
Washington, D.C.
October 6, 2012

Thank you Kevin, for that introduction and for your leadership in our community.

Thank you all for being here this weekend. I am grateful for your deep engagement with our community, and for your ongoing, tireless commitment to our University.

I’d like to again express my appreciation of Jane Carey’s continuing service as the Chair of our Board of Regents. Thank you also to Julie Farr Connolly for her service as President of our Alumni Association….and I’d like to welcome Mary Beth Connell to her first Leadership Weekend as the new Association President.

It’s been just six months since many of us met in Chicago for John Carroll Weekend and eight months since we gathered in February for our Winter Leadership weekend. Since that last formal assembly, much has happened at Georgetown. We have addressed several challenges, important questions, and we’ve also been fortunate to be strongly positioned to take advantage of many exciting opportunities that have emerged.

We have moved forward in our Capital Campaign. Our success in fundraising put our progress toward our $1.5 billion goal at $919 million on June 30 – more than 60 percent of the way there…

We have completed a campus plan and are beginning to plan for our future growth beyond our current footprint. We have engaged a leading development firm, Forest City, to help coordinate this process, and will be reaching across our community for input….

Thanks to the generous support of our Board of Regents and many of you in this room, we just opened Regents Hall, our new, state-of-the-art building for science education and research…

We are conducting the necessary groundwork that will allow us to seize the opportunities presented by technology-enhanced learning, and we are discerning the best way for Georgetown to engage in the online and open-access spaces…

We also continue to deepen and expand our global engagement—most recently in Brazil, where I met with education, business and political leaders in June, and where we continue to explore opportunities to further our scholarship and University mission in the region.

This is an extraordinary time. I don’t think there has been a more exciting moment in the context of higher education in our lifetimes, and am grateful to be engaged together with you as we work through the challenging issues that define this moment.

We bring important resources to this work—the excellence of our faculty and students, our strong boards, our location here in Washington, our global reach. Our greatest resource is our Catholic and Jesuit identity. We are heirs to what is perhaps the greatest tradition of learning the world has ever seen. In recent months, in response to challenging events, we have drawn from this tradition and I have offered reflections that have sought to interpret the implications of these challenges from the context of our tradition. I’d like to continue this effort with these reflections today.

In June, during Reunion weekend, I offered reflections in the context of the national debate about the Administration’s contraception coverage mandate; whether Catholic colleges and universities would be required to comply with it; and, in that context, the invitation by the Graduate Public Policy Institute to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to speak at an honors ceremony last May.

I spoke at some length in June about those specific issues, and I won’t repeat those comments now. In recent weeks, I was honored to deliver the address at the inauguration of Phil Boroughs, S.J., as President of Holy Cross, and last Thursday, I was honored by Commonweal magazine with its “Catholic in the Public Square” award. In these contexts, I continued to develop some of the ideas regarding why I think the greatest resource we have in this moment is this extraordinary intellectual, moral, and spiritual tradition. I’d like to take another step with all of you today—I’d like to offer some reflections on how we think about and work to be an authentically Catholic and Jesuit university at Georgetown.

I know that for some, the events of last spring raised questions about the depth and sincerity of Georgetown’s commitment to its Catholic and Jesuit tradition and identity. These concerns have fostered a dialogue—one which I wish to continue today—on a set of issues about which we all care passionately: our efforts to strengthen and to more deeply live our Catholic and Jesuit identity at Georgetown.

I will organize my thoughts for you around a description of my understanding of some core elements of our history and tradition, which guide us in our mission at Georgetown and inform my leadership in this, now, my 12th year as President. These four elements are:

First, a commitment to limitless inquiry and the idea that truth is best—and perhaps only—understood in dialogue.

Second, that our commitment to the Catholic intellectual tradition and to the Jesuit intellectual apostolate commends to us a very particular kind of inquiry, one that seeks the harmony of faith and reason.

Third, that this tradition is a unique resource for institutions like Georgetown—one never more valuable than it is today as we work to distinguish our institution in an era of increasing global competition and increasing questions about the value we provide as universities.

Fourth, that this tradition calls us to an engagement in public discourse about the common good, and to a commitment to dialogue, carried out with civility, respect and appreciation for those with whom we need to engage, even those with whom we might disagree.

I intend to speak briefly about the first three of these, and then to spend some more time on the fourth.

First—the nature of inquiry and truth.

Universities are predicated on a fundamental trust that permits the broadest possible intellectual freedom and autonomy. One colleague, Stefan Collini has a beautiful phrase that captures the unique ethos, the characteristic spirit of the university: “the ungovernable play of the enquiring mind.”1  We are committed to the idea that truth is achieved in dialogue, and that to limit dialogue is to show a lack of confidence in the capacity of the individual to discover truth. To be sure, the university is a catalyst and container for conflict—and there will be conflict. But active debate and discussion of ideas are necessary conditions for an intellectual community.

Questions may be raised about the appropriate range of speech and expression in our community, and we live this tension everyday. This is one of the most difficult and important issues for the Academy. At Georgetown, we are committed to a framework that supports open and free expression, one that permits the widest possible discourse, limited only under certain exceptional circumstances, because we believe in these things:

Our belief is that we are strong enough in our mutual self-understanding as a university community that we can bear the costs that arise from sustaining a forum for the free exchange of ideas. These are costs we must accept. We are confident enough in our commitment to our mission as an institution of higher learning that we can sustain our identity through experiences that can be very challenging.

This brings us to the second element of my remarks today: our commitment to the Catholic intellectual tradition and the Jesuit intellectual apostolate…the nature of its inquiry…and its commitment to the harmony of faith and reason.  What is truly distinctive is the manner in which this tradition seeks to integrate a commitment to truth with a commitment to the good.

It is the Liberal Arts that provide the means through which we engage in this integration. We seek the truth and we seek the good, and it is a distinctive characteristic of the Jesuit college to achieve this integration. If we are true to ourselves, we enable our students to achieve an interior freedom that enables them to follow their thinking wherever it may lead, and to forge a conscience, a moral imagination capable of reflective engagement in the world.

Essential to this project is the harmonization of faith and reason. We believe we have the capacity to bring together the resources of faith with the resources of reason to discover the most inclusive truth.  This idea was captured by Pope John Paul II, when he wrote:

In promoting the integration of knowledge, a specific part of a Catholic university’s task is to promote dialogue between faith and reason, so that it can be seen more profoundly how faith and reason bear harmonious witness to the unity of all truth.2

This unity of truth, and its attendant call to justice and peace, was also addressed by Pope Benedict XVI, when he addressed the 35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus. The Holy Father said:

The Church is in urgent need of people of solid and deep faith, of a serious and a genuine human and social sensitivity, of religious priests who devote their lives to stand on those frontiers in order to witness and help to understand that there is in fact a profound harmony between faith and reason, between evangelical spirit, thirst for justice and action for peace.3 

In our tradition we recognize the need to hold together faith and reason, nature and grace, continuity and change.
This brings me to my third point: that this tradition—this beautiful tradition—is a unique asset to Georgetown, especially in the current context of higher education, our nation, and our world.

Let me begin with a story that speaks to the strength of the Catholic intellectual tradition.

I was part of a faculty conversation that took place in the mid-1990s, where there were about 45 of us at a seminar, over the course of about two years, on our Catholic identity. A guest at one of the seminars was Fr. David Tracy, an eminent theologian from the University of Chicago. He gave a beautiful talk and when he completed his remarks, there was a lull before the Q&A started, and somebody had to begin the dialogue.

So I did, and threw out the most obvious question, because it really reflected the way in which most Catholic universities had framed our thinking about our identity for more than a generation. I asked, “Father, do you think it’s inevitable that as Georgetown seeks to become a better and better university, as we strive for academic excellence, that we will need to compromise our Catholic and Jesuit identity? Might we become more secular, following the paths of other universities?”
Fr. Tracy said something that has shaped the way I’ve thought about this issue ever since. He encouraged us to abandon that line of thinking, saying:

Consider the challenges that faced a Harvard or a Yale in the 19th century when they made that decision to, essentially, distance themselves from their animating religious traditions. If they were facing the same questions at this moment in time – and you look at the most pressing intellectual challenges in our world – do you think they would make the same choice today?

Our Catholic intellectual tradition is an extraordinary strategic advantage for a university, and to be able at this moment in time to engage with a comfort level in the discourse of religion, with the language of faith, with the style of intellectual engagement we all know so well from our years here on this Hilltop, is a gift that we will protect and strengthen, now, and into the future.

This tradition also resonates deeply with the origin of the University and the vision of our founder, John Carroll, as he considered the creation of an institution of higher learning that would be authentically Catholic and Jesuit and distinctly American. We find this idea embedded in our University motto: Utraque Unum, which we translate as, “both into one.” It’s right there on our University shield. Utraque Unum—both into one.

This brings me to my fourth point: that our tradition calls us to an engagement in public discourse about the common good and to a commitment to dialogue with civility, respect and appreciation for those with whom we need to engage, even those with whom we might disagree, in whole or in part, on matters of faith, reason or both.

We have a legacy of such engagement, of Catholic engagement with culture—where there is a deep and historic tension. Do we engage in the world and seek to bring our Catholic values into dialogue with the more dominant values of our secular culture, or do we retreat, refrain, resist, refuse to participate, no doubt for justifiable reasons? Can we reconcile our participation in the ongoing work of creating this Republic? Is such participation a compromise of our faith? This is a fundamental dilemma, a tension that has shaped the nature of our engagement, our involvement in the most important issues over time.

This tension is old and deep. On one side is a respect for individual freedom; on the other, the demands made of each of us in response to pluralism—the recognition of the need to support our neighbors, our communities, our nation, our globe…and to engage in the work of the common good. This Republic was formed with this tension. The idea of America reflects a commitment to individual freedom and to the common good. Both matter. And we bring the resources of our Catholic tradition to the engagement with this tension.

A commitment to the common good changes everything. It acknowledges that there is truth to be discovered and good to be realized when we engage in this work together. This discovery, this realization, occurs in dialogue, with one another, including those with whom we disagree.

The starting point is always within ourselves. A commitment to the common good begins in our own interior freedom. From within, out of our freedom, we choose to pursue something that is bigger than any one of us – the good we can only seek together.

We find further guidance for this work in The Formula of the Institute, the charter for establishing the Society of Jesus. It concludes:

Moreover, the Society should show itself no less useful in reconciling the estranged, in holily assisting and serving those who are found in prisons or hospitals, and indeed in performing any other works of charity, according to what will seem expedient for the glory of God and the common good.

The work of the common good is not easy. It requires that we balance our personal freedom with our shared responsibility for one another. It requires engaging with others who are also balancing this tension. And when we step into the public arena, we will find ourselves holding personal commitments reached through the exercise of our interior freedom that are at odds with those with whom we seek to build a common good. This work requires compromise. It requires sacrifice. It requires a respect for freedom that often exceeds our boundaries of propriety.

St. Ignatius, in his opening instructions in the Spiritual Exercises, advises:

In order that both he who is giving the Spiritual Exercises, and he who is receiving them, may more help and benefit themselves, let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct it with charity. If that is not enough, let him seek all suitable means to bring him to mean it well, and save himself.

This is what St. Ignatius describes as the “Presupposition.”  Such a disposition must guide our work in building the common good. The work of the common good can never begin if we have the attitude that any conversation, any effort at compromise, implies material cooperation with evil.

Our call to the common good…to the unity of faith and reason…nature and grace…continuity and change…to an inclusive truth…and to magnanimity and humility—this is what our tradition means at Georgetown.
I look forward to continuing our conversation—deepening our conversation—on this topic, both today and in the months to come.

I am deeply grateful to each of you for your deep caring, your sustained engagement, and your commitment to Georgetown. It is always a pleasure to be with you.

I’ll now take your questions…

1 Stefan Collini, “The Global Multiversity, “What are Universities for? (Penguin Press/Classics, February 23, 2012).

2 Pope John Paul II, “Ex corde Ecclesiae: On Catholic Universities,” sec. 17.

3 Address of Pope Benedict XVI. Jesuit Life and Mission Today, 823.