Our Democracy

January 12, 2021

Dear Members of the Georgetown University Community:

Every four years, in January, the city of Washington is home to a defining moment for our nation: the inauguration of a president, a citizen of our Republic, who commits to an oath, “to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Elected representatives across the country share this oath.

In the events of January 6, and the actions that led to them, this oath has been violated at the highest levels of our government and by the president of the United States. As I shared in my statement on January 6, that day we “witnessed a violent attempt to disrupt the democratic process and prevent our Congress from fulfilling its Constitutional responsibilities. These acts are reprehensible and have no place in our country.” At the instigation of the president, there was a violent assault on the Capitol Building; disruption to the process of the formal recognition of Congress of the votes of the Electoral College; a parade of violent imagery, words of hate and further threats of violence; and later, after order was restored and members of Congress were able to re-convene, there was a continued brazen attempt by some lawmakers to block the process of validating the will of the electorate. Neither the mob attack nor the obstruction of some legislators was able to stop the fundamental work of our democracy. We can be grateful to the members of Congress who honored their responsibility to our Republic.

For our community, these days have been particularly challenging. This assault happened here—in the city that our University calls home. And all this took place, of course, as COVID-19 continues its rampage in virtually every corner of our country, leaving us with record-setting numbers of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths—revealing, once again, indefensible inequities in our society and disproportionate impacts on Black communities and communities of color.

This is a defining moment for our nation in how we choose to respond. This moment demands a moral and civic imagination equal to the scope of the challenges we now face.

Understanding the challenges—through scholarship, research, and civic engagement—and crafting responses—policies, laws, programs, new institutions—all this is the work of universities. And in all of our work, we follow the truth, wherever it may lead. This is among our most important contributions to civic life.

For a university located here in the heart of this Capital City—we recognize a special responsibility. We are animated by a commitment to the common good. This is deeply ingrained in the more than two-century history of Georgetown, as well as the four-century tradition of the Jesuits.

The last sentence of the mission statement of the Jesuits, the Formula for the Institute, written by St. Ignatius himself, ends with these words:

Moreover, he should show himself ready to reconcile the estranged, compassionately assist and serve those who are in prisons or hospitals, and indeed, to perform any other works of charity, according to what will seem expedient for the glory of God and the common good.

The Jesuit Historian, Father John O’Malley, a longtime faculty member here at Georgetown, identifies Cicero’s De Officiis as a foundational influence on Ignatius and the first Jesuits. De Officiis is often translated as On Public Responsibility.

Father O’Malley identifies this passage of Cicero as having foundational resonance within our tradition:

We are not born for ourselves alone…we, too, as human beings are born for the sake of other human beings that we might be able mutually to help one another; we ought therefore to…contribute to the common good of humankind by reciprocal acts of kindness, by giving and receiving from one another, and thus by our skill, our industry and our talents work to bring human society together in peace and harmony.

Father O’Malley calls this the foundation of a civic spirituality. In the tradition upon which our university is built, we acknowledge that we have a civic commitment to seek the common good.

As we look to the days ahead, and confront the many challenges we face as a people, we do so as a community—shaped by an unwavering commitment to truth, service and the common good.


John J. DeGioia