"Where the World Meets the Church and the Church Meets the World"

Georgetown University
June 1, 2012


Thank you, Kevin. With so many alumni returning to campus this weekend, I believe this is an opportunity for me to offer reflections on important issues regarding Georgetown’s core identity as a Catholic and Jesuit university. We have received considerable attention in recent weeks over the invitation of Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to speak at an award ceremony for graduating students in our Graduate Public Policy Institute. Her presence raised concerns regarding the appropriateness of an individual who, in the exercise of her public office, has taken positions that are at odds with the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

In these remarks I wish to open a discussion on our efforts to strengthen and know our Catholic and Jesuit identity over the course of the now eleven years in which I have served in this role. I will begin with some words regarding the visit of Secretary Sebelius and the place of speech and expression within our university community, and I will then turn to the framework that has guided me over these past years.

I will conclude with some reflections on our responsibility, as a Catholic and Jesuit institution of higher learning, to continue our work “at the frontiers” of excellence and tradition, navigating the competing tensions in our world to become the University we are meant to be.

The Framework for Free Speech and Expression at Georgetown

The presenting issue on our campus in recent weeks has raised important questions deeply rooted in the context of speech and expression. It’s important to note that what was at stake with the visit of Secretary Sebelius was not a matter of academic freedom. Academic freedom has a very precise meaning for a university community.

At Georgetown, we have our own understanding of the definition of academic freedom, which is captured in our Faculty Handbook. Our policy states:

“Free inquiry and unconstrained publication of the results of inquiry are at the heart of a university. Our University commitment to academic freedom supports all faculty (and professional librarians) in research, teaching, and professional service in and beyond the University by protecting free inquiry and free expression. Faculty enjoy academic freedom in the classroom, the laboratory, the studio, the library, and all the domains of their academic activity.”

This is a formal agreement that we have with our faculty regarding academic freedom.

There is a long history of academic freedom in the United States, with concepts like tenure arising in the mid-part of the last century to ensure that appropriate structures would be in place to sustain these freedoms. There have been moments in American history when faculty members have been constrained in the pursuit of their scholarship—both in their research, and in the classroom—as a result of pressures exerted by outside forces.

Speech and expression has a different place within a university community. Very early in my years of service in this role, in a talk that I gave in February of 2003, I offered some reflections on speech and expression.

In that talk, I began with a thought experiment, and I’d like to reprise it with all of you here today. Let me begin by arguing two different points of view regarding speech and expression. This tension has shaped our discourse here and I hope I can capture it effectively in this thought experiment:

First: Georgetown should curtail speech because we believe strongly that ideas and values matter. Ideas and values are conveyed in speech, and ideas can challenge values. They can be dangerous; they can upset the status quo; they can be disruptive.

Ideas can generate negative reactions, carry hate, wound people, and cause real trauma.

Ideas are powerful. Our students are at a formative time in their lives; they are easily persuaded; they may not be able to grasp the complexity of some challenging ideas it is our responsibility to share and to teach.

If you believe in the power of ideas, and the importance of values, then you must consider carefully which ideas are promulgated at Georgetown. Specifically, you must consider that a campus committed to unrestricted speech could, on occasion, appear to provide a legitimate platform for lies, hatred, distortion, error, and wrong. As a result, speech may appear to acquire legitimacy when it occurs on the campus of a respected research institution, or is uttered by members of that academic community.

Now let’s consider a second viewpoint—that a university community should commit itself to free speech and expression.

Universities are predicated on the fundamental trust that permits the broadest possible intellectual freedom and autonomy.

Universities are also committed to the idea that truth is achieved in dialogue. To limit dialogue is to show a lack of confidence in the capacity of the individual to discover truth. The university is a catalyst and container for conflict; and there will be conflict. Active debate and discussion of ideas are, in fact, signs of a healthy intellectual community.

Two points of view.  Both matter.

The question of what constitutes the appropriate range of speech and expression raises the most difficult and important issues for the Academy. We live this tension as a community.  At Georgetown, a decision has been made to create a framework that supports open and free expression.

Georgetown has chosen to permit the widest possible discourse, limited only under certain exceptional circumstances, because we believe in these things:

The strength of our tradition and identity; the value of intellectual inquiry; the integrity of individuals; the ability of members of this university community to think discerningly about ideas; and our capacity, together, to move towards a more inclusive truth – one discovered in dialogue, where competing and conflicting ideas can be engaged, respectfully, in our effort to create a deeper and more authentic understanding of the matters at hand.

We cannot be a university dedicated to intellectual excellence and at the same time place limits on what might be said and discussed. [1]

Those reflections represent the thought experiment that we shared as a university community about nine years ago.

Our commitment to freedom of speech and expression is a condition for our common life together as a community. Our formal policies do not prohibit speech based either on the person presenting, or on the content of the ideas expressed.

At Georgetown, we encourage the free exchange of ideas. As our University policy on Speech and Expression states: “An individual member or group of members of the academic community may invite any person to address the community.” In such a context – where there is a commitment to engaging a wide range of perspectives, and a clear and comprehensive framework for free speech and expression – our University remains a convening space, and we do not approve or endorse the content of the ideas our speakers express.

You might be saying to yourselves: But great confusion can arise when a controversial speaker appears at Georgetown. Isn’t there a possibility that some may misinterpret such presence as de facto support for that speaker.

We need to recognize the potential for such interpretation. Yet 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.

As you know, we experienced such a moment in the past weeks. The invitation to Secretary Sebelius was made by colleagues with the intent of providing our students with the perspectives of a distinguished public servant in a position of responsibility for the most significant piece of domestic legislation of the Obama Administration. The invitation was made in early January, before the regulations had been issued. Because elements of this legislation would redefine what constitutes a religious institution, extensive attention has been given to this matter since late January.

The invitation and presence of the Secretary has presented another moment of potential confusion regarding the position of Georgetown. I hope, in these remarks, that I have provided a framework today of how to interpret such a visit.

It is in moments like this that we can be reminded how important it is that we be aware of the richness of our tradition, and the responsibility that we have to sustain and extend our tradition.

Honoring Georgetown’s Catholic and Jesuit Identity

Now I would like to offer some comments about how we have sought to honor our Catholic and Jesuit identity. Over these last eleven years of service as Georgetown’s president, I have been vitally aware of the responsibility we have to honor our Catholic and Jesuit identity. I cannot overstate how seriously I take this responsibility. I have said on numerous occasions that I regard Georgetown as an heir to the greatest tradition of learning this world has ever known, and so at this moment in time – and for every generation ahead – it will be essential for the members of our community to ensure the flourishing of that tradition.

There are three extraordinary resources that we bring to bear on our choices about how best to realize our Catholic and Jesuit identity, and how to navigate the changing context in which we pursue our work: First, the Catholic intellectual tradition; second, our Jesuit heritage – and especially the resources of Ignatian spirituality – and third, our understanding of the fundamental importance of tradition, and what it takes to sustain our tradition over time. I’d like to share a few reflections about each of these three resources, and to tell you a story to illustrate the first: 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 Tracey, 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. Tracey 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 as 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 fundamentally 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.

For us, at this moment in time, the words of our motto are deeply meaningful. They hold within them the idea that 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]

Now, in addition to the richness of the Catholic intellectual tradition, our university community also can draw from the second extraordinary resource of our Jesuit heritage. We are capable today of engaging this foundational aspect of our identity as a Jesuit institution in new ways that were not available to us in earlier generations. We are living in an age when the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola is more accessible than at virtually any time in modern history.

People like Fr. Howard Gray, Fr. Brian McDermott, Fr. O’Malley, and many other members of the Society of Jesus, made a commitment after the Second Vatican Council to recapture and reimagine the possibilities of this spirituality, and to find ways of sharing it with laypeople, with students, and with communities seeking to extend the experience of their faith.

As a result, the women and men who are members of our community today have a capacity for a deeper experience of what it means to be at a Jesuit university than at any time in generations. The resources of our Catholic and Jesuit identity are available to us today in ways that they simply weren’t, even when I was in school, because of a group of men who made it their mission in the days following the Second Vatican Council, to heed the call of the Council to recapture the animating idea of our spirituality, and to make it come alive in a modern way. That’s all available to us here.

There’s a third resource, and that’s our understanding of a tradition, and what is required to sustain tradition. A tradition provides continuity of commitment to a set of values and practices.  A tradition is captured in a curriculum, in dedication to service, in residential living, and in so many different aspects in the life of a university community.

But while providing continuity over time, traditions are never static. They are organic, always evolving as your community responds to the challenges presenting in this moment in time. What differentiates a Catholic and Jesuit university is the privilege given to a specific tradition: the tradition given to us at the time of our founding, the tradition which is at the center of our identity.  While we will defend and sustain a plurality of perspectives at the university, we prioritize the one that has animated this community for more than two centuries.

One of the most pressing challenges we face in every era is how to respond to the tensions faced within a tradition. Every tradition at any moment in time is characterized by a current problematic – a set of issues that are a block to extending the tradition. What do I mean?

Within any tradition, we recognize ways in which we are not living up to our promise – where the richness and possibility of that tradition can be developed further; where we can make a greater contribution, can provide deeper meaning for the lives of the members of that community. Without embracing these opportunities for development, we will never become the kind of place, the kind of community, or the kind of people we are meant to be.

So, for me, as I look at our tradition at this point in time and at this moment in history, I see five specific challenges that call for our attention as we seek to strengthen and sustain this tradition. If you’re on another campus, given its history, its identity, its location, its academic strengths, you might identify another set of issues. But for Georgetown, at this first part of the 21st Century, we’ve identified five central areas:

We’ve gone about addressing these five themes by examining and strengthening our institutional structures, and by engaging in new projects capable of sustaining and extending these aspects of our tradition. These five areas have been given priority over the course of the last ten years.

Our commitment to academic excellence is at the center of all that we do. One of the most important ways that it has been enhanced over the past decade is in our continued ability to ensure that the very best students can come to Georgetown, through stronger scholarship and financial aid structures, and in deepening our commitment to our need blind, meet full need financial aid policy. By attracting the very best students, we begin a virtuous cycle, where the very best students come to work with the very best faculty, and the very best faculty come to work with the very best students.

We also have expanded our capacity to support the excellence of our community through new capital projects – our Hariri Building, which now houses our McDonough School of Business; our Royden B. Davis Center for the Performing Arts; and now, our new science center, Regents Hall. We have explored innovations in teaching and curriculum through our Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship and the implementation of new technology in our classrooms that has allowed for a more global understanding of higher learning. All of these projects have strengthened the research, teaching and learning on our campuses in significant ways.

To sustain and strengthen critical aspects of our Catholic and Jesuit identity, we have established our first Office of Mission and Ministry. Fr. Kevin O’Brien who introduced me is our Vice President for Mission and Ministry. We’ve also been able to recruit extraordinary talents, including people like Fr. Phil Boroughs, Fr. Kevin O’Brien, Fr. Howard Gray, Fr. John O’Malley, and Fr. Dan Madigan and many others.

Through their work, we’ve deepened our capacity to offer our staff and students access to the practice of Ignatian spirituality, by guiding staff the 19th Annotation, which is a version of the Spiritual Exercises devised by St. Ignatius of Loyola that are adapted for lay people.

We also offer a number of new retreat and classroom experiences for our students. We are in the process of building a new retreat center in Blue Mountain, Virginia, made possible through the extraordinary generosity of our alumnus and member of our Board of Directors, Arthur Calcagnini, and his wife, Nancy. The Calcagnini Contemplative Center will house all of our retreats – we’re sending students to retreats every weekend throughout the year – and will be a place of deep reflection and dialogue for every member of our community.

We’ve also built on our work to foster interreligious understanding. We have a vibrant Jewish community at Georgetown, and we became the first Catholic university to employ a full-time rabbi. Today, more than forty years later, Rabbi Harold White is still a vital contributor to our campus community. He retired formally as Rabbi just over two years ago, and we’ve been able to bring to Georgetown an extraordinary new rabbi, Rachel Gartner, just last year. We also were the first American university to employ a full-time Imam, with Imam Yahya Hendi joining us in 1999 and still holding that role today.

We have the leading Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, which we opened in 1993, and is led by the distinguished Islamic scholar, John Esposito. We have strengthened our commitment to interreligious understanding by creating The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, which looks at the intersecting role that religion plays in our world today. We’ve developed our program for the study of Jewish Civilization.

In terms of our relationships, we have worked to deepen our engagement with leaders in our Catholic Church through my annual visits to Rome, and we’ve also pursued new ties, including those with The Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay community dedicated to fostering peace in our world, and with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, with whom we’ve worked closely on a series of annual conferences entitled, “Building Bridges,” which seeks to promote greater interfaith dialogue.

Here in the United States, we’ve developed strong ties with the Cristo Rey Network, a group of Catholic schools throughout the country committed to providing opportunities for gifted, low-income families. We’ve also forged relationships with organizations working at the forefront of pressing questions of social justice through our Alternative Spring Break program, which, among other projects, has enabled engagement with issues of immigration at the borders of our country, of humanitarian reconstruction with our “Blanket New Orleans” project, and of racial identity in America through our “Race, Dialogue, Renewal: Detroit” program.

This is a special program we’ve launched in the last few years balancing the opportunity for some of our students looking for an urban experience during their spring break to go to the Midwest and engage some of the challenges confronting Detroit.

To develop our capacity to be a place that facilitates conversation between cultures – where dominant civic values can meet those values of the Gospel – we have created a series of projects enabling leading thinkers in this area to pursue work within our community. We launched “Faith and Culture,” a lecture series that has invited contemporary writers and scholars such as Marilynne Robinson, Richard Rodriguez, Fr. Michael Paul Gallagher, and Ron Hansen to reflect on their work in the context of the engagement of faith with culture.

We also have brought on distinguished author, Paul Elie, to direct a new partnership with StoryCorps, the well-known national documentary organization, focusing on exploring the changing role of faith in our society at a time of growing religious and cultural diversity. To extend the work of culture to our curriculum, we have created two new Master’s degrees focused on issues of human development, a critical area of engagement in our increasingly globalized context.

In all of these endeavors, we believe that our Catholic and Jesuit tradition provides us with incomparable resources to pursue the mission of our University, and so our work always will be to ensure that it remains the animating force for our community.

Our young women and men are impacted deeply by our Catholic and Jesuit identity: and they, in turn, help us to imagine our tradition anew through their contributions to our community.


I wish to close with one more story.

In 2008, the Jesuits came together for their 35th General Congregation. The purpose of this Congregation was to select a new Superior General to replace Father Peter Hans Kolvenbach, who was retiring after 24 years in office.

The deliberations of the Congregation led to the selection of Father Adolfo Nicolas, who is now in his fourth year of service as Superior General of the Society of Jesus. An important theme emerged and was most beautifully captured in the words of Pope Benedict XVI when he addressed the Congregation. 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]

As a Jesuit university, we are called to be at the frontiers – and our work in academic excellence, in extending the spiritual resources of our tradition into the life of our community, in deepening our capacity to promote interreligious understanding, in living out our responsibility to address issues of social justice, and in sustaining our engagement with our culture – are examples of our effort to deepen our tradition.

As a University, increasingly global in scope, we seek to bring this tradition into our encounter with the world, and to exist and to work “at the frontiers.”

[1] These remarks were presented at the “Student Speech and Expression Forum” February 2003.
[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.