Welcome remarks at “Resisting the ‘Throwaway Culture’: Protecting Human Life and Dignity”

Lohrfink Auditorium
Georgetown University
April 12, 2016

I wish to welcome you here for this discussion organized by our Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.  I am grateful to John Carr, the Director of the Initiative and to our three guests for joining us this evening.

In these introductory reflections I wish to speak briefly about three contexts that provide the background for this opportunity this evening for our four colleagues to speak freely in defense of human life.

[1] The tone of intellectual and moral engagement that shapes this community;

[2] The Church’s engagement with culture;

[3] The history of Georgetown as a community that celebrates this engagement.

My remarks flow from these dimensions.

We begin each academic year with New Student Orientation.  It is a very special moment in the life of our community.  We welcome first year and transfer students.  We encourage parents and care givers to join us for the weekend.   There are picnics and receptions, ice cream socials and meetings in the residence halls.  The first gathering to which all are invited takes place in McDonough Gymnasium at 9 am on Sunday morning—Mass for New Student Orientation.  It is the first Mass in the academic season, followed just a few days later by the Mass of the Holy Spirit that takes place on the front lawn.

Just two hours following the Mass on Sunday morning, in the very same gymnasium, we celebrate our New Student Convocation.  There is a moment in the Convocation where we ask our students to take a pledge—the Honor Pledge—“to be honest in every academic endeavor.” 

Each year, during this part of the ceremony, they hear these words: “you [have] become part of our intellectual community…commit[ted] to…the disinterested search for truth.”   These words always catch me—what exactly is the sense of this word “disinterested?”  The integrity of our work requires that we follow our inquiry wherever it may lead and we are “disinterested” in the outcome.  Not “uninterested.”  We may even have a preference for how it turns out.  But we can never let our interests impede the open exchange of ideas and perspectives.

There is a core set of values that animate any institution that calls itself a “university.”  Among these values are academic freedom and freedom of speech and expression. 

There are others—the commitment to shared governance, for example, helps to explain the enduring capacity of institutions to adapt to changing circumstances.  But no values are more central to the very idea of the university than those that capture the openness to pursue the truth wherever it may lead us.

The work of the Academy takes place, in the words of Stefan Collini, “under the sign of limitlessness.”1  Collini offers this insight in a set of reflections on the enduring importance of John Henry Newman. 

Collini defends this position and characterizes the nature of inquiry that we sustain in the Academy—as “…the ungovernable play of the enquiring mind.”2  By “ungovernable,” Collini means “there is no predicting where thought and analysis may lead when allowed to play freely…3

Again, Professor Collini: “...it is a question of whether enquiry…is being undertaken under the sign of limitlessness—that is to say, not just, as with the development of all knowledge, subject to the testing of hypotheses or the revision of errors, but where the open-ended quest for understanding has primacy over any application or immediate outcome.”4

Respect for this ethos of openness is a condition for sustaining an authentic university. 

Georgetown is our nation’s oldest Catholic university.  We seek to be “authentically” a University and “authentically” Catholic.  There are some matters, through the precepts of this faith, for which we are not “disinterested.”  We are the beneficiaries of a profound moral and spiritual tradition, shaped over the course of two millennia.  Within this tradition is a set of teachings that seek to respond to the demands of our times.  These teachings begin with an encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, presented in 1891 introducing a new stage of development in Catholic social teaching.  Throughout these past 125 years, in thirteen subsequent encyclicals, in the recent Apostolic Exhortation, Joy of the Gospel, and the encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis continues the development of this teaching.

Just two months before he died, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin delivered one of his last public addresses here at Georgetown.  It was the third time he had spoken to our university community in twelve years.  On all three occasions he sought to deepen his exposition of the Catholic moral vision, captured in the phrase a “Consistent Ethic of Life.” 

On the occasion of his last visit, he said this: “In my own tradition, I have tried to take the theme of the sacredness of the human person and develop its implications through “A Consistent Ethic” of life.  The ideas supporting the consistent ethic have been cultivated in the Catholic moral tradition for centuries.  But the convergence of forces arising from contemporary society to threaten human life and sacredness creates a new context in which the ancient themes of an ethic of stewardship of life take on new relevance.  Essentially, I have argued, as I will this afternoon, that we must systematically address a series of threats to life by building within civil society a shared vision of what human sacredness demands…5

The work to “systematically address” the “threats to life”—the urgency of “building a civil society” with “a shared vision of what human sacredness demands” continues to be our work, today.

We seek to be both authentically “Catholic” and authentically a “university.”  We seek to respond to the challenge presented by Jesuit Father Erich Przywara, who understood that as a Jesuit university we live “on the border line where the Church meets the world and the world meets the Church….”6 If he were writing today, he might say: “We live at this frontier.”

Engaging this tension is among the great challenges that shapes the history of this university.  When confronted with ideas and ideologies, speech and expression that are at odds with what a “vision of human sacredness demands”—our response is to offer additional opportunities to embrace this work.  Tonight’s event is one of several occurring this month, from Saturday’s Bernardin Lecture delivered by Sister Helen Prejean to a conversation next week with Congressman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and leaders in the Catholic healthcare field.

As a university, we conduct ourselves under the “sign” of openness; as Catholic, we seek to deepen love and respect for “what a shared vision of what human sacredness demands.”

Tonight, we are blessed by the presence of four colleagues who will enable us to engage ever more deeply the moral commitments that animate the vision at the heart of our university.  Again, I am grateful to John Carr of our Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life as well as our guests, Professor Helen Alvare, Professor Charles Camosy, and Sister Norma Pimentel, for joining us this evening for this discussion, “Resisting the “Throwaway Culture.”

1 Collini, Stefan. What are Universities For? New York: Penguin, 2012.




5 Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, “The Catholic Moral Vision in the United States.” Ed. John Langan. A Moral Vision for America: Addresses of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. Washington: Georgetown UP, 1998.

6 Quoted in John Courtney Murray, The University in the American Experience (New York: Fordham University, 1966), 10, cited by Pedro Arrupe, in “The Jesuit Mission in the University Apostolate,” 1975.