National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 30, 2004

Jesuit spirituality, social justice priorities for Georgetown's lay president


At first, it might seem odd to some that the most visible -- and arguably the most articulate -- advocate of Jesuit spirituality is a layman.

With a moment’s thought, it begins to make sense, especially given the position and personality of John “Jack” DeGioia, president of Georgetown University.

In the three years since he was chosen to become head of the nation’s oldest Catholic university, DeGioia, the first lay person to take on the task, has been an indefatigable advocate of Catholic identity and Ignatian spirituality. At a time when many clergy prefer not to wear Roman collars, DeGioia wears his Catholicism on his sleeve.

DeGioia believes the Washington-based Georgetown University is in a unique position to place before students, faculty and the wider social-political arena Roman Catholicism’s unyielding demands for human rights and social justice.

These are at the core, he says, of Ignatian spirituality.

Jesuit Fr. Julio Giulietti, director of the Center for Ignatian Spirituality at Boston College and formerly on the faculty at Georgetown, said flatly: “DeGioia knows the Spiritual Exercises [of Ignatius] from his soul.”

Said Jesuit Fr. Robert F. Drinan, “When DeGioia speaks of Jesuit identity, it has a certain ring to it. It has credibility. Jesuits can talk about it and people simply expect it.” Drinan, who teaches law at the Georgetown Law Center, has specialized in human rights issues.

When I spoke with Drinan earlier this month he was sky high because a strong human rights advocate had just taken over as dean of the Georgetown Law Center. Earlier this year, DeGioia chose Alexander Aleinikoff to become the new dean. Aleinikoff, one of the nation’s leading immigration law scholars, held several high-level positions in the Immigration and Naturalization Service at the U.S. Department of Justice during the Clinton administration.

“He is first-rate on human rights,” Drinan said of Aleinikoff.

One of DeGioia’s early moves as president was the creation of a Jesuit seminar for members of the Georgetown board of directors and other senior university officers so they could discuss Catholic and Jesuit traditions. He initiated another seminar for senior university officials so they could familiarize themselves with Catholic social teachings. He also initiated an annual Jesuit heritage week that draws noted Jesuit-educated celebrities to the campus to talk about their work.

To help coordinate these efforts DeGioia appointed Jesuit Fr. Phil Boroughs as vice president for mission and ministry. Boroughs works full-time on programs aimed at enhancing Catholic and Jesuit identity. From his office he has reached out to enhance interreligious dialogue and the roles of lay men and women.

“Jack has brought to the university a deep personal commitment to social justice,” said Melanne Verveer, a Georgetown graduate. “He believes that a university like Georgetown has an obligation to the students, as well as the wider community, to advance a just society globally.”

Verveer chairs the Vital Voices Global Partnership, a nonprofit group in Washington that works to strengthen the leadership capabilities of women globally. With DeGioia’s encouragement, Vital Voices has been collaborating with Georgetown University to provide training for women viewed as emerging leaders in their countries.

“Jack has been very supportive,” Verveer said, adding that the initiative not only benefits women, but also benefits students who have the opportunity to interact with women leaders on the frontlines of some tough global challenges.

After the United States went to war in Afghanistan, Georgetown hosted an international summit to aid reconstruction. It brought together government officials and nonprofit organizations from Afghanistan, the United States and elsewhere. Georgetown then helped train Afghans on campus.

Another recent international Georgetown initiative focused on bringing faith-based groups together to plan strategies to confront the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa.

Last year, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris, the university initiated a series of talks on human rights and world peace.

Last November, the university announced the implementation of a new gender-blind, semester-long paid parental leave for faculty. The move was celebrated as a step to make the university more “family friendly.” Law professor Sue Deller Ross, a member of the Faculty Senate Task Force, which supported the measure, gives credit for the initiative to DeGioia.

“He’s a father himself and has been very much supportive,” she told a reporter for the student newspaper, The Hoya, at the time.

DeGioia’s wife, Theresa, gave birth to their first child, John Thomas, just one month before he became president in 2001. The image of the proud new father entering the president’s office in the Healy building quickly warmed the campus to its new president.

Interviews with Georgetown students, graduates, faculty and administrators over six months raised hardly a negative word. Some students said they didn’t see him much, but thought he was doing a pretty good job. Faculty and students alike often refer to him as “Jack.”

By nature, DeGioia, 47, is warm and informal, characteristics that appear to clash with the stately walnut wood-paneled president’s office on the second floor of the Healy building overlooking the front entrance to the campus. He has an irrepressible grin that seems to say he’s got something on his mind he can hardly contain to himself. Some say he’s a modest and shy man. Others say he is always open to new ideas.

DeGioia graduated from Georgetown in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in English and later earned a doctorate in philosophy from Georgetown in 1995. In 1982, he began work as an assistant to Georgetown president Jesuit Fr. Timothy S. Healy. He rose through the ranks, becoming dean of student affairs in 1985 and associate vice president and chief administrative officer for Georgetown’s main campus in 1992.

When Jesuit Fr. Leo O’Donovan ended his presidency at Georgetown in 2001, DeGioia seemed to have all the qualifications needed to step up, except one: He wasn’t a Jesuit. Eventually a search committee unanimously chose DeGioia as the person to succeed O’Donovan. But it was not without grumbling from some Jesuits and Georgetown graduates who felt it represented a major breach with tradition. DeGioia is Georgetown’s 48th president and first non-Jesuit.

Fundraising takes up much of the time of a university president -- about 40 percent of DeGioia’s time, he said. Georgetown University got into fundraising relatively late, in the late 1970s. As a result, its endowment is only about one-fifth the size of its peer universities’. Questions of DeGioia’s ability to attract major gifts seemed to have been put to rest earlier this year when the university announced the closure of its successful $1 billion campaign.

DeGioia admits he prefers other university activities. He enjoys teaching most and manages to squeeze in a course each year. Two years ago, he taught an undergraduate seminar on human rights, analyzing the topic from the perspective of three disciplines, philosophy, literature and law. It was so popular it had to be held in the university auditorium. Last year he taught a seminar in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown titled, “Ways of Knowing: Standards of Objectivity in the Natural Sciences, Social Sciences and the Humanities.”

Interpersonal relations are one of DeGioia’s strong points. In the Washington fishbowl, those you see and how you get along gets recorded. DeGioia says he has made an effort to work closely with Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, who participated extensively in DeGioia’s inauguration ceremonies.

DeGioia also works to maintain good relations with Jesuits. At least once a year he flies to Rome to visit Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, superior general of the Society of Jesus.

In DeGioia’s inaugural address in October 2001, he spoke with considerable ease about the purpose of religion, which he defined as leading people “to an authentic and deeper spiritual experience.” He said some might see this as conflicting with Georgetown’s enlightenment tradition, fueled by “rational, disinterested, objective inquiry.”

He indicated the need for both, adding that at the heart of Ignatius’ vision is the core belief that there is something more than what can be captured through rational inquiry. “There is mystery in everything we touch,” he said.

It is DeGioia’s personal response in the face of that mystery that seems to be setting Georgetown’s 21st-century agenda.

Tom Fox is NCR publisher and can be reached at

National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 2004

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