Then 2012 came along.
That’s when building tensions hit a boiling point between orthodox and more liberal American Catholics over everything from how much the government should help the poor to whether good Catholics have to listen to their bishops. A dispute between President Obama — for whom most Catholics voted — and top U.S. bishops over a White House mandate for employers to provide contraception coverage has exacerbated the divisions.
Suddenly, DeGioia, 55, a jovial philosopher, started making news.
The headlines began in March, when DeGioia publicly defended a Georgetown law student whom Limbaugh called a “slut” after she testified in favor of the contraception mandate. More followed this month when conservative Catholics launched a petition asking him to rescind an invitation to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, author of the mandate, to speak during the school’s graduation. Emotions ran so high that by late May, the author of “The Exorcist,” William Peter Blatty, threatened to bring the school into a canonical court to argue that it should lose its Catholic standing.
In both cases, some Catholics praised DeGioia while others lambasted him. The reaction seems fitting for a time when an accepted definition of a good Catholic leader seems as elusive as ever.
“This is a microcosm of what trying to hold the center is like for anyone in American Catholicism today,” said Rocco Palmo, author of “Whispers in the Loggia,” a blog on Catholicism. “They’re few and far between because they get pummeled.”
DeGioia declined to be interviewed for this article, a reflection of his discomfort with the controversy over Sebelius’s appearance and the reaction of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Washington archbishop, who called the invitation by Georgetown “shocking.” DeGioia also cautioned some associates not to speak.
But friends say he knows he is operating in polarizing times.
Tim Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics and a Catholic acquaintance of DeGioia’s, said the two “had a couple eye-rolling moments about chaos in the church” at dinner a few weeks ago. “I hear Jack saying, ‘We need people [at Georgetown] who stimulate our ability to find God, not people to come and repeat formulas.’ . . . Whether one Catholic or another should be allowed to speak is just background noise in the larger search.”
When DeGioia was picked in 2001 to be Georgetown’s first non-Jesuit president in more than 200 years, some Catholics fretted: Would the religious character of the country’s oldest Catholic university slip with a layman at the helm?