As president, DeGioia developed a reputation as a moderate and a spiritual man who has quietly beefed up Georgetown’s Catholicness.
He created an office to promote the school’s Jesuit heritage and created seminars for top administrators on spirituality. Membership in the campus chapter of Knights of Columbus, a traditional Catholic group, has grown. DeGioia teaches in the philosophy department, focusing on academic freedom and human rights, areas he sees as in sync with Catholic teaching. He responded to reports of anti-gay attacks near campus by opening a resource center in 2008 that supports gay students and plans such events as Coming Out Week.
Even traditional types close to the archdiocese say DeGioia has had a good reputation. He has built positive, if not tight, relations with the office of the archdiocese and goes regularly to the Vatican for face time with officials interested in Catholic education.
He is known for keeping Georgetown nationally competitive in fundraising and in the overall prestige of students, and for expanding overseas (including a campus in Qatar, opened in 2005).
But he is not a particularly prominent college president, his low profile fitting with the others-first Georgetown culture.
His style contrasts sharply with that of Catholic University President John Garvey, who seems more comfortable in today’s rough-and-tumble public sphere. In a piece Sunday in The Washington Post’s Outlook section, Garvey writes that the contraception mandate reflects the government’s “defining religion down” in order to limit its influence.
But this is one of the most tumultuous periods for U.S. Catholics in years, and the spotlight has found DeGioia.
Defending Sandra Fluke
He received kudos from many Catholics for sending an e-mail in March to the whole Georgetown community in defense of law student Sandra Fluke, whom Limbaugh called a “slut” for saying at a congressional hearing that her health-care coverage should include contraception.
“She was respectful, sincere, and spoke with conviction. She provided a model of civil discourse,” DeGioia wrote. Some who disagreed with her, he said, “responded with behavior that can only be described as misogynistic, vitriolic, and a misrepresentation of the position of our student.”
Yet to some, the letter was scandalous because it characterized U.S. bishops as just one “important” voice offering perspective on the mandate, rather than as the voice of the church.
And then the news about Sebelius speaking at Georgetown’s public-policy graduate school spread and became a major cause for some traditional Catholics, who see the mandate as a slap to organized religion. It exempts houses of worship from being required to offer employees contraception but not faith-based groups if their primary mission is not about transmitting their faith and if they do not primarily employ or serve people of their own faith.
Even some liberal supporters of DeGioia’s said the timing was wrong.
One professor is leaving Georgetown because of what he says is its vanishing Catholic identity. Patrick Deneen, a government professor leaving this month for the University of Notre Dame, called the invitation evidence of the school’s “internal confusion about itself and its mission, a confusion that it sows among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.”
During the tumult, DeGioia has maintained the same routine, attending Sunday services at the liberal Holy Trinity parish or on campus with his wife and their 10-year-old son.
It’s unclear how long the controversies will dog DeGioia or the university he leads. But the Georgetown president appears to have plenty of friends in high places. He received a papal honor in 2006 for service “to the church and the pope,” and just the other day, the president of a key Vatican council tweeted a photo of the two together.
“We’re supposed to be the leaven of the world,” said Palmo, the blog writer. “What does it say when we can’t get along?”
Staff writers Jenna Johnson and Daniel de Vise contributed to this report.