There lives in the city of Washington a man named Timothy J. Healy. He is the president of Georgetown University, a priest, and what he did is almost unheard-of in this town or maybe any other -- he returned some money. By now, people must be doubting his sanity.

The money in question was donated to Georgetown University by the government of Libya. It consisted of $600,000 in cold cash and it went to Georgetown with no strings attached. It did, however, come from the government headed by Col. Muammar Qaddafi, which is notorious for supporting revolution everywhere but home, bankrolling terrorists and killing its opposition -- at home or abroad.

Still, it is an accepted American tradition dating back at least as far as John Davison Rockefeller that there is nothing quite as cleansing for both donor and recipient as the exchange of money -- that in a moral sense you really can separate a man from his money. Thus it was that Rockefeller, a mean robber-baron, bought a reputation as a philanthropist and lover of children by doing nothing more than handling out dimes to kids. For this, he was beloved.

Similarly, many of America's wealthiest men have cleansed their fortunes by giving large hunks of them away. It is for some reason un-American to question the source of that money, to make some sort of statement about the way it was made. This is never done. Instead, the money is taken, the man thanked and a building or something named for him. So accepted is this tradition that when Armand Hammer, the chairman of Occidental Petroleum, bought Leonardo's Leicester Codex and exhibited it in Washington, it was considered the height of bad taste to so much as even mention that Hammer's company is the very one that also brought the world the tragedy known as Love Canal.

If Hammer personifies the morally neutral donor, then Jesse Jackson personifies the morally neutral recipient. He is the best one yet at articulating the philosophy that what matters most is the color of the money -- not the source of it. Jackson has accepted something like $10,000 from the Libyans without so much as pausing to have the bills washed. And he has more than just intimated that one reason he finds the Palestinian cause so appealing is that their allies, the Arab states, are so rich.

It is no easy matter to decide when and under what circumstances to accept money. Universities in particular have had to wrestle with this problem and with the problem of whether they should continue to invest in corporations that themselves have connections with repressive regimes -- South Africa or Chile, for instance. Georgetown, in fact, was recently accused by persons seeking the independence of Northern Ireland of having something of a double standard -- no money from Libya, but an honorary degree for Margaret Thatcher.

But it is a long way from Margaret Thatcher to Muammar Qaddafi. It is Libya that sees violence as a normal adjunct to diplomacy, that finances terrorism, that invades its neighbors and that has assassinated nearly a dozen of its own dissidents living abroad. To some people, this doesn't matter. To them, Libya's money is as green as anyone's.

But now along comes Timothy S. Healy, S.J. This strange and wonderful man was bothered by the $600,000 Libya donated in 1977 and solicited before he became Georgetown president. He went around for years with this matter weighing on him, knowing that merely to bring it up in polite company would have started people talking about how the good Father was, well . . . and here they would point to their heads and make the universal sign for screwy. Colleges, after all, don't come by $600,000 every day -- with the chance of even more money in the future.

But Healy knew that to accept the money meant to accept the donor, too. He knew that there is no separating one from the other and it is for that reason, after all, that some people make donations in the first place. He acknowledged how much Georgetown could use the money, but he concluded, as he later wrote, "that university finance must take second place to keeping a Catholic moral understanding. . .

So Father Healy took the $600,000, added $41,000 in accrued interest to the sum, personally took the check over to the Libyan Embassy and returned it. This made Georgetown infinitely richer, Libya poorer and Father Healy, I bet, feeling like a million bucks.

He's a bargain at twice the price.