Until he wound up in a public spat with Rush Limbaugh, until a petition against him with 28,000 signatures and until his archbishop called his judgment “shocking,” Georgetown University President John “Jack” DeGioia had a firm reputation as a humble, no-waves kind of Catholic.
He had, in fact, been appointed in 2001 in part with hopes he would smooth then-bumpy relations between a liberal Catholic school on the rise nationally and one of the most prominent American dioceses.
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?
Jesuits, a male religious order, are revered by many liberal Catholics, with their focus on social justice, academic rigor and individual contemplation. DeGioia has worshiped at Jesuit churches his whole adult life and twice has gone on the intensive 30-day Jesuit retreats known as “the spiritual exercises” — but he isn’t a priest.
His supporters were hoping he would avoid the tensions that sometimes surrounded his predecessor, the Rev. Leo O’Donovan, who some conservatives thought was not protecting Georgetown’s Catholic identity. O’Donovan was hit with a canon lawsuit after allowing the creation of a campus group favoring abortion rights.
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.
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.