Former University President Leo O’Donovan, S.J. lead Georgetown from 1989 until 2001. Throughout his tenure, O’Donovan reflected upon the evolving Catholic identity of the institution, charging a faculty study on the university’s identity. He also established the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and hired the first full-time Imam at any American university. The Hoya sat down with O’Donovan to discuss Georgetown’s diversity and the importance of pluralism.
This is part two of a three-part interview. Part three will appear in the news section of The Hoya on Friday.
Can you speak a little bit about your early education?
I also started when I came to New York with some friends, a board for the grammar school I went to here in Manhattan — Corpus Christi school. It’s a wonderful, small school in Morningside Heights, the Columbia neighborhood. … The women were remarkable women; I’ll always be in debt to them. We never got grades because it wasn’t about whether Leo could do better on a test, it was about how each of us could do as well as we could do. We never had report cards because again it was not about competition, it was about cooperation, and your parents went up every six weeks or so I think to talk to your teacher about how you were doing. There was a lot of music and art; the basics of course. The classes were not very small, but smaller than usual in Catholic grammar schools. I learned in seventh grade how to oil paint. I was awful. I also learned — they were very practical our sisters — while the girls were at gym class, she taught the boys how to knit.
How did this type of education impact you?
It was an education for living, and it was imbued — it was a Catholic grammar school — it was imbued with faith. It was also an education in the city of New York. The pastor of the parish sent me to a meeting of the National Conference of Catholics and Jews. He sent me to a conference — I forget who actually sponsored it — but it was a meeting of young white students and young black students. We had no black students in my class, but it was the first experience I had of really socializing with young black people. When I went to Georgetown, it was a very Caucasian, very, almost exclusively, Catholic college. There were a few Jewish students that I was very happy to get to know, who told me years later that I was one of the people who made them feel at home, which I would hope. When I went back to Georgetown as president, the change in the student body — a much more diverse student body, which is a better educational situation in my view — the change in the student body was remarkable, and I tried to do my very best to maintain that and promote it, while still supporting the notion of Georgetown as a Catholic institution. So, we did a long study when I was president. Basically, it was the faculty group that did the study and then came up with the final paper, and the very pregnant and insightful central phrase of that study was that education at Georgetown was based on a centered pluralism; pluralism of approaches to education and life that never the less came from a centering tradition. And I’m still very proud of that notion, and I think the university, whether those exact terms are used or not, is very much like that.
Since you took over as president in 1989, Georgetown has continued to expand in its diversity, and its student body and larger community are now compromised of a wide variety of people. As Georgetown was growing, what were the struggles between maintaining its Catholic tradition but also recognizing the importance of fostering other ideas as an academic institution — even if they conflicted with Catholic teaching?
Well, let me say something first about American culture itself. I think it’s clear that we had been a largely Caucasian, Protestant culture dominated by East Coast institutions, and we are now a much more diverse country with the Protestant churches in a minority, an ascendant Hispanic community, a great variety of Christian communities with Evangelicals and more traditional, more Fundamentalist churches or communions taking a very significant role. The place of the Jewish community in American culture has remained, I would say, very steady. The percent of Jews in America is about the same as it was when I went to college and continues to be culturally and politically very significant, but the numbers, I don’t think have changed significantly. There is a significantly greater interest in Islam, but the Muslim population is not very large. The Muslim influence around the world is of course of great significance.
I think a college — or a university — with all those various dimensions and forms of community life is immensely valuable, especially for undergraduates whose basic perspectives on life are forming and very often your basic friendships. And it’s not simply in classes, although, I think what the university offers in terms of curriculum is significantly stronger and more diverse now. It’s also a matter of social life, activities that people are in. When we did the Centered Pluralism study the faculty became convinced that “associational life” on the campus was of immense intellectual importance. That’s a phrase that’s goes back to Tocqueville when he made his famous visit to America and wrote about democracy here. He noted that Americans seemed to have a special bent and a special aptitude for forming various sorts of associations, which made the body politic work, but were not strictly political, and to me that is still the case. That’s just a word about the United States. But then there’s the international point of view, and I think it’s always been a great benefit of Georgetown to be international. That was the case from the very start, with significant numbers of students from outside the colonies. At times that internationalism declined, but it is our tradition to be so. Now the world has become at once more united — globalization is a shorthand for that — and yet the perils inherent in globalization have become more evident — and nowhere more so than in the fact that a globalized economy means a level of power in the economy that single countries can’t easily control, so that the economy becomes the most significant force in shaping the lives of people and very often to the detriment of poor people. So, as the traditional notion of the nation’s state has weakened, the power of international economy has strengthened. That’s something I think our students need to learn and become sensitive to.
A third level or perspective with regard to what has changed is the religious perspective. Until about 20 years ago or so, the secularization thesis was firmly in place. Namely, that as society, politics and economics became more independent of religious authority, religious authority would decline and eventually disappear. At the same time, the relevance of a transcendent dimension, the place of God in human life, would gradually disappear. Well, that hasn’t proved to be the case, especially in the United States, which remains a very religious country — less so today perhaps, but we remain nevertheless a fundamentally religious county. And we’ve become aware in the last 20 years that religious communities and the faiths that we find in the world shape societies, social decisions and even the economy. So, the place of Islam, with a billion and a half adherents, commands much more attention today. You notice I don’t start by speaking of Islamic extremism. I’m talking about our becoming more aware that we have many, many brothers and sisters we have who hold the Islamic faith. They are indeed our brothers and sisters — and I’m very proud of the fact that we have real strength at Georgetown and building strengths in Islamic Studies and the Arabic language. That expertise is indispensable for living together.
In the Catholic Church in which I’m very happy to be a priest — a Roman Catholic priest and a Jesuit — our new pope, Francis, has brought a sense of dialogue to the very center of Catholic living. He starts, in my view, with people’s problems and concerns and needs, not with rules and principles and laws. He knows the formal structures very well. I think he’s well aware of what the rules, what the laws of the church are, but he doesn’t start there. He starts with the person who presents herself or himself as in need. And in a very special way, I think, in his latest encyclical, Laudato Si’, he presents for discussion throughout the world the great problem of our environment and, as he puts it, the care for our common home. I think he’s being exact and forthright when he says he would like to enter a dialogue about this. He never in the letter appeals to his authority as the bishop of Rome except insofar as he does say that what he’s proposing is in continuity with popes since John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI. He intends, in continuity with them, to contribute to the social teachings of the church. But that’s about as far as he goes to emphasize his authority. The authority of the letter is from what he has to say. I think it’s very persuasive. In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books — scarcely a Diocese newspaper — there is a brilliant article interpreting the encyclical and in an extremely positive way. I know there are people who would say there is this wrong with it, or that wrong with it, or I object to this or that. I don’t think Francis will have any problem with that, because he doesn’t propose the letter as the final truth, and he doesn’t propose it as something fully satisfactory — on the contrary. What he is proposing is an issue of urgency for the whole world. So, here too the principle of dialogue has taken a place in Catholicism, which I think is very promising and much more humane.
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