The New Sermon on the Mount?

Why Georgetown's president John DeGioia is a model for all people of faith

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Georgetown University President John DeGioia attends a ceremony on September 3, 2009 in Washington, DC.

There is a new piece of must-reading for Americans, and the good news is it’s clear and concise enough to be that rarest of compositions: an accessible document about big things. (The Gettysburg Address had concision on its side, too; so does the Sermon on the Mount.) The letter is dated March 2, 2012; its contents, though, are timeless.

The epistle is from John DeGioia, the president of Georgetown University, who felt the need to weigh in after Rush Limbaugh verbally assaulted Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law student who testified in Congress in support of the Obama administration’s proposed requirement that religiously affiliated institutions cover contraception for their employees. Limbaugh called Fluke a “slut” and “a prostitute.” He later apologized to Fluke for “the insulting word choices,” and President Obama telephoned Fluke to offer his support.

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What struck me most in reading about the episode, though, came from neither the president nor Limbaugh but from the academy. DeGioia, a layman, is a philosopher by training, a child of Georgetown whose undergraduate and doctorate degrees came from the university. As president of a Catholic school, he stands at the intersection of inquiry, politics, and religion, and his words in the wake of Limbaugh’s smearing of Fluke repay attention.

“In recent days, a law student of Georgetown, Sandra Fluke, offered her testimony regarding the proposed regulations by the Department of Health and Human Services before a group of members of Congress,” DeGioia wrote. “She was respectful, sincere, and spoke with conviction. She provided a model of civil discourse. This expression of conscience was in the tradition of the deepest values we share as a people. One need not agree with her substantive position to support her right to respectful free expression.” Instead of doing so, however, Limbaugh resorted to “misogynistic” and “vitriolic” comments, and misrepresented Fluke’s views.

“In our vibrant and diverse society, there always are important differences that need to be debated, with strong and legitimate beliefs held on all sides of challenging issues,” DeGioia wrote. “The greatest contribution of the American project is the recognition that together, we can rely on civil discourse to engage the tensions that characterize these difficult issues, and work towards resolutions that balance deeply held and different perspectives. We have learned through painful experience that we must respect one another and we acknowledge that the best way to confront our differences is through constructive public debate. At times, the exercise of one person’s freedom may conflict with another’s. As Americans, we accept that the only answer to our differences is further engagement.”

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DeGioia invoked St. Augustine to seal the point. “In an earlier time, St. Augustine captured the sense of what is required in civil discourse: ‘Let us, on both sides, lay aside all arrogance. Let us not, on either side, claim that we have already discovered the truth. Let us seek it together as something which is known to neither of us. For then only may we seek it, lovingly and tranquilly, if there be no bold presumption that it is already discovered and possessed.’ If we, instead, allow coarseness, anger—even hatred—to stand for civil discourse in America, we violate the sacred trust that has been handed down through the generations beginning with our Founders. The values that hold us together as a people require nothing less than eternal vigilance. This is our moment to stand for the values of civility in our engagement with one another.”

All of us should take that stand with DeGioia.

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