Skip to main content

Remarks by President John J. DeGioia

The Courage To Forge A New Spiritual Humanism

Conference on Religions and Cultures
The Community of Sant'Egidio
Milan, Italy
September 6, 2004


I am grateful to Sant'Egidio for convening this important gathering. In the work we all do, and the concern we all share for the state of our world, we have no more inspiring example than the Sant'Egidio Community and their efforts on behalf of the poor.

The perspective for my comments is that of a member of the academy. This is my 30th year as a member of the community of Georgetown University, my fourth as president. I offer my comments with a sense of moral urgency, and with a question. What is the proper response of an institution like a university to the reality of global poverty? Ours is an institution that enjoys all the benefits of a networked global economy. We have 145,000 alumni on seven continents; our faculty are doing research in 44 countries; our students come from 132 nations; more than half will study abroad during their college years. We are 216 years old; the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the United States, located in the heart of Washington, DC.

We all know the heartbreaking facts of inequality around the globe. One-third of the population of Brazil lives at or below the poverty line. In Argentina, the ongoing economic crisis has driven nearly half the population into poverty. Ecuador and other countries in the impoverished Andes region endure poverty rates as high as eighty percent.

In Africa, a continent beset by desperate poverty, underdevelopment, and HIV/AIDS, nearly half of the population lives in dire poverty. Throughout the world, forty-seven percent of the world's population-- three billion people-- live on less than $2.00 a day. The very poorest of the poor-- the nearly seven hundred million inhabitants of Sub-Saharan Africa-- eke out an existence on less than one dollar a day. The life expectancy is already the lowest in the world. HIV/AIDS is driving it still lower. In Botswana, life expectancy has fallen from seventy-two to thirty-nine years. By 2010, it will be twenty-seven.

More than one-third of the world-- 2.4 billion people-- do not have access to adequate sanitation. Nearly one billion people-- fifteen percent of the population-- are unable to read or write, two-thirds of whom are women. Four hundred and fourteen million people-- seven percent of the global population-- will be infected with HIV/AIDS, malaria, or tuberculosis this year. The extent to which globalization is a contributing factor in these tragic realities is a contested issue.

Globalization is a vast and complex concept. I wish to suggest that we accept the following statement articulated by the thirty-fourth General Congregation of the Society of Jesus. "While acknowledging many benefits, globalization has also resulted in injustices on a massive scale: economic adjustment programs and market forces unfettered by concern for their social impact, especially on the poorest; the homogeneous 'modernization' of cultures in ways that destroy traditional cultures and values; a growing inequality among nations and within nations between rich and poor, between the powerful and the marginalized."

This is an important moment in the history of our globe. The promise embedded in an event like this is that the challenges in our world are capable of being addressed by people just like us.

Fusions of Horizons

I wish to organize my reflections into three categories:

  1. to identify the most significant challenge that the academy must wrestle with today, a challenge that the academy is uniquely qualified to address;

  2. to describe how the Academy addresses this, connecting its challenge to the three primary tasks of a university;

  3. to offer a few examples of how a university can respond to the challenge of inequality.

First, the challenge. Universities provide a context for multiple traditions, methodologies, modes of inquiry. Universities are communities, but they are best understood as communities of communities. We provide a home for multiple interpretive communities. We house the disciplines, and we also house members of interpretive communities that cut across the disciplines. Those with a commitment to psychoanalytic theory or post-colonial theory and deconstruction can be found in departments throughout the academy.

We house those whose approach to interpreting our world is at times incommensurable. Beyond the disciplines, at a university like Georgetown where faith animates the life of the community, in addition to a large number of Roman Catholic priests and women religious, given the diverse nature of our student body, we also have engaged a rabbi, an imam, Protestant and Jewish chaplains, and Orthodox priests full-time in the work of the University.

The university is the place in our society where the presence of conflicting and competing communities of interpretation is embedded in the mission. The conflicts can be between disciplines, or among disciplines, methodologies, cultures or it could focus a need for interreligious discourse. The challenge that we wrestle with in the university is to ensure that we provide a context where bridges can be built between and among these communities of interpretation. The challenge that characterizes any university community is how well it bridges these communities.

This is the work of the academy. I know it is not solely that of the academy; such work is shared by all of us in whatever institutional setting we might find ourselves. But it is my conviction that -

  • nowhere is the engagement between communities of interpretation so constant, ever present, so much a part of the day-to-day lived reality than in the life of the academy; and
  • we are both able and positioned to address this challenge. What distinguishes different communities of interpretation is the "horizon of significance... the background of social practices, goods, moral commitments, rules, laws, customs, and institutions that provide a framework for meaning for members of that community. The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer identified the challenge, how can we "fuse" horizons of significance?

I believe this is a fundamental challenge that has emerged for all of us who are beneficiaries of a networked global economy. We are situated within a horizon of significance-- a framework in which we make meaning of the world -- which is very different than that of more than half the world's population. We have never been more aware of the challenges of those living within this other horizon. The immediacy of the images makes the lived reality of those within this other horizon present to us in the moment of that experience. Our students are living in a moment of transformation. The horizon in which they are situated has been shifting. The move from modernization and industrialization to a post-modern, global horizon is destabilizing, alienating, and disorienting. The presence of an alternative horizon has never been more immediate. The challenge of enabling us to fuse horizons is a central challenge of the academy. And at this moment, to enable us to fuse the horizons of those who are the beneficiaries of the global market and those who are not is the moral challenge of our lifetimes.

Can we penetrate the consciousness of those we educate and make the lives of those living in the direst poverty a lived reality for them too? I believe we have a commensurable and concomitant responsibility to address the needs of those who do not have the ability to participate in the advantages of a networked global economy. This begins with giving our students the ability to fuse horizons with the poor and understand our common humanity and common responsibility for each other.

Three Primary Tasks of the University

How does a university move forward if we accept this challenge? There are three primary ways in which a university understands its mission:

  • We teach.
  • We create, construct, expand, discover and reveal knowledge.
  • We exercise our agency in the world... we are institutional actors. This is how a university is ordered. In all three dimensions of how we deliver our mission, we can respond to the challenge of the fusion of horizons.

The first two dimensions are familiar to all of you. I want to offer a brief comment on the third dimension: as an institution, a university exercises agency. We are actors in the world. This means we should conduct ourselves in accord with the highest standards of integrity with an awareness of the implications of our actions. But I think there is even a more focused question. Are we as an institution an instrument of justice? This is a question that has confronted Georgetown and other Jesuit universities since 1973 when Jesuit Superior General Father Pedro Arrupe laid the groundwork for this deeper challenge. In a speech entitled "Men For Others" he called on educators to undertake rigorous self-evaluation and "above all make sure that in the future the education imparted in Jesuit schools will be equal to the demands of justice in the world." Today, I believe this demands that an institution that is the beneficiary of a global economy has a responsibility for those who are not. How we respond can set an example for engagement.

I would like to offer three examples of ways in which Georgetown has wrestled with this question of being an instrument of social justice.

  1. In 2002, Georgetown convened the Afghanistan-America Summit on Recovery and Reconstruction. Afghan ministers, U.S. cabinet secretaries, other senior administration officials, and hundred of people from corporate, diplomatic, non-profit and academic worlds, gathered on our campus to articulate strategies to develop a roadmap to help Afghans begin rebuilding their institutions and infrastructure. A year later, we held a follow-up conference to provide a status report on the rebuilding effort.
  2. Inspired by the work of The Community of Sant'Egidio in Mozambique and by Jesuits involved in many initiatives in Africa, Georgetown hosted a conference last year for communities of faith that are deeply involved in combating the tragic, global pandemic of HIV/AIDS. We provided a setting for faith-based organizations, including Sant'Egidio's DREAM program, that are providing model programs on the ground in Africa to engage with those involved in developing the U.S. government's new emergency plan for AIDS relief-- to share information and to look for ways to strengthen and deepen their engagement throughout the world.
  3. Woodstock Theological Center, located at Georgetown, is an independent institute established by Jesuits to engage in theological and ethical reflection. As we meet here in Milan, Woodstock is convening representatives of some thirty-five Jesuit social research and action centers worldwide. The centers are taking part in a five-year collaboration-- the Global Economy and Cultures Project-- initiated by Woodstock to understand how the global economy operates in local cultures, especially among the poor.

Underlying this project is an awareness that the poor are too often reduced to economic statistics and too often considered passive victims of their plight. The project is tapping the intelligence and creativity of these individuals through narratives collected by Jesuits working among the poor worldwide. The final products of this initiative will include narratives, analysis, and research tools and will support the work of activists to strengthen efforts at the grassroots level.

These are just a few of the kinds of projects that are being nurtured on our campuses; there are many others on other campuses that would be instructive.


  • This is a moment of transformation;
  • The challenge of this moment is whether or not we can fuse the horizons of significance that separate the beneficiaries of globalization from those left outside and ensure that we accept the responsibilities we have for one another;
  • The university is capable of addressing this challenge. We accept this challenge by doing what we do best-- teaching, cultivating and discovering knowledge, and acting as an instrument of justice.

For an academy coping with the implications of globalization and inequality, the words of Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., Superior General of the Society of Jesus, are instructive: "The real measure of our universities lies in who our students become." Our ultimate responsibility is nurturing the global leaders who are the citizens of tomorrow; the young women and men who will inherit the challenges of globalization and inequality, who must be ready for that responsibility.

Georgetown University37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057(202) 687.0100

Connect with us via: