an audience in a chapel looks at a panel of speakers
Called to Be: Society & Democracy

Title:Stirring the collective conscience

Author: Jane Varner Malhotra
Date Published: April 29, 2023

10 years of challenging conversations with the Initiative for Catholic Social Thought and Public Life

On a balmy Tuesday evening in September 2018, crowds of people made their way up the steps into Healy Hall, following signs to an event hosted by Georgetown’s Initiative for Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. Undergraduate and graduate students, alumni, faculty, staff, and others from the broader Washington, DC, community gathered to join a difficult but important conversation on the Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis.

The event that night was titled Confronting a Moral Catastrophe: Lay Leadership, Catholic Social Teaching, and the Sexual Abuse Crisis, and it came in the immediate wake of the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, which chronicled hundreds of cases of clerical abuse in the state. The initiative sought to provide a forum for dialogue on this difficult and timely issue, and Gaston Hall was packed.

John Carr, the initiative’s founding director who worked for many years at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, opened the dialogue, explaining that the program would look at the ways Catholic social teaching could help people navigate the crisis, take action to support the abused, and address the tendencies of clericalism and institutional protection that magnify the problems.

The first presenter was a middle-aged lawyer whose voice trembled as he spoke. As a young child, he said, he had been repeatedly sexually assaulted by a priest. When he told his parents, his mother beat him with a strap.

He spoke of internalizing the shame in the years to come, thinking something was bad about himself. He struggled with depression, addiction, broken relationships, and lost jobs. In recent years, at the advice of a priest, he chose to tell his story as part of his healing work. The initiative offered him a forum to begin that journey, a supportive space for him to share both his anger and his hope. His testimony changed the room that night, and the ensuing honest and open dialogue among the panelists and all gathered put important issues on the table that would lay the groundwork for continued change and healing.

A decade of dialogue

This is just one example of the compelling conversations shared in the 10 years since the Initiative for Catholic Social Thought and Public Life was established at Georgetown. Launched the year the first Jesuit pope began his papacy with an event called The Francis Factor, the program has since held nearly 150 dialogues on a range of important topics, reaching a quarter of a million students, Georgetown and DC-area community members, and national and global participants both online and in-person.

The diverse participants range from President Barack Obama on poverty, to Vatican leaders on Pope Francis’s mission, to Georgetown DACA students telling their stories, to a Salvadoran restaurant owner on the impacts of COVID-19 on her community and business. The initiative lifts up the voices of women and Latine, Black, and emerging leaders who are often neglected in discussions in the Catholic Church and in Washington.

“The idea at the heart of Georgetown University, at the heart of our initiative, at the heart of Catholic social teaching is the common good,” says Carr, who is transitioning to his new role as founder this year. “At a time of such great polarization and division in society, Catholic social teaching gives you a different way of looking at the world—a moral vocabulary.”

We can’t be afraid to have the conversation, even if it’s messy sometimes.

— Kim Mazyck (SFS’90)

“The Catholic social thought tradition informs the way the church engages with the world,” explains Kim Daniels, who took over from Carr as the initiative’s director in January 2023. She also serves as a member of the Vatican Dicastery for Communications and as part of the communications commission for the synod, the Catholic Church’s global listening session now underway.

“At the Initiative for Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, we try to bring Gospel teachings to public life—Jesus’s call for us to love our neighbor and to serve ‘the least of these.’ We ask how we can put this into action to help address the problems we face today.”

To engage people with these challenges, the initiative puts the focus on dialogue. They draw leaders with diverse viewpoints to speak with one another and resist binaries often portrayed in the media. Building on Georgetown’s Washington, DC, location and Jesuit values, the initiative lifts up the principles of Catholic social teaching through civil discourse to build bridges across political, religious, and ideological divides. It’s a role the university is uniquely positioned to fill.

“We encourage young leaders to see Catholic social teaching and their faith in general as an asset in their personal and professional lives, so they understand that this can be a part of how they approach the world, something they take from Georgetown into their lives,” says Daniels. “That’s really the center of our mission.”

Cardinal Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Washington, who has been a speaker on several panels over the years, views the work of the initiative as critical to shaping institutions, policies, and people through dialogue.

two people speak in a chapel
In 2022, award-winning youth minister Ogechi Akalegbere speaks on the life and teachings of Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, along with Cardinal Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Washington. Photos: Rafael Suanes

“The essential work of the initiative provides an expanded view of Catholic social teaching for all people committed to living our faith boldly in communities both global and local,” says Cardinal Gregory. “I have been pleased to participate in many of their rich dialogues, and I greatly appreciate the initiative’s dedication to the issues and concerns with which we contend in our daily lives. I am grateful to Georgetown University and John Carr specifically for his extraordinary vision to found and grow the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life these past 10 years.

“The initiative has a distinct mission to encourage and prepare an exceptional new generation of leaders for equally exceptional lives of service,” he adds.

“Under the proven leadership of Kim Daniels, I am confident the initiative will continue to deepen and broaden its important work. The initiative’s notable mission is good for Georgetown, vital for the Church, and more important than ever in Washington, DC.”

Opening doors to understanding

In a given year, the initiative takes on an astonishing breadth of issues. Recent examples include Faith and the Faithful in the 2022 Midterm Elections; What is the Good Life Now?; After Buffalo, After Uvalde: Broken Hearts, Broken Nation, Faithful Action; The Consistent Ethic of Life After Dobbs; Neglected Voices in the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis; and Young Catholics and Climate Change.

In January Kim Mazyck (SFS’90) joined the initiative as the new associate director. Prior to that, Mazyck ran the Africa campaign for Catholic Relief Services for many years and has more recently worked with Catholic Charities USA and the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. She has previously participated as a panelist with the initiative, and looks forward to helping expand and enrich their work going forward.

“Culturally, Americans are very polite,” she notes, adding that this can cause avoidance of important topics that make people uncomfortable, like racism or immigration. “If we don’t have the honest conversations, we’re at a loss. What’s happening at the border? How do we welcome the stranger? How do we feed the hungry and clothe the naked, those corporal works of mercy? We can’t be afraid to have the conversation, even if it’s messy sometimes.”

people talk in a group
Policy analyst Alfonso Aguilar engages with attendees at a reception following the 2017 panel on Refugees and Immigrants: Welcoming the Stranger in Tough Times. Photos: Rafael Suanes

Mazyck hopes to continue engaging students in these formative discussions. “How do we influence dialogue in the dorm? Beyond the classroom, how do we help shape and form their social circumstances so they learn how to relate to each other and think more broadly about moving forward?”

In-person events are followed by a reception, where conversations among panelists and attendees can continue.

“A lot of the stuff we do is not at all visible,” says Carr, who will continue to assist Daniels, the initiative, and Georgetown over the next three years. “People with different perspectives have a glass of wine and a slider and talk.”

These encounters can soften rhetoric and hearts, opening doors to understanding.

During the pandemic, the initiative pivoted to online dialogues and drew even wider international audiences to their events. Topics followed the pulse of the world, such as the June 5, 2020, panel on Racism in Our Streets and in Our Structures, which has drawn more than 33,000 views to date. All events are recorded and available on the university website, a treasure trove for viewers who continue to watch the events around the world.

“The Catholic Church is the most multicultural and multilingual institution in the world,” adds Daniels. “How do we lean into that and embrace it? At the initiative we bring something to the table by bringing principles of Catholic social thought to these important conversations that shape public life.”

The Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life is one of the many ways Georgetown is building a stronger, more ethical society and becoming the university we are called to be. Learn more at

Common themes of Catholic social teaching

Solidarity: The pursuit of justice and peace, loving our neighbor as one human family

Option for the poor and vulnerable: Putting the needs and voices of the most vulnerable first

Life and dignity of the human person: Human life and dignity are the foundation of a moral society

Call to family, community, and participation: Participating in society to advance the common good of all

Care for creation: A fundamental moral call to be stewards of creation

Dignity of work and the rights of workers: The economy must serve people

Rights and responsibilities: Shared responsibility to protect human rights and the dignity of all

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