John Hugh Garvey has made headlines during his inaugural year as president of The Catholic University of America.
In June, he announced plans to phase out co-ed dorms on campus.
Educated at the University of Notre Dame and Harvard University Law School, he taught at the Notre Dame Law School and more recently served as the dean of Boston College Law School.
He spoke with the Register’s senior editor, Joan Frawley Desmond, addressing a range of issues, from his vision of “Catholic” higher education to his concerns about potential threats to the religious freedom of Catholic universities.
On Aug. 1, the Department of Health and Human Services approved mandated preventive services for women, new rules that stipulate that employer-provided health insurance must include all FDA-approved contraceptive services and surgical sterilization. Critics argue that the new HHS standards lack a sufficiently broad religious exemption and that Catholic hospitals, social agencies and universities could be forced to pay for services that violate their beliefs. On Aug. 1, you posted an “open letter” expressing your fears about the threat to religious freedom posed by the new federal rules.
I have had an interest in religious liberty; I wrote a book on religion and the Constitution. Closer to home, we have a health-care plan for our faculty and staff and another for our students.
CUA would be required to cover prescriptive contraceptives like ella, an abortifacient. It would be wrong for us to pay for this as part of our health-care plan.
Last year, when the legalization of same-sex “marriage” in the District of Columbia required the local Catholic Charities to provide health benefits to the spouses of employees in same-sex unions, the agency decided to halt benefits for the spouses of future employees. Is that kind of approach open to CUA?
We have many more students and employees, so that’s a big step for us to take.
I will say: It’s unfortunate that when we pass laws we don’t always give appropriate concern for religious liberty and push institutions into solutions they don’t want. Our common interests would be better served by giving breathing room for religious freedom.
What could be the impact on CUA?
Catholic universities are obliged to follow the new rules. We would be obliged to provide these [services] as part of any plan, and the employees would be entitled to receive them.
So far, we have not heard from any other Catholic university president. Why haven’t you stood back and let the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops take the heat?
I don’t think we should expect the USCCB to do all the work on this. There are too many fires to put out these days. I am sure that many Catholic university presidents are as concerned as I am. It’s still early.
Recently, you made headlines on another issue: single-sex dorms. You announced that next year CUA will begin providing single-sex dorms for freshmen. What has been the response?
The response I have gotten has been overwhelmingly positive. One concern I had was whether the new policy would have an impact on student matriculation, and it has gone up.
Some think it was better the way it was. We think not.
You have organized a number of academic and extracurricular presentations around the relationship between virtue and intellect, arguing that it’s not enough to pursue higher studies without developing personal virtue. Is the new single-sex dorm policy designed to reinforce this campaign? It’s not just a public-health campaign to discourage binge drinking and random sexual encounters?
During my first year at CUA, we offered a lot of programs on the subject of intellect and virtue. We have people talking about the relationship between virtue and faith and their lives as poets, musicians and actors. We had another series on the cardinal virtues, because we’re the “Cardinals” — get it?
There is a public-health concern that supports this direction. But at a place like CUA, we also want to communicate our understanding of appropriate relationships between men and women who are growing up and falling in love. Respect and privacy are needed. There is no reason why we have to compromise on that just because it’s the fashion.
You have been a member of the law school faculty at the University of Notre Dame, where some have criticized policies that appear to undermine the central mission of a Catholic university. Are American Catholics now looking for a more authentic engagement with faith on campus?
It’s a very exciting period in Catholic higher education. It followed the implementation of Pope John Paul’s 1990 apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, on Catholic identity in higher education, by the U.S. bishops.
I have worked for half my career teaching at public universities, before spending the last 15 years at Notre Dame and then at Boston College. During that time, I’ve seen a great deal of attention focused on the responsibility of Catholic universities.
There is still a long way to go. We don’t want to return to a set of practices we followed 50 years ago. “How to be Catholic and great” is a question many are asking for the first time. We have to look at hiring practices, speaker programs, and the nature of student life on campus.
You are the father of five children who attended college. How has that influenced your vision of Catholic higher education?
I do have an advantage in having seen our five children grow up, fall in love and get married. I have taken university programs for a test drive, viewing close at hand what works and what doesn’t.
I know the CUA search committee was looking for a priest or religious for this position, and I approve of that. But I do have the advantage of being a consumer of higher education.
My wife and I have a pretty good idea about what young people are like and what they need in a Catholic college. The family has the most important influence on a young person. But nobody raises their children on their own. The culture also raises your children.
We always thought it was very important that our children make the right kinds of friends. The culture around them matters a great deal. It’s important at a Catholic university to create an environment for our students with friends that are wonderful, smart and interesting and will strengthen our students in their own Catholic faith.
The same goes for the faculty, and no less for the president. We all need to concern ourselves with the formation of our students, both inside and outside the classroom.
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.