Catholic University of America Maintains Steady Course With Campaign for Virtue

President John Garvey: Faith and Reason Impart Norms for Higher Education


Last spring, President John Garvey of The Catholic University of America spoke at the Catholic Information Center in Washington. His topic: Catholic education. His account of CUA’s brand of Catholic education: "We aim to change their minds by changing their lives."

For Garvey, unlike for most university presidents, faith and education belong together. In the words of Fides et Ratio — Pope John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical on faith and reason — "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth."

In Garvey’s view, this harmony between faith and reason — the fact that they not only can but actually ought to go together — implies certain norms for Catholic education; implies, in fact, that Catholic education should make students more aware of their faith, intellectually and practically.

In today’s world, such ideas sound reactionary. But Garvey has been preaching them and putting them into practice at CUA since his appointment in 2010, molding the university’s faculty hiring structures according to the norms of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, John Paul’s apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, and working step-by-step to shape campus life along lines that promote student virtue.

Some of these steps, such as the increased number of priests, religious and married couples in residence at the university (a circumstance that Garvey hopes will give students "adult examples of holiness") are already being implemented.

Other initiatives, like Garvey’s vision of providing a chapel for every dorm, remain in the planning stage.

Garvey vowed to introduce policies that strengthened the university’s Catholic identity during his 2010 inaugural address, which cited the thought of Blessed John Henry Newman and St. Augustine and set the tone for his tenure at CUA.

Ernest Suarez, chair of the English department, told the Register that Garvey’s steady emphasis on "the relationship between intellect and virtue speaks to CUA’s mission as a Catholic institution and as a university."

Chad Pecknold, a professor of theology at CUA, recalled that the campus was "galvanized" by Garvey’s message in 2010.

"Putting intellect and virtue together in the way that President Garvey has done highlights something distinctive about Catholic universities:  We not only want to make students who are smart, but who are also wise and contribute to the common good."

Garvey’s efforts to put this philosophy of education into effect began in January 2011, when the university launched a four-month campaign to encourage students to embrace the cardinal virtues of justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude.

The campaign was capped with a symposium on "Intellect and Virtue: The Idea of a Catholic University." The forum featured a discussion between Garvey and six other university presidents about "the impact that conduct (the ‘how’ of living) has on what we learn and how we learn it."

The ongoing talks in the campaign to promote virtue have made a difference on campus, but have attracted minimal attention in the press. Further, most of CUA’s small but significant policy changes have likewise remained below the media radar.

Not so Garvey’s June 2011 announcement that the university would return to single-sex dorms. That decision prompted headlines, not all of them favorable.

Today, Garvey acknowledges the debate that arose from the university’s decision. "There were," he said, "some who had questions about it and some who disagreed about it. I think even the students, though ... on the whole, liked it."

In any case, the mixed reception that greeted the single-sex dorm policy has not shaken his commitment to the plan.

"We think it’s part of what we do as a university to attend to the formation of the character and religious lives of the students who live here as undergraduates (and, to a lesser extent, of the graduate students as well)," he said. "People grow up a lot between the ages of 18 and 22 ... and so it’s proper for us to consider things like where students live and exercise, where they go to Mass and receive the sacraments."

Philosophy professor Michael Gorman shares Garvey’s unapologetic commitment to a deepened Catholic identity on campus.

Listing the various campus initiatives concerning virtue, Gorman observed that the university "strives not only to cultivate both intellect and moral virtue, but also … to do this in an integrated way, where each contributes to the other."

The real-life consequence of this integration is that, at CUA (in contrast to many other universities), "you can find a good set of friends: Living the Christian life doesn’t mean being a social outcast," he said.

Of course, not all CUA’s students are Catholic or even religious. And Suarez suggested that the "link between intellect and virtue can and should resound with a wide range of people. Any university — and especially a research university like CUA — should seek to have a far-ranging impact on society and culture."

Andrew Abela, the dean of CUA’s newly founded School of Business and Economics, explained during an interview that the business school works to "integrate virtue into our entire curriculum." 

Said Abela, "Our approach to business and economics is to form students who are good managers, where ‘good’ means both effective and moral. It’s not just a question of knowing the good, but also getting into the habit of doing the good — and even loving the good."

Brian Engelland, associate economics dean, explained that students are encouraged "to think about and apply virtues to business situations."

Engelland described how Garvey’s inaugural remarks have impacted his own research. "The work is not yet published, but it demonstrates that sales professionals who share the same commitment to virtue that their manager practices demonstrate a greater commitment to the organization and are more confident in the performance of their jobs," Engelland said. "In other words, virtuous people make better salespeople. If Plato were here, he would have said, ‘You’ve discovered the obvious!’"

This same integration of the theory and practice of virtue can be found in the daily life of CUA students. The university’s preparation for Lent last February is just one example. For the Lenten season, CUA emphasized the virtue of peace, "meditat[ing] in a special way on the words of the Prayer of St. Francis," as Garvey wrote in Inside CUA. Based on the prayer, CUA’s Office of Campus Ministry developed a program of weekly meditations, combined with fasting and almsgiving, which emphasized a different aspect of the virtue each week.

The contrast between this kind of university culture and that of most universities is particularly telling for Pecknold.

"There’s a general popular conception," he said, "that college is irresponsible — the Animal House caricature of what college is like, or, nowadays, the hook-up or binge-drinking culture.  That doesn’t sound like formation in the virtues!"

Reflecting on the move to single-sex dorms, Pecknold has observed a number of positive behavioral changes among students.

He noted "a greater respect between male and female students than when I first came.  … I see more groups of genuine friends: groups of friends who seem to be actually interested in helping each other and who seem not to be embedded in habits which would be typical of the stereotypical fraternity or sorority."

The CUA president looks for opportunities to challenge narrow preconceptions about Catholic education. "So often, when we talk about Catholic higher education, we have the tendency to reduce it to a discussion that religion tries to resolve," he said.

Such a reduction, Garvey suggests, has two deleterious effects. First, it engenders comparisons that leave the impression that "faith is kind of swishy," compared to reason or science. "Second, it focuses discussion on just a few of the things we do at the university: the role of religion in biology or physics, for example. ... I think it’s important to look at the role of religion in great art, music, literature, in the kind of laws we make and live by."

In other words, it is Garvey’s and CUA’s philosophy that "forms part of every school on campus."

"Recently, I was giving a talk at New York University about Cardinal Newman. The president, John Sexton, and I were talking about religion in higher education.  We both agreed with Cardinal Newman: that you can’t pretend to be a university ... if you exclude religious ways of knowledge and religious ways of thought. It’s part of who you are as a human being."


Sophia Mason writes from

Arlington, Virginia.

She is a graduate student at

The Catholic University

of America.