Catholic University of America Welcomes New President

The Catholic University of America has picked a layman to be its next president.

John Garvey, a nationally renowned constitutional law expert, has been named 15th president of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., promising a renewed push to bolster the institution’s Catholic identity.

Assuming office July 1, he replaces Bishop-elect David O’Connell, who led the university for the past 12 years and was recently named by Pope Benedict XVI as the coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of Trenton, N.J.

Garvey, 61, planned to begin his 12th year as dean of Boston College Law School in the fall and did not apply for the job at Catholic University. But he got a call from Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, chairman of both the CUA board of trustees and the CUA Presidential Search Committee.

Introduced to the Catholic University community at a June 15 press conference, Garvey depicted an exciting time for Catholic higher education. “The Catholic Church has made a conscious decision to expand and enliven its distinctive contribution to higher education,” he said. “The history of America’s great Protestant universities — Harvard, Yale, Brown, Princeton, Chicago and others — has been one of increasing secularization. … But 20 years ago this summer Pope John Paul II stated a hope for America’s 230 Catholic colleges and universities — and many others around the world — that they would have a different kind of future, one in which the faith that led to their founding added to, rather than subtracted from, the education that they provided.”

Pope John Paul issued the apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, on Aug. 15, 1990.

Garvey expressed priorities of particular interest to him as he begins his tenure: expanding research and scholarship, reaching out to the growing Hispanic population of the Church in America, extending Catholic University’s educational opportunities to more Catholics throughout the United States, and safeguarding the distinctive intellectual contribution Catholic universities are called to make in higher education.

“Perhaps the most important thing [Catholic universities] add [to the richness of American higher education] is the invitation to students and faculty to consider the range of human knowledge from the point of view of the faith that motivated the founding and inspires this university, whether they are interested in art, biology, classics, literature, music or nursing,” he said.

Catholic Identity

Garvey told the Register June 15 that his first priority will be to build on the work of Bishop O’Connell in strengthening the Catholic identity of the institution. His second will be academic excellence.

Some have voiced skepticism over Garvey’s commitment to Catholic identity, citing an incident in which a Boston College law professor was isolated by his colleagues after his appearance on a commercial supporting a ban on same-sex “marriage” in Maine. Garvey, then dean of the law school, was one of 76 BC Law School professors who signed a statement affirming their “commitment to making our institution a welcome and safe place for all students, including LGBT students.” According to, Garvey “made a point” of telling reporters that Professor Scott Fitzgibbon was “only speaking for himself, and BC Law was happy to have faculty members who would argue strenuously in support of homosexual ‘marriage.’”

But BC Law School press secretary Nate Kenyon referred the Register to a Sept. 16, 2009, memorandum addressed to the law school community, in which Garvey defended Fitzgibbon and his right to express his political views freely and publicly.

“By now, many of you have become aware of an ad campaign in the state of Maine that features Professor Scott Fitzgibbon, a longstanding and respected professor at Boston College Law School, stating his opposition to gay ‘marriage,’” the statement read. “As dean of the law school and a lawyer, I also believe that one of the most important aspects of an education at a school like ours is the principle of academic freedom. We must be able to listen to others’ viewpoints, whether we agree or find them offensive, and engage in debate around issues as important as this one… Professor Fitzgibbon, as a member of our faculty, is free to express his views.”

Garvey told the Register June 23, “I do feel that 11 years after I arrived there is a general agreement that this is a Jesuit and Catholic institution and that it is appropriate to take that identity into consideration when defining the atmosphere of the school, the hiring of faculty, academic programming and a philosophy of education.”

He said one of the things that attracts him to Catholic University is its “firm and settled sense of self as Catholic in which the mission is not open to any doubt. It will be a wonderful thing to be a part of a community in which people can talk openly about their faith commitments in the context of their academic and professional lives and in which the faculty view it as their jobs as teachers and scholars to attend to the spiritual development of their students as well as their academic progress.“

Garvey was also criticized in 2007 for naming Congressman Edward Markey, graduate of Boston College Law School and an abortion proponent with a 100% “pro-choice” voting record, commencement speaker to the law school. “Congressman Ed Markey is one of the most distinguished graduates of Boston College Law School, whose career of public service reflects the very best values and traditions of the School,” Garvey is quoted as saying.

At that time the Cardinal Newman Society argued that by naming Markey its commencement speaker, Garvey failed to heed the 2004 U.S. bishops’ document “Catholics in Political Life,” which stated, “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

Last week, Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, told the Register, “In recent years, The Cardinal Newman Society has expressed serious concerns about some of Mr. Garvey’s statements and decisions while at Boston College. Dean Garvey also showed a willingness to counter much of the nonsense at Boston College, and we welcome Archbishop Vigneron’s insistence that CUA must continue Father O’Connell’s work of strengthening the university’s Catholic identity. Mr. Garvey has assured us that he embraces that task, and we pray that the renewal continues.”


Garvey has spent his life in academia and in the practice of law. He has argued seven cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and has served as assistant to the solicitor general of the United States.

Andrew Abela, chairman of the Department of Business and Economics, who has played a key role in finding innovative ways to integrate Catholic social doctrine into the university’s business programs, looks forward to working with the new president.

“Bishop O’Connell has done a truly outstanding job during his 12 years at CUA, particularly in strengthening our commitment to the Catholic mission of the university,” Abela told the Register. “Our new president is clearly a leader, a scholar and a man of faith, and I look forward to working with him to continue to build up The Catholic University of America as a university ‘faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ as handed on by the Church, dedicated to advancing the dialogue between faith and reason,’ as our mission declares.”

Kirsten Evans writes

from Washington.