‘The Virtues’: New Book Is John Garvey’s Last Word as CUA President

John Garvey’s new book ‘The Virtues’ is a timely reflection on the virtues that draws from commencement addresses he gave to graduates at The Catholic University of America.

Through his teaching and speeches, now collected in a book, John Garvey prompts college students to ponder the virtues and ask, ‘What kind of person do you want to become?’
Through his teaching and speeches, now collected in a book, John Garvey prompts college students to ponder the virtues and ask, ‘What kind of person do you want to become?’ (photo: Courtesy of The Catholic University of America)

For 12 years at the helm of The Catholic University of America, John Garvey has aimed to help students put virtue into practice and free them to pursue fully the intellectual life. 

As CUA’s administrator, Garvey oversaw the return of single-sex dormitories at CUA, and in the classroom as a professor, he made use of the powerful stories told on television and cinema to highlight the role of virtue or vice in a character’s story. At CUA’s commencement exercises for the past 12 years, Garvey focused on speaking about a particular virtue and encouraging graduates to put it into practice. 

In this June 28 interview with the Register, the former CUA president, who retired June 30, discusses the need to cultivate virtue in society and in the university, along with his new book, The Virtues, that invites readers into a conversation about the virtues and the crown of a virtuous life: wisdom.


Professor Garvey, as both a constitutional scholar and an educator, what’s your sense of the responses we’re seeing in American society to this watershed moment of the end of Roe v. Wade

Most of the reactions that we have heard are from politicians who are lawyers. The president, the vice president, Sen. [Chuck] Schumer, my classmate at Harvard and a very bright guy, are just kind of angry about it, but not giving any reasons why it should be left in place, other than they really like it — when, in fact, the job for legislators and people in the executive branch is to do something about it. The Supreme Court did nothing more than hand the problem over to the elected branches of government and say, “You do what you think is right about this,” and people are going bananas. What’s wrong with that? We’ve just turned it over to the people to deal with, as it should have been right along. So I’m a little disappointed at the lack of thought that has gone into the reactions. 


What do you make of the response from people at the university?

For people on the campus, the decision came down when school was out. So most of what we have heard [from them] about it has been said on Twitter accounts that we maintain. I think this is very frequently the case: that the reaction at Catholic University is different from the reaction at Michigan State, Brown or other schools. On our Twitter account, I think the responses were running positive, two to one. I had put out a statement saying this is really a welcome and long-overdue decision; [Roe v. Wade] has been a terrible thing; and we now have to ask ourselves if there are going to be fewer abortions, as we hope, what are we going to do now to help people who are having children? Therefore, I appointed a committee to think about that and come back [by October] with some proposals. 

The responses to that were roughly two to one saying, “Yeah, great going. I love your statement; let’s have some more of that.” 

In general, as usually happens on our campus, it has been people that talk to one another and express their views and feel free to argue about it civilly. That’s not true in most places. And I think that’s a disservice to young people: to bring them up or to teach them while they’re in college that they should deal with matters of great public import by screaming at one another. This relates to my book on virtues; we’re in the business of teaching them to behave better than that, even if they disagree with one another, as they will in a democracy.

Let’s turn now to your new book, The Virtues. First of all, what is virtue? And why does a healthy society need to cultivate virtue in people?

The standard way of teaching moral philosophy and moral theology since I was a boy was to focus on rules and problems: “Was it right or wrong to bomb Hiroshima?” “Should people be allowed to have sex before they’re married or is there something wrong with that?” “Is abortion right or wrong?” That’s how we tend to think about moral questions. There is another older tradition that has come back into vogue — “vogue” may be too strong a word — but for the last 50 years or so, people like Alasdair MacIntyre and Elizabeth Anscombe have revived a way of looking at moral theology that Aristotle was familiar with. And the question they begin by asking is “What makes human beings happy? What kind of life should we lead that makes us happy?” 

Happiness doesn’t just mean being jolly or having a good meal, but to be really happy in the most meaningful way that human beings can be happy. And that requires us to ask what people are like. Aristotle answers the question by saying, “Living a virtuous life is itself the happiness that we’re seeking.” People are by nature motivated to seek certain kinds of excellences. I’m getting too philosophical about this. But the virtues, to answer your question, are our [good] habits, things that we do habitually that become second nature, as Aristotle says. When we behave in these ways for a long enough time, we form what we call character in a certain way. 

So the virtues are these traits of character that people formed by acting habitually. And I should say, vices are their opposite. I teach a course called “The Virtues” to freshmen in the Honors Program, and I start not with moral theology books, but by having them watch a couple episodes of Breaking Bad. Have you seen it?


No, I personally haven’t watched this TV series, but I’m familiar with it.

It’s great TV, I have to say. But the principal character, Walter White, learns in the first episode that he has got inoperable lung cancer and has so many months to live. He’s a sort of a failing chemistry teacher in high school, and his wife, he learns, is pregnant with their second child. She’s 40 years old. So he’s worried about how they’re going to care for them, and so on. So, to make a long story short, he goes into the business of cooking crystal meth. But it’s step by little step. He just kind of backs into [vice], and over the course of the series, he becomes a really evil man. But he started out as a good husband and father: somebody concerned about a child to be born and taking care of his wife; a high-school chemistry teacher who would work two jobs. That’s the sort of guy he was. And at the end, he becomes a monster because he formed these vicious, rather than virtuous, habits. 


So how do you invite college students to think about and cultivate virtue?

I love teaching about virtue as a way of appealing to college students about what sort of character they ought to try to form. Young people grow up a lot when they’re in college. Aside from the time when you live with your parents, there is no time in your life where you grow like this. It’s like an adolescent going through a growth spurt. You can see it over the course of a semester: They’re more mature; they write better; they think differently. And over the course of four years, they really form characters of a certain kind. 

So rather than tell them, “Don’t do this”; “don’t do that”; “this is a bad thing to do”; “stay away from X and Y,” ask them instead, “What would you like to be?” “Who do you really admire?” “What kind of person do you want to become?” Another way of asking that is: “What virtues do you want to cultivate? And why do you admire them? And would that make you happy?”

That also leaves some room for mistakes or missteps. We’re human. We all do things wrong, but people have an easier time forgiving themselves and getting back on the right path if they think, “Yeah, that was out of character; that’s not where I’m trying to go. Let me reset and re-center.” It focuses on a bigger picture, rather than just individual mistakes and missteps. So this approach is a really nice way of getting people to think about what kind of lives they want to live.


What effect do you think that approach overall could have on our society if more universities were more serious about inculcating virtue?

Here’s a really interesting thing: When I was in college — I graduated in 1970 — this was the peak of the civil-rights revolution, the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution, which really started in ’65. And at that time, when you would come for admissions weekend, they would have professors talk to you, saying, “Look, our job is not to tell you that you want to be X or Y. College is a time for exploring: Be what you want to be; do what you want to do. We will teach you mechanical engineering, Chinese or whatever else you want to study. But your moral formation, that’s your decision.” That’s what liberal theory is about: freedom. “The right is prior to the good,” as [American philosopher] John Rawls thought. But I think that no longer holds true. I mean, I think we’ve come to realize that’s a radically insufficient way of thinking about how to grow up or how to educate young people. What we see in a lot of colleges — maybe most colleges now — is a very different thing. Colleges nowadays will tell you, “You should behave this way and not that way”; “this is good; that’s bad.” We talk about it being a “woke culture,” by which we mean that colleges are preaching diversity, and equity, and inclusion, and Black Lives Matter; that we should approach gender expression and identity in a particular way; and we should care for the environment in this way and prioritize it over manufacturing, let’s say. 

Well, that’s a moral theory. That’s a way of saying, “Yeah, this is good. And the opposite is bad. And you should be like this.” So I view that in one way as progress. But since we’re talking about “What’s a good way to be, and what’s not a good way to be?” I think it allows me to say, “You got the right idea that we should tell people what’s good and what’s not. But here’s where you have got a hold on the wrong end of the stick. That’s not a good way to be. Let me show you the way to be.” That’s the discussion about virtues. So I think people are open to this discussion now because we have gotten past the liberal assumption, like Justice Anthony Kennedy’s liberal assumption that you are your own “sweet mystery” of the universe. No, we actually believe that there are good and bad things, and we’re having a public discussion now about what’s good.


That’s an interesting perspective. We’ve essentially all come back to the view that morality actually does matter. 

That’s a good place to begin, isn’t it?


Now with this book on virtue, you’ve written it in a conversational style. Why did you opt for that approach?

The reason is that the book is a bunch of conversations. I’ve been giving commencement speeches about virtues for 25 years. It used to be faith, hope and charity; and, over time, I was beginning to run out of virtues. So really, nearly all of the meat of this is speeches that I’ve given at commencements, but knit together in a way. So you can read it out loud, and it won’t sound like you’re reading a book: It’ll sound like you’re saying something because I was saying them out loud.

I want to talk that way about the virtues so that people will really get engrossed in them and feel like virtue matters to them because it’s real.


What was the final virtue you wanted to impart to students at this year’s commencement exercises?

It was wisdom which, as I said, isn’t really a virtue, but the gift of the Holy Spirit and the crown of the virtues. What I tried to say was, “Here’s what we mean by wisdom; it’s not knowing a whole lot of stuff from a lot of books. It’s really understanding that God is the God who made you and is in charge of your life. You’re here to know him, love him and serve him. If you understand that, then you’re truly wise. But, of course, you’re not going to do all of those things unless you have acquired and practiced the virtues in a way that makes them habitual. And then you’ll begin to understand these other things.” So it really was a nice way of rounding out what I have been trying to say for 12 years.


Back to your book on virtues, what do you hope people will most take away from it?

The book is written for a particular audience: undergraduates and their parents. It says to them, “Here’s what your college experience ought to be like. And here’s what you ought to hope to get out of it.” And so I hope people read this and think, “I admire people who exemplify the virtues. I admire people who act like that.”


This interview is edited for length and clarity.



By John H. Garvey

The Catholic University of America Press

200 pages, $27.97

To order: CUAPress.org or amazon.com