'A Consumer of Catholic Education'

Meet The Catholic University of America’s New President

John Garvey, the new president of The Catholic University of America.
John Garvey, the new president of The Catholic University of America. (photo: Courtesy of The Catholic University of America)

JOHN GARVEY believes it is vital for a Catholic university to have faculty who are committed to the witness of the Catholic faith.

“The universities themselves will only be distinctive and distinctively Catholic if they hire people who want to make them that, and to do that you have to count, and not just count people who have a baptismal certificate, but those who really care about putting those things together,” he told Register senior writer Tim Drake in a wide-ranging interview the day after his inauguration as president of The Catholic University of America. “In hiring non-Catholics, you need to pay attention to what they will contribute to the culture of the institution.”

While Garvey has been president of the institution since July, he was formally inaugurated Jan. 25 during a Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. He led the faithful in the Profession of Faith and took the Oath of Fidelity before Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron, CUA board of trustees chairman.

What are your feelings following the inauguration?

It was such a thrill. I just can’t say how beautiful the whole thing was — the choir, the music. My children were just transported; they were so excited. The basilica was so beautiful. So many faculty came. It was very gratifying to see that. The place was packed with students. It was really wonderful. Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s remarks were very nice. It was nice that so many of my friends or people I like and admire came, such as Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who is a friend of mine from Boston, and Father William Leahy, who was my boss at Boston College. All my brothers and sisters and all of our children and their spouses came.

What makes Catholic University of America distinct?

Most of the universities in America were the product of the orders that were teaching. We’re legally distinct in the sense that we are the creation of all the bishops, we have a papal charter, and we have ecclesiastical faculties in philosophy, theology and canon law.

But it usually happens that these kinds of legal differences, over time, produce and reflect cultural differences in the institution. I notice at CUA our own sense of Catholic identity that is stronger than at any other place I’ve worked. It starts with the faculty and their intellectual integration of their faith commitments and scholarly interests, but I also notice it in the students. I notice it in the student life. The campus ministry here has a kind of distinctive model. It’s only about 10 years old. There are about 20 students who are resident ministers who live in the dormitories, and their responsibility is to evangelize the students. It’s so effective because they are normal, fun, everyday basketball players and physics majors who are like everyone else but doing work in campus ministry. From there it permeates the work of student life, so you see real faithfulness among students in their reception of the sacraments, their attendance at retreats, their work on service projects in the neighborhood, and in student organizations such as the Knights of Columbus.

In Catholic higher education, there’s much talk about Catholic identity. It seems that it means different things to different people. What does Catholic identity, on a practical level, mean here?

There are two kinds of things you want to look at. In the first instance, Catholic identity is carried by, and most importantly consists in, hiring faithful Catholics to teach on the faculty, and so that a majority of the faculty should be people faithful to the witness of the faith. Also, I think it’s important to represent people of other faiths who are committed to the mission of the university and who add intellectual dimensions or depth to the discussion, but within the context of this. It’s not something that people can be indifferent about. That is the most important thing, and it carries over into classes in history, classics, sociology, economics and business. That’s essential. The bishops, in the norms that they promulgated in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, had it exactly right.

I have said to the faculty that it’s important for all of us to keep in mind the norms that the bishops have promulgated, that a majority of the faculty should be committed to the witness of the faith. I’ve spoken to the deans and department chairs about how that’s something we need to make part of our hiring process — and not just keeping count after the fact, but rather at the beginning of the process, to make sure that our search operates in the way that good affirmative-action searches operate: You proactively go out and seek out people who want to work at a university like this and include them in the mix of people that we interview. We make part of the interview process a discussion about the nature of our Catholic mission and ask prospective faculty members what they would contribute to that. So, it’s very much part of our public discussions and search processes.

A second dimension is the student-life dimension. This is something I’m a little bit newer to, in one way, but in one way I’m not. Unlike many of my predecessors, I have been a consumer of Catholic education. Jeanne and I have educated five children in 95 years of Catholic education, all told. All of them have been to Catholic colleges and universities. It’s really important to us, in following our children through college, not only what they study in the classroom, but also because they are living at the universities: What are their lives like in the residence halls? What are their opportunities for the sacraments in their everyday life? What are their friends’ attitudes towards the Church, towards Mass and the sacraments, and towards the beatitudes? Because much of the work of raising your children, once they reach a certain age, is who they are living with. Having the right student life at the university is a really important part of what kind of adult Catholics they grow up to be. For us, it was really important that they be at a place where they could meet young Catholics, because they’re going to fall in love with somebody, and that is a consideration.

What do you see as CUA’s greatest strengths and weaknesses?

I think its greatest strengths are, first, its self-conception as the national university of the Catholic Church. That’s not just a phrase. It’s a very real sense of our institutional identity that everybody — faculty, staff, students, alumni, administration, trustees — are all pretty much in accord about. That’s unique in Catholic higher education.

We were intentionally located in Washington. There was a certain amount of enthusiasm to have it in Emmitsburg [Md.], Boston, New York or Cincinnati. The bishops intentionally located it in Washington because they thought it was a university that needed to be able to take part in the councils of government and be in the capital of the United States. For what we do, it’s a perfect location.

Take the March for Life. Here we are. Our students can host high-school students who are coming in from out of town.

Also, departments such as politics or physics or the law school send students as interns to work on the Hill. That’s a really great advantage for our students’ lives, but also for the university.

A third great strength that we have as a university, and one that I didn’t appreciate until I came here, is we’re the biggest school in Washington. We’re twice as big as Georgetown. In terms of acreage, we have a really large college campus right in the middle of Washington, with room to stretch out and build things. So, that’s a great prospect for our future. It makes it a lovely place to be.

Our fourth is: We have a number of schools and departments that have been here a long time and have developed a real capacity, so there is an intellectual strength to the university that’s important in a university that wants to be the leader in Catholic higher education.

One opportunity we have for growth is the way we can best integrate undergraduate education into the work that we do. We were founded as a graduate school to provide “higher” education, mostly to priests who had been to college. That’s what we did for the first 17 years of our existence. We added undergraduates at the beginning of the 20th century, partly as a matter of financial necessity. You’ll still hear among some of our alumni and faculty that the most important work of the university is the training of graduate students. That is no less important than it ever was. But the education that we provide to undergraduates has become much more important in what we do, and we need to get everyone thinking on the same page. The lives of undergraduates are quite different than those of graduate students. They live here. We need to take a much more sympathetic view of undergraduate student life here.

How does Catholicism inform the teaching in the various disciplines at CUA?

Let me use some examples from my own discipline, which is law. People wonder: What’s Catholic about law? The law is the set of rules we create to make society run smoothly and justly. It’s Catholic through and through. People’s Catholic convictions affect their legal views. Take how we feel about the forms and limits of criminal punishment. [Pope John Paul II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church taught] that the death penalty is a form of punishment that should rarely, if ever, be used in an advanced country like America. What are the reasons for punishment? There’s a theory that criminal punishment serves as a general deterrent to set an example so that other people won’t do the same thing. In Catholic ways of thinking, that’s wrong. We don’t execute A so that B will behave better. That sort of thinking is out of bounds. Or think about the way we make rules for health care, immigration, the protection of the environment, to say nothing of constitutional rules about the relations between churches and government or the protection of the unborn.

So, it permeates law, and the same is true of politics.

In courses in sociology, economics, anthropology and education, you can see the same kind of spectrum. Our history department has an interesting focus. One of the things they look at in hiring faculty is those who have a particular interest in the role of religion in history and the role of Catholicism in the history of America.

Part of the role of faith in departments is the kinds of programs or subject matter they focus on, and seeing the world and our past through the eyes of faith. In English, they may have a particular interest in the literature of modern American Southern Catholic writers such as Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, or the work of the great modern American Catholic poet Dana Gioia.

As for biology, the kinds of fights we have over the application of the “Ethical and Religious Directives” in hospitals are things that grow out of different understandings of the importance of protecting innocent human life or end-of-life care or the fights over embryonic stem-cell research or artificial methods of conception. Those grow out of sensibilities that biologists form when they are getting their first levels of education. What kinds of experiments do they do? How do biologists talk about the creation of human life?

One of the really important points I’m trying to make is that college professors are really important role models for their students. They don’t just come and deliver their lecture and go away. They aren’t just hired entertainment. They are people who we want our students to admire and emulate. Teachers have to set that kind of example for their students.

What do you have planned for CUA?

We have approved and voted on and signed contracts, but haven’t started construction on this: We’ve closed down two of our older dorms across Michigan Avenue and will start construction by summer for what we most need here: a commercial, residential and arts development. There will be retail space, a clock tower and fountain. It will be a link between us, the Metro stop and the neighborhood in Brookland. If you go over there, you’ll see how much it will be able to transform the neighborhood. The land under the condominiums we’ve sold. That will be a really great development for us.

We’ve begun the strategic-planning process about what the university needs and what the space implications are. I’ve mentioned the importance of student life, and having more space for students to hang out and recreate. I don’t think we have enough residence-life space here, so I can see all of those coming out of this process.

Recently, the bishops have announced a review of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. What do you expect to come from that review?

More generally, I’ve spoken to some of the bishops who are part of the planning process, and one of the observations I have is that Ex Corde and the norms have already had an important impact on Catholic higher education. There was a tendency — we were going in the direction that James Burtchaell described in his book The Dying of the Light, the drift in Catholic higher education. I think that Ex Corde and the norms did a lot to stop the momentum in that direction and got Catholic colleges and universities thinking about what their Catholicity consisted in. You see it on their websites now, in their presentation of themselves. They’ve begun to think about the kinds of programs that they offer that would be signature programs. I think those are really important changes that have taken place.

At the same time, I think we haven’t paid enough attention to who we hire on our faculties and what their intellectual projects are. The two parts of the norms that the universities were most sensitive about were the mandate [mandatum: canon law’s term for a bishop’s official recognition of a Catholic theologian’s pledge to teach in communion with the Church] for those teaching theology and the directive that, to the extent possible, a majority of the faculty be Catholics committed to the witness of their faith. The second is the most important of those. The universities themselves will only be distinctive and distinctively Catholic if they hire people who want to make them that, and to do that you have to count, and not just count people who have a baptismal certificate, but those who really care about putting those things together. In hiring non-Catholics, you need to pay attention to what they will contribute to the culture of the institution.

One thing that will come out of the review is an effort to gather information about how we are doing along those lines, and what I like about the bishops’ approach is that universities and bishops are talking to one another. You don’t hear so much anymore handwringing at the universities, that we’re being taken over by bishops who are not themselves academics. The bishops have no wish to make a hostile takeover of the universities in their jurisdictions. They want to talk to the presidents and want the presidents to talk to them — and want the faculty to know what the Church’s interests and concerns are about the university. Those conversations are taking place now in an atmosphere that’s much more open to discussion.

Register senior writer Tim Drake writes from St. Joseph, Minnesota.


The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy