Fostering American Catholic intellectual life

Can a Catholic university whose Catholic identity took a beating in the past change direction and become a model of faith and the intellectual life in partnership? 

If The Catholic University of America is typical, the answer is: Perhaps. And if John H. Garvey gets his wish, the answer will be: Unquestionably yes. 

As he begins his second year as president of the 124-year-old pontifically chartered school in Washington, D.C., Garvey says preserving academic freedom is hardly an issue in Catholic higher education today — the challenge now is being authentically Catholic. 

“Sure, it’s fine to talk about the importance of academic freedom, and I value it above all things in a university,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “But it’s not a worry. What we need to worry about is, ‘Where’s the beef?’” 

Signs of a new emphasis at Catholic University include stepped up efforts to hire Catholic faculty, higher priority for campus ministry, and the announcement last June that coed dorms would be phased out — a decision being challenged in court by a professor at a non-Catholic university. Garvey accompanied CUA students at World Youth Day in Madrid, the first time the university has had a delegation at one of these events since Pope John Paul II began them in 1985. 

These and other changes are discussed in “The Application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” an overview of steps taken or under way to comply with the U.S. bishops’ guidelines on implementing Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”). 

Garvey, 62, a former law professor and dean of the Boston College law school, says the rethinking initiated by the papal document and the bishops’ guidelines is “the best thing that’s happened to American Catholic higher education for the last two decades.” 

A nationwide evaluation of that effort taking place features one-on-one meetings of Catholic college and university presidents and diocesan bishops. The results will be reported at the bishops’ general assembly in November. 

Catholic University’s application document has been sent to all active bishops to serve as a possible model. Along with achievements, it is refreshingly candid about problems, including the theological dissent that invaded the campus a half-century ago. 

“Dissenters from Catholic teaching were able to plant their flag on the university’s soil and were not easily dislodged,” it says. 

Spurred by Ex Corde Ecclesiae and the bishops’ guidelines, significant progress in restoring Catholic identity occurred in 1998 to 2010 during the presidency of Garvey’s predecessor, Vincentian Father David O’Connell, now bishop of Trenton, N.J. 

OSV recently spoke with Garvey about the importance of formation in the lives of students, Catholic identity on Catholic campuses and U.S. Catholic intellectual culture. 

Our Sunday Visitor: In your inaugural address last January, you spoke of a conflict between the American secular academic model and the model embodied in a school like Catholic University. Why? 

John H. Garvey: Two things about it are important to me. One is that a true university that had knowledge and wisdom in all their plenitude could not shut itself off from avenues of inquiry just because they didn’t fit a particular scientific or materialistic set of limitations. … This is really a kind of two-dimensional, cartoonish version of what universities do. 

The second reason is that there is a disagreement in higher education today between what many, maybe most, schools do and what we are interested in doing at Catholic University and other Catholic and non-Catholic schools. 

Many really good private and state schools say it’s their business to teach students how to think, how to do experiments, how to reason logically, how to acquire a mass of knowledge, but it’s no part of their business whether the young men and women who study there turn out to be good people. At Catholic University, we’re concerned with the formation of our students in a sense that any Christian parent will understand. 

OSV: People talking about Catholic higher education today usually speak a lot about “Catholic identity.” You don’t use the expression much. Why? 

Garvey: I’ve been trying to find different ways of talking about it in order to make what we’re doing harder to pigeonhole. “Catholic identity,” which I think permeates this institution, is something that’s too easy to reduce to a few symbols and practices, and if we’re going to be truly Catholic in the sense I hope this university is and becomes, it’s got to be a lot more pervasive. 

OSV: In the inaugural speech you also spoke about America’s “Catholic intellectual culture.” Does such a thing exist today? 

Garvey: Up to the Second World War, there were not any great American Catholic universities. … Now that we can’t just depend on priests and religious to teach and administer the universities, and now that young American Catholics have options to go wherever they want, and now that some American Catholic universities are becoming rich enough to be able to buy the kind of faculty and resources you need to create a great university, we are finding ourselves face to face for the first time with, “OK, so what is it about this that is going to make us Catholic?” 

So, I think we’re in the position now not of recovering a great American Catholic intellectual tradition that we once had, but of building it. 

OSV: Is Land-O’-Lakes [a 1967 document in which representatives of leading Catholic universities, including CUA, declared their independence from Church authority] still relevant or just something that happened in the past? 

Garvey: I think something useful happened in the ’60s and ’70s. There were a set of cultural phenomena that the Land-O’-Lakes meeting and its statement fit with. … Now, almost 50 years on, it’s a mistake for Catholic universities to keep fighting those battles in the way many older faculty are still fighting the battles that we won in Vatican II. 

We can’t be continuing to raise the specter that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is somehow going to interfere with the academic freedom of the universities. It’s fanciful to suggest that. Anybody who lives in a Catholic university knows that it’s just not going to happen. 

OSV: What’s your view of organizations like the Cardinal Newman Society and the Sycamore Trust [two Catholic higher education watchdog groups]? 

Garvey: The groups you mention focus attention on the hardest thing for universities to talk about, which is, “Who’s doing the work? Who are you hiring as faculty and staff?” If we’re going to have a Catholic intellectual tradition, there have to be Catholic intellectuals who will carry on the tradition. You can’t just hire people at random from among the best young academics. … You have to be self-consciously seeking out Catholic intellectuals. …  

It’s important for those of us who are concerned about Catholic higher education that we not be boxed into a corner as people who are just naysayers. … It’s important that we not endorse immoral practices. But I think it’s important that we keep our focus on the positive face for the American Catholic intellectual life, for what we offer our students, for what more they can learn and come to be here. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.