New Catholic University president wants school to be bastion of intellect, virtue

John H. Garvey’s inaugural address as 15th president of The Catholic University of America was about universities as places where intellect and virtue can both feel at home. 

Something that happened the day before helps explain what that means. 

Garvey and his wife, Jeanne, joined more than 500 Catholic University students on the annual March for Life protesting the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. Before the Jan. 24 event, Garvey told the students: “Right now in America the unborn are looked at as not being people, as slaves were at one time. Today we stand for justice.” 

The next morning, cardinals, bishops, clergy and faculty members by the hundreds streamed down the center aisle of the massive Byzantine-style Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the west end of the campus for a three-hour Mass and Garvey’s inauguration. 

Garvey, 62, former dean of the Boston College law school and former president of the Association of American Law Schools, is the third layman to hold the top post at Catholic University since its founding in 1887. The others were Clarence C. Walton, 1969-78, and Edmund D. Pellegrino, 1978-82. 

The university’s 3,573 undergraduate students and 3,394 graduate students are enrolled in 12 schools offering 72 bachelor’s programs, 103 master’s programs and 66 doctoral programs taught by a faculty of nearly 700. With the motto Deus Lux Mea Est (“God Is My Light”), it has an endowment of $154 million, sponsors 21 NCAA Division III athletic teams, and is the only U.S. school to have been host to two popes — Pope John Paul II in 1979 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2008. All of which suggests an institution in pretty good health. It wasn’t always. 

On shaky ground 

A century ago, Catholic University was in shaky condition. 

Papally chartered as a graduate and research center for advanced studies in theology, philosophy and canon law, the university added undergraduate programs for the first time in 1904. But by 1907, total enrollment was a paltry 91, the school was a financial basket case as a result of bad investments, and it was viewed askance in Rome. 

Not long before his death in 1921, Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, one of its earliest and staunchest supporters, declared, “The university was the child of my old age, and like children begotten in old age, its beginnings caused me much pain.” 

Catholic University struggled back from the brink, but it wasn’t easy. Strange to say now, part of it involved becoming a football powerhouse, with the Cardinals going to the 1936 Orange Bowl and 1940 Sun Bowl. 

Over the years, several of its specialized schools drew favorable attention, among them philosophy, speech and drama, and music. So did celebrity professors. Father — later Archbishop — Fulton Sheen taught philosophy there from 1926 to 1950, and Jesuit Father — later Cardinal — Avery Dulles taught theology from 1974 to 1988. 

The drama program, under Dominican Father Gilbert V. Hartke, turned out people like Walter Kerr, longtime drama critic of The New York Times, and Oscar winners Susan Sarandon and Jon Voight (though Voight switched majors from speech and drama to art after his freshman year). 

But the 1960s brought problems for Catholic University as for many other schools. 

The university’s time of troubles began — publicly at least — in 1967, when Father Charles Curran, a 33-year-old moral theologian from Rochester, N.Y., sought tenure, the academic equivalent of a no-fire contract. The faculty approved, but the board of trustees, aware he’d made a name for himself by rejecting Church teaching on sexual ethics, voted 28-1 not to keep him on. 

The action provoked a strike by teachers and students that closed the university. The trustees backed off. Father Curran prevailed. Next year he was chief organizer of American dissent from Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”), Pope Paul VI’s encyclical reaffirming Church teaching against artificial contraception. America’s pontifical university had become the cockpit of resistance to pontifical teaching. 

Re-emerging identity  

Only in 1986, after the Vatican declared him unqualified to teach as a Catholic theologian, was the priest finally forced out. Now he teaches at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and the mood at Catholic University has calmed down. 

In his years as president, 1998-2010, Garvey’s immediate predecessor, Vincentian Father David O’Connell — now bishop of Trenton, N.J. — strongly backed Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”), Pope John Paul’s 1990 document on preserving the Catholic identity of Catholic higher education. 

Today, Catholic University is considered one of the more Catholic of the American Catholic colleges and universities. Pope Benedict’s words in 2008 urging the presidents of these schools to protect their religious character seemed at home in this setting where 88 percent of the undergraduate students, 61 percent of the graduate students and 59 percent of the faculty are Catholics. 

Now a new president wants Catholic University to be a bastion of intellect and virtue. Declaring the “essential connectedness” of the two, Garvey said in his inaugural address: 

“Student life, campus ministry, residential life, athletics and student organizations are not offices concerned with different parts of the day and places on campus than academic affairs. They are integrally related. As Pope Benedict said … this ‘is a place to encounter the living God.’” 

If that happens, The Catholic University of America will have become, in fact, what President Theodore Roosevelt eloquently called it during an impromptu visit in 1905: “Some place!” 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.

Catholic intellectual culture (sidebar)

“The Catholic University of America is a university — a community of scholars united in a common effort to find goodness, truth and beauty. It is a place where we learn things St. Monica could not teach her son. Holy as she was, she could not have written the ‘Confessions’ or ‘The City of God.’ Smart as he was, neither could Augustine have written them without the intellectual companionship he found first at Carthage and later among the Platonists in Milan. The intellectual life, like the acquisition of virtue, is a communal (not a solitary) undertaking. We learn from each other. The intellectual culture we create is the product of our collective effort. A Catholic intellectual culture will be something both distinctive and wonderful if we bring the right people into the conversation and if we work really hard at it.” 

— The Catholic University of America President John Garvey in his Jan. 25 inaugural address.