The mixed or secular model of education is the norm in America. In public schools we say the Constitution requires it. In private schools, where the first amendment does not apply, faith is unwelcome for epistemological reasons. Whether it is emotion or fantasy or paranormal perception, it is (we suppose) different from serious thinking — a distraction at best; probably misleading. In this view of things The Catholic University of America has ambitions (to be Catholic and to be a university) that are in conflict with each other. 

Our discussions of this subject have a two-dimensional character, and this is the point I want to address today. We speak of an opposition of faith and reason, as different ways of knowing. The self-styled advocates of reason say we come to know things through processes of induction and deduction, the methods of science and logic. They describe faith as a commitment to divine revelation, usually found in Scripture, though it might be read in the book of nature. 

Battle lines

The battlefront lies along two propositions of physics and biology — how the universe and human life came to be. 

John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America.

Genesis tells us God created the world from nothing. 

Stephen Hawking says the world created itself from nothing. 

Genesis tells us God created man on the sixth day. 

Stephen J. Gould says man evolved over a very long time from simpler forms of life. 

The story of this war is so familiar that we often redescribe the conflict of faith and reason as a conflict of religion and science. And the challenge for Catholic universities is finding a place for Bibles and papal decrees between our telescopes and microscopes. 

I think the fault for this flat, crabbed, cartoonish vision of Catholic higher education lies not with the critics of religion but with us. We have been so intent on defending ourselves against charges of fundamentalism and censorship that we have failed to create, let alone promote, a serious Catholic intellectual culture. Think of the schools of thought we have seen come (and go) in the academy in our lifetimes: Marxism, modernism, post-modernism, feminism, law and economics, critical race theory, queer theory, and so on. And ask yourself whether, in the Catholic intellectual tradition, there is not enough material to get our own movement going. 

Here are two steps we might take in that direction. First, let us bracket the virtue of faith, and consider the role that other virtues might play in our intellectual life. Second, let us consider the contribution that Catholic intellectual culture might make outside the field of science. Or to compress both points into one proposition, let us look at the interplay of intellect and virtue across the full field of university life. 

Virtue’s role

My wife and I have sent our five children to Catholic schools from kindergarten through college. In some ways their college education was the most important part of their formation. We hoped that, in the right environment, they would grow in wisdom, age and grace. We wanted their schools to provide a nurturing sacramental life. We wanted our children to discern their vocations, in married or religious life, in the company of friends and teachers who loved God and the Church. 

This suggests, if we examine practice and not theory, that one mark of a Catholic university is the nature of student life. A Catholic university should be concerned with the formation of its students. Campus ministry, residence life, service opportunities, athletics, student activities, are an integral part of our mission. The measure of our success is how our graduates live their daily lives: Do they pray and receive the sacraments; do they love the poor; do they observe the rest of the beatitudes? 


You’re probably thinking that I digress already. But we and Cardinal John Henry Newman thought alike. One of my favorite sermons, from his time in Ireland, he preached on the feast of St. Monica, the first Sunday of their school year. Like the Garveys, Monica watched her son Augustine go off to college in Carthage. There he fell into bad company and bad habits. Cardinal Newman says: 

“Bad company creates a distaste for good; and hence it happens that, when a youth has gone the length I have been supposing, he is repelled ... from those places and scenes which would do him good. ... So he begins to form his own ideas of things, and these please and satisfy him for a time; then he ... tires of them, and he takes up others; and now he has begun that everlasting round of seeking and never finding; at length ... he gives up the search altogether, and decides that nothing can be known, and there is no such thing as truth.” 

The problem arises, Newman observes, when we make the mistake of separating intellect and virtue. And returning to our subject, he concludes:

“Here, then, I conceive, is the object of the Holy See and the Catholic Church in setting up Universities; it is to reunite things which were in the beginning joined together by God, and have been put asunder by man. Some persons will say that I am thinking of confining, distorting, and stunting the growth of the intellect by ecclesiastical supervision. I have no such thought. Nor have I any thought of a compromise, as if religion must give up something, and science something. I wish the intellect to range with the utmost freedom, and religion to enjoy an equal freedom; but what I am stipulating for is, that they should be found in one and the same place, and exemplified in the same persons.” 

Mistaken separation

But what, you may ask, is the connection? Sure, Monica wanted to reform Augustine’s behavior. But what bearing would that have on his intellectual life? Aren’t we committing a sort of category mistake in supposing the two to be related? That is the received wisdom in some quarters. Consider the observation of John Mearsheimer, the Wendell Harris Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago: 

“Today, elite universities operate on the belief that there is a clear separation between intellectual and moral purpose, and they pursue the former while largely ignoring the latter. There is no question that the University of Chicago makes hardly any effort to provide you with moral guidance. Moreover, I would bet that you will take few classes here at Chicago where you discuss ethics or morality in any detail, mainly because those kind[s] of courses do not exist.” 

That was 10 years ago. Today teaching ethics is all the rage. In 2009 Harvard Business School proudly announced an effort by its graduating students to get classmates to sign the MBA Oath, a pledge to act ethically in the business world. Students pledge to refrain from corruption, unfair competition, and harmful business practices; to protect human rights; and to set an example of integrity. Last fall Harvard announced a gift of $12.5 million to fund a five-year cross-disciplinary effort to study ethics and institutional corruption. The intriguing thing about this is that at Harvard there is a connection between the oath and the study, between the cultivation of virtue and the intellectual life. What is it? 

What leads to virtue?

Academics like to think that intellect is the key thing — that if we know the good we will cultivate and pursue it. This is not surprising. Academics are intellectuals. Thinking is what we are good at. Abraham Maslow once said if you only have a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail. But there are two difficulties with the academics’ approach. One is that it fails to account for weakness of will. We all have the experience of knowing what is right or good, and failing to do it. The second is that it flattens the concept of knowing into something most of us wouldn’t recognize. We do not come to understand what is right, or good, or beautiful, through mental exercises conducted from an armchair. 

Aristotle observed, what every parent knows, that young people can develop abilities in geometry and mathematics, but they can’t be proficient at politics, or philosophy, or (he says) physics, because “the first principles of these other subjects come from experience, and ... young [people] have no conviction about the latter but merely use the proper language.” I am reminded of my own experience in Louis Jaffe’s class in Administrative Law — a subject about the role, processes, and powers of government agencies. I got an A in the class by saying the right things, but it was like a game in a foreign language I had memorized but did not speak. I had no idea what the subject was about until, 10 years later, I represented dozens of agencies as a young lawyer in the Solicitor General’s Office. I remember thinking, “So this is what Administrative Law is about.” 

Part of what I had learned was the objects and practices that the foreign language denoted — what it meant to publish a notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register. That connected the purely intellectual exercise of reading Jaffe’s casebook to things in the real world. Another part of what I learned was the craft of doing administrative law well. A baseball pitcher needs to learn a lot of mechanics to throw well; a fielder needs to be in the right position for each hitter and situation. So too with learning the law. Good administrative lawyers know from practice that agencies must follow their own regulations. Richard Nixon ignored this when he refused the special prosecutor’s demand for the Watergate tapes. 

There is a third thing one learns from the experience of legal practice — it acquaints one with the virtue of justice. A good lawyer is not just skilled in the craft of argument. She is also honest, fair, prudent, temperate and just. There is an inscription on the Department of Justice building where I worked that says, “The United States wins its case whenever justice is done one of its citizens in the courts.” Working with good lawyers, you learn there are cases you could win but should not. You learn the difference between playing by the rules and doing the right thing. You are reminded that the agencies whose behavior is regulated by administrative law exist to serve the people of the United States (veterans, homeless, unemployed, widows and orphans, victims of crime, consumers, taxpayers), and you are one of the people standing at the counter. 

St. Bonaventure, in his little treatise “Bringing Forth Christ,” observes: 

“Anyone who keeps close to a holy man discovers that by seeing him often, listening to his words and witnessing his exemplary behavior, he is set on fire with love of the truth, keeps away from the darkness of sin, and is inflamed by the love of divine light.” ... “Seek the company of good people. If you share their company, you will also share their virtue.”

We come to know virtue by seeing it, we learn virtue by practicing it, we become virtuous when our practice makes it habitual, a part of our character.

Intellect’s guide

Let us return to Aristotle and our theory of education. He goes on to say that if you want to listen intelligently to lectures on ethics you “must have been brought up in good habits.” It is virtue that leads the intellect to the right result, not the other way around. The particular goals we set for ourselves are illuminated by our character or moral orientation. In our efforts, Aristotle says, “virtue makes us aim at the right mark, and practical wisdom makes us take the right means.” 

Aristotle talks about listening intelligently to lectures on ethics, but his point is not limited to Philosophy 101. I spoke earlier about Law. I might have said the same thing about any of the social sciences. You cannot study migration, the environment, the economy, interpersonal relationships, death and dying, or the history of capitalism without making ethical judgments of the kind Aristotle had in mind.  

I have been talking about the social sciences, but I might make a similar observation about aesthetics. Our appreciation of beauty in art and music, in poetry and architecture, is not just an intellectual judgment. We speak of the sense, the experience, the love of beauty, and these are not just metaphors. It is beauty that first enchants us when we fall in love, that draws us out of ourselves to want something other. 

Experience of beauty

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a few years before he became Pope Benedict XVI, observed how some appeals can be like the “experience of beauty of which Genesis speaks in the account of the Original Sin. Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was ‘beautiful’ to eat and was ‘delightful to the eyes.’” “Who would not recognize,” he went on to say, “in advertising, the images made with supreme skill that are created to tempt the human being irresistibly, to make him want to grab everything and seek the passing satisfaction rather than be open to others.” He contrasted this with an experience he had in Munich soon after the death of Karl Richter. He was sitting at a Bach concert, next to the Lutheran Bishop Johannes Hanselmann, and when the performance was over he said: 

“When the last note of one of the great Thomas Kantor Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other [and] said, ‘Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true.’ The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration.” 

I have been arguing that the arrow between intellect and virtue travels in a different direction than scholars sometimes suppose. That the cultivation of virtue prepares the ground for the work of the intellect, because “virtue makes us aim at the right mark.” 

Most important thing

Let me give one more example. When we went off to college my mother would say, after the fashion of St. Monica, “Don’t forget your prayers.” After I got out of law school she came to visit me in New York, and I told her about a book I had just read (by J.N.D. Kelly, as I recall) on early Christian doctrine. I asked if she knew that the words “light from light” that we recited in the Nicene Creed were meant to resolve the Arian heresy about the relation between God the Father and God the Son. She said, “Dear, the important thing is not that you understand it. The important thing is that you believe it.” 

The older I get the more I find that my mother was right. I don’t mean to embrace the full import of her observation. The Council of Nicaea was really important, and it met to iron this out. But Mother was giving me the same advice she had when I went off to college: The most important thing is to say your prayers before you go off on intellectual wanderings. 

Mother and St. Monica were all saying that the path to the study of theology begins with prayer, not speculation. Or to return to the reflections of Pope Benedict, “the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated.” 

John Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America. This is an excerpt, reprinted with permission, from his 2011 inaugural address