My alma mater, The Catholic University of America, has been increasingly embracing and renewing its place in the Church in America as the only school chartered by the U.S. bishops. (It’s one popes tend to visit, as Pope Francis did this past fall near the start of this academic year.)
“Cultivating Catholic minds” is the vision it leads with these days, seeking to educate students for excellent and virtuous leadership, whatever their vocations and fields.
Besides benefitting the school, it is a financial investment in some of the challenging work Catholics are called to do: bringing the mandates of the Gospel and guides in Catholic social teaching to the workplace and policymaking. This investment in the ongoing renewal at the university — including the establishment of the Human Ecology Institute – also acts on Pope Francis’s encouragement of Catholics to be better stewards of God’s creation.
John Garvey is the school’s 15th president. A lawyer, he has been a frequent speaker and commentator on religious liberty. He talks with National Review Online about the university and why this investment in the school is beneficial to anyone who cares about the future of the country. – KJL
John Garvey: The Catholic University of America is the national university of the Catholic Church and the only higher education institution founded by the U.S. Bishops. It’s where the Church does its thinking in America. This includes priests studying theology and canon law, undergraduate business students learning principled entrepreneurship, scientists researching space weather patterns, and vocalists who train at the only school of music in Washington, D.C. This gift furthers our ability to fulfill our mission to educate students in the service of the Church and the nation, to humanize the world.
Lopez: Why should anyone who doesn’t have direct ties to Catholic University care about the news of this biggest donation you’ve ever gotten?
Garvey: If you care about the state of the world or of the culture, then you care about its influencers. It’s no secret that for over two millennia, Catholicism has shaped every corner of human life, not only through its moral teachings, but through every field of human endeavor: art, music, history, politics, economics. Today there are innumerable voices, institutions, and movements that are competing to shape the narrative about the human person in our contemporary culture. Catholic University, through its faculty, shares the treasure of the Church’s wisdom about the human person across every discipline. Our faculty members shape the cultural conversation. And our students effect cultural change.
Lopez: What does the size of the investments you’ve announced this week say about the school and what you’re trying to do there?
Garvey: From the start of my tenure here, I’ve been talking about intellect and virtue — that the mission of a university is to form students’ minds and character. In our particular academic programs, including the School of Business and Economics, we seek to educate young men and women who are both smart and good. We confidently and proudly share our academic vision — for the business school and across the university — with people already associated with the university and encountering it for the first time. That vision attracted six gifts totaling $47 million; I think what that says is that we’re doing something right, something needed, and something worth investing in.
Lopez: How is having a business school there important to the life of the Church in America and even the nation more broadly?
Garvey: As I said, Catholic University educates students in service to the Church and the nation. We also do this in Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital. It’s a city in which virtue and ethics are not always foremost among our concerns. But at Catholic University we teach ethics not just in one course, but in many courses across the curriculum. Our students learn how to be principled in their application of ethical values in multiple contexts. Our graduates leave ready to be principled entrepreneurs, understanding that careers in business and economics, when practiced with skill and virtue, serve society and benefit the common good.
Lopez: Why is it so important that a Christian in business see what he’s doing as a vocation rather than simply a job?
Garvey: The end goal of business, if it’s properly understood, is not to amass wealth for personal consumption. The businessperson is called to participate in God’s creativity and to move the poor out of poverty. The entrepreneur creates jobs for people who don’t have them and makes products that improve people’s lives.
Lopez: What is this “human ecology” business you’re diving into with the new Human Ecology Institute?
Garvey: Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’, got a lot of attention for focusing on the need to care for our common home and steward our natural resources. The Holy Father also drew attention to our own natural ecosystem, to a “human ecology.” Just as there is a natural order to the working of the environment and a right way for us to relate to it, so there is an order to human relationships: political, sexual, social, economic. Most of the encyclical concerns itself with this human ecology. Our institute will be dedicated to the study of human relationships across multiple disciplines. It will explore the many questions related to human flourishing.
Lopez: Do you believe what you’re up to there is a potential game-changer on some of our most contentious issues?
Garvey: You’re right in saying that our culture has contentious issues — regrettably so. Pope Francis has articulated a way forward through our polarizing debates. He’s said that it’s no longer acceptable to pick and choose when it comes to human dignity, rightly ordered relationships, or the preservation of our natural world. We need to create space in our own minds and hearts for it all. We can’t afford to be left or right. We’re taking his lead on this at Catholic University.
Lopez: Pope Francis and Koch money: What do you say to anyone who might not consider that a good marriage?
Garvey: We’re grateful to anyone who shares our academic vision, who wants to financially support us or promote our faculty, students, and programs. Just as there are many competing cultural narratives, so there are many different approaches to higher education for investors to get behind. The six benefactors of our latest gift didn’t come together around something political; they came together around an academic vision which works to educate students in intellect and virtue.
Lopez: Coupled with the fact that you’re currently suing the Obama administration, does this make it official that Catholic U is a conservative or even libertarian university?
Garvey: We brought a lawsuit against the administration because, above everything else, we value the dignity of every human person and the right to life. I find it hard to imagine that there are people, organizations, and politicians who don’t prioritize this fundamental building block of social justice. It’s the cornerstone of Catholic social teaching, embraced by religious and non-religious alike. We are neither conservative, nor liberal, nor libertarian. We’re Catholic.
Lopez: These folks donating to Catholic U could have done a lot of things with their money. How is it in harmony with Pope Francis to use it to help more people get rich?
Garvey: The benefactors recognized precisely our desire to put into practice what Pope Francis has said: “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world.” We do want the poor and those on the peripheries to get out of poverty, so in that sense, yes, we want the poor to get richer. These gifts are investments in students with real names, faces, stories, and plans, who want to make the world better, with concrete goods, services, and programs.
Lopez: Has Pope Francis’s visit to campus this year had any kind of enduring impact you can tell on the life of the students?
Garvey: When popes come to the United States, they make it a point to visit Catholic University. Just like his predecessors Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Pope Francis addressed our students and faculty — but he also prayed with them. The memories of that day, and the atmosphere it elicited, have lingered all year on campus. I liken it to a university who welcomes home its sports team champions after an NCAA victory. Our champion came to visit us, and we’re still beaming with pride.
Lopez: How has your single-sex dorm experiment — something that was a little controversial when you announced it when you became president — worked out? Is that going to become increasingly counter-cultural as we encounter more debates about even having single-sex bathrooms?
Garvey: I am still surprised that our decision to return to single-sex dorms gained the attention it did, but in many ways, I’m glad we started the conversation. As I understand it, a university dedicated to forming students in intellect and virtue should create the conditions, in and out of the classroom, for students to succeed in both. I’m a father of five, and I have 19 grandchildren; I know that not every rule — moral or otherwise — will be followed. Just the same, we owe it to our students to create an environment in which they can flourish in their academic life and in their relationships. I imagine that our residence-life conditions will be challenged again at some point. But we will again take our lead from Pope Francis, who in Laudato Si’ and Amoris Laetitia, has urged us to receive and embrace the masculine or feminine bodies God gives us.
Lopez: You have a comedian and his wife speaking at commencement — what’s that about?
Garvey: We will welcome Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan to campus to address our students this year. In their marriage and in their professional collaboration, they have prioritized their Catholic faith, and have put the adventure of family life back in the popular imagination. The Church has long proclaimed that the family is the building block of society, and in his recent exhortation, the Holy Father talks about the joy of the family amidst its difficulties. A comedic couple dedicated to the family and their faith — it’s a fitting way to send off our graduates.
Lopez: What have you most come to appreciate about Catholic University that you could have never known from the outside?
Garvey: I have said this several times: I believe that we have the smartest, nicest, and best students in America. You don’t know until you spend time here, talking with them, teaching them, and dining with them. I want everyone to know our students.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. She is co-author of the updated How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice.
Editor’s note: A correction in the introduction has been made since posting: Garvey is not the first lay president of Catholic University.