Summer 2022 Feature-Garvey
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Our Legacy

Reflections on hiring practices to build and maintain Catholic identity and tradition in our colleges and universities

By John Garvey, Ph.D.


On Friday, April 29, 2022, at the Annual John Carroll Society Dinner, Dr. John Garvey, then-President of The Catholic University of America. was awarded the Archbishop John Carroll Medal for his service to the Church. Below is his acceptance remarks during that evening's presentation.


At the conclusion of each academic year I make a report to the board of trustees about my own performance. The first item on my annual accounting is always a recital of how many Catholics we have hired on to the faculty. (Farther down I list the Catholics hired in Student Affairs.)

I suspect that a few of the trustees scratch their heads at this obsession. One or two of them might prefer the approach Jay Gatsby took in assembling his library. Remember the scene when Nick Carraway encounters the owl-eyed spectacled man at Gatsby’s house:

[H]e rushed to the book-cases and returned with Volume One of the Stoddard Lectures. . . . “This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too – didn’t cut the pages.”

But I’m serious. When I took the job as president of Catholic University twelve years ago I had two objects in mind: to build a faculty engaged in the Catholic intellectual life, and to raise the money necessary to support that endeavor. All presidents are expected to do the latter. The former seems a bit démodé. I want to say a few words about why I think it is the most important thing on our University’s agenda.

CUA Campus with studentsIf you don’t know, you should, that Catholic University is the national university of the Catholic Church. In the nineteenth century the American Catholic bishops held three plenary councils in Baltimore, the home of our first diocese. The last of these, in 1884, took three consequential actions. It decreed the preparation of the Baltimore Catechism (which older members of our audience will have committed to memory). It established the parochial school system. And it appointed a commission for creating a Catholic university. Pope Leo XIII granted their wish in 1887.

That same year Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard, announced that Greek was no longer a requirement for admission to his school. It was part of a trend toward an elective curriculum and away from the religious vision that inspired that University’s founders. In 1650 Harvard’s motto was In Christi gloriam (“for the glory of Christ”). In the nineteenth century it was Christo et Ecclesiae (“for Christ and Church”).1 The historian Samuel Eliot Morison writes that2

In Christi gloriam . . . expressed the fundamental object of [Harvard’s founders.] Like the medieval schoolmen, they believed that all knowledge without Christ was vain. . . . The first college laws declared that every student was to be plainly instructed that the “maine end of his life and his studies” was “to know God and Jesus Christ . . . and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.”

During Eliot’s 40 years as president these early mottoes gave way to the more anodyne and flexible Veritas. Today God is pretty hard to find in Cambridge. The University recently appointed as its chaplain an atheist named Greg Epstein, who told the New York Times, “We don’t look to a god for answers. We are each other’s answers.”

Harvard’s religious trajectory traces a curve that we can see at hundreds of other formerly Christian colleges begun by Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, and Evangelicals. At most of them the arc bent downward in the 1880’s and 1890’s; at others the turn occurred during the fundamentalist controversy of the 1920’s.3

Catholic schools were immune to these gravitational forces until the 1960’s. Then came their turn. Vatican II invited them to think anew about divine revelation, the Church, ecumenism, religious liberty, the role of the laity, and Catholic education, and they eagerly took up the invitation.4 My University’s faculty went on strike in 1967 over the denial of tenure to Fr. Charles Curran, an outspoken critic of the Church’s teaching on contraception.

The baby boom that followed World War II also produced millions of college students, like me. Colleges grew to make room for them and had money to do it – from tuition, philanthropy, and government programs. At the same time the founding religious orders began giving control to lay trustees. In 1967 Boston College turned the reins over from ten Jesuits to a board of 25 laypeople. The Jesuit trustees still held some reserved powers, which they relinquished four years later.

CUA CampusThe shift in governance from religious to lay was matched by a shift in the faculty ranks, first from members of religious orders to lay teachers (like me), then from members of the Catholic Church to bright young academics from a variety of other religious traditions. My old friend Fr. Bill Neenan, SJ, the former Academic Vice President at Boston College, said, “It’s inappropriate to ask a job candidate their religion. When we’re hiring an economist, we’re interested in hiring the best economist.” 5

I don’t think people like Fr. Neenan intended that our schools should lose their Catholic character. They just had unwarrantedly optimistic views about what it would take to maintain it. Preparing in 1986 for its regular accreditation visit, Boston College opined that the necessary thing was that6

A critical mass of the faculty should be familiar with the Catholic intellectual tradition, and all should regard spiritual as well as moral questions as worthy of serious exploration.

“A critical mass” was a popular way of expressing what was needed in the way of Catholics on campus. The metaphor comes from atomic physics, where it means the minimum amount of fissile material necessary to sustain a nuclear chain reaction. If you use a neutron reflector, you need only about 11 pounds of weapons grade plutonium to achieve critical mass. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the superior general of the Jesuits from 1983-2008, must have had this analogy in mind when he opined that “one Jesuit who is truly a Jesuit can be all that is needed to guarantee the authority or the Jesuitness of the university.” 7

But we all know how it worked out. As one disappointed theologian at Saint Mary’s observed:8

We hire computer programmers, experts in finance, literary deconstructionists . . . all without regard to their faith. . . . We start graduate programs in various professional arenas, all without regard to religion. And one day we wake up and find ourselves in an institution more and more secular in tone. Some of us are as shocked as Claude Rains in the classic movie Casablanca when he hears that gambling is going on in Rick’s Cafe.

This was the shape of the landscape in Catholic higher education in 1990 when John Paul II, himself a former university teacher, published the apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae. “In order not to endanger the Catholic identity of the University,” St. John Paul wrote, “the number of non-Catholic teachers should not be allowed to constitute a majority within the Institution.” 9 To put it less elliptically, Catholic universities need to hire Catholic faculty to preserve their Catholic identity.

To academic sophisticates this seems like a recipe for mediocrity. After all, as Fr. Neenan said, “When we’re hiring an economist, we’re interested in hiring the best economist,” who might be an Anglican. Limiting searches to Catholics will shrink candidate pools to something like 23% of their full size.

But think about the great intellectual movements we have seen arise from universities. The Chicago School of Economics developed around Milton Friedman and George Stigler in the 1950’s. It embraced a neoclassical approach to economics based on rational expectations. The Chicago School spun off parallel movements like law and economics and public choice theory. The University’s website lists 28 Nobel Prize winners who spent some part of their careers at Chicago as faculty, students, or researchers.10

In building up this great school Chicago preferred people who shared its particular orientation over Keynesian economists. It wanted faculty who believed in markets and worried more about government regulation than about private monopolies. Chicago was the very embodiment of free market thinking, but it limited its searches for economists to a discrete subset of the candidate pool. Professor, later Senator, Paul Douglas left because, he said in his autobiography, Frank “Knight was openly hostile [to me], and his disciples seemed to be everywhere.”

Here’s another example. The Bauhaus was an art school that operated in Germany from 1919-1933, when it was closed under pressure from the Nazis. It featured faculty like Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer, Marcel Breuer, and Mies van der Rohe. Painters Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky joined in the 1920’s. The Bauhaus gave birth to architectural modernism, a style that features simple forms, a stress on function and rationality, and an effort to infuse mass-production with artistic spirit. Think of the Pan Am building (Mies) or the Whitney Museum (Breuer) in New York. Or the Lake Shore apartments in Chicago (Mies).

CUA Campus with studentsIn building this school the directors sought faculty who shared their passion for newness. They did not want classical architects and painters. They were not interested in a baroque revival. They would not have hired Michaelangelo or Bernini as faculty members. They liked flat roofs, right angles, and minimal ornamentation. They used dull colors – a lot of white and black. Bauhaus was a revolution that influenced a century of architecture. But the school hired its faculty from a very limited subset of the candidate pool.

I could add other counterexamples: the Yale School of literary criticism, the Cambridge School of political thought, the Frankfurt School of critical theory. What they all have in common is a dedication to a common project, usually a departure from some academic orthodoxy, and a sense that the group is working on its own to build something new. They all laid the foundations of great intellectual movements. And they all looked for faculty who were interested in their particular project.

So my annual accounting for Catholics is not a matter of religious discrimination, still less a fear of heterodox opinions. It’s rather an interest in advancing an intellectual movement that can’t be found at Ohio State, Carnegie Mellon, or Williams.

Nor is this an approach limited to the School of Theology. Two years ago we were hiring a dean in Architecture, and in advance of the search I met with the faculty. I said it was probably not for me to dictate the direction of the School, but I saw no point in Catholic University supporting a School of Architecture unless it were in some serious way Catholic.

I said I could imagine several different ways in which that might be true. They could, for example, embrace a Franciscan vision, by which I meant Pope Francis, not St. Francis. They could be interested in affordable housing; in sustainable design that moderated the use of materials, energy, and space; in LEED certified buildings, and eco-friendly city planning. These are obviously Catholic in the way the Holy Father is. They show concern for the poor, and for the earth as our common home.

On the other hand they might want to adopt a Benedictine vision, by which I meant Pope Benedict, not St. Benedict. As the Pope Emeritus has said,11

Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to [explain] the Church’s human history.

Beautiful churches, in which we make beautiful music, are a more pleasing invitation to the sacraments than lectures. Paul Claudel was famously converted listening to sung vespers on Christmas Day below the southern rose window in Notre Dame Cathedral.

The point of our intellectual life is well expressed in Question 6 of the Catechism decreed by the same Baltimore Council that created Catholic University: it is to “know [God] and to love Him.” That is the academic’s way of serving Him. It is by doing this that we may “be happy with Him for ever in heaven."

I said that my efforts to build the Catholic intellectual life at the University featured in my annual performance evaluation by the board of trustees. As a practical matter this means that my annual bonus (it’s nothing like what investment bankers get; it’s just a device that allows the board to pay me a modest salary and keep my feet to the fire) depends on my success in doing the two things I was hired to do.

Now that I’ve announced my retirement, though, I can confess publicly that I would have done this even if my compensation had not depended on it. Being president of Catholic University is the best job I have had in my life; and I have had the good fortune to love every job I have ever done. But if, as I pray every day, I can find my way to the meanest apartment in heaven, the past 12 years will have contributed to getting me there.

In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI devoted three of his general audiences to talking about St. Bonaventure. In the third of these he spoke about Bonaventure’s view on the point of theology. This is a debate that’s still going on in our schools and departments, and it’s not just limited to theology. Some faculty look on their discipline as an academic game whose rules are fixed by the professional journals and the opinion leaders in theology (or modern languages, or sociology) trade groups. Here is what Pope Benedict thought about this:12

[T]here is an arrogant manner of engaging in theology, a pride of reason that sets itself above the word of God. Yet real theology . . . has another origin, not the pride of reason. One who loves wants to know his beloved better and better; true theology . . . “is motivated by love of the one who gave his consent” and wants to be better acquainted with the beloved . .

The point of our intellectual life is well expressed in Question 6 of the Catechism decreed by the same Baltimore Council that created Catholic University: it is to “know [God] and to love Him.” That is the academic’s way of serving Him. It is by doing this that we may “be happy with Him for ever in heaven.”

Let me close by thanking the John Carroll Society for this invitation, and Msgr. Vaghi for his help in my efforts at culture-building. Msgr. Vaghi and I first became acquainted a quarter century ago when I was in charge of hiring faculty at the Notre Dame Law School. He was my entrée to Supreme Court clerks who had an interest in the Catholic intellectual life. I hired a number of them at Notre Dame and Boston College. And we have recently hired several more at the Columbus School of Law, for a new project on Constitutional Originalism and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. He and the Society have been an invaluable resource in building the very kind of institution I have served for the past twelve years. It has been, to quote Casablanca one last time, a beautiful friendship.

John GarveyJohn Garvey, Ph.D. is the Former President of The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC  who recently retired as of June 30, 2022.


1 Julie Reuben The Making of the Modern University (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995) 1.

2 Samuel Eliot Morison The Founding of Harvard College (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998) 251.

3 James T. Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light (Eerdmans, 1998) 825.

4 Dei Verbum (1965); Gaudium et Spes (1965); Lumen Gentium (1964); Unitatis Redintegratio (1964); Dignitatis Humanae (1965); Apostolicam Actuositatem (1965); Gravissimum Educationis (1965).

5 Burtchaell, supra note 3, at 625.

6 Id. at 619.

7 Id. at 609.

8 Id. at 832.

9 Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Part II, article 4, section 4.

10 They include Gary Becker, Ronald Coase, Eugene Fama, Robert Fogel, Milton Friedman, Lars Peter Hansen, Robert Lucas, Roger Myerson, Theodore Schultz, and George Stigler. Other important members who did not win Nobel Prizes were Frank Knight and Richard Posner.

11 The Ratzinger Report 129-130.

12 General Audience of Pope Benedict XVI (17 March 2010), quoting Proemium in I Sent., q.2.

Permission to use provided by John Garvey, Ph.D.

Photos courtesty of The Catholic University of America


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