[Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part interview by Crux contributor Christopher White. The second part will run tomorrow, Oct. 27.]
By pretty much any standard one cares to cite, President John Garvey of the Catholic University of America is among the more intriguing figures on the U.S. Catholic landscape these days.
First of all, despite running an academic institution, Garvey isn’t technically an academic. He’s a lawyer by training, has both taught law at Boston College and practiced it in San Francisco. He also served for a stint in the Solicitor General’s Office of the U.S. government.
By personal interest, he’s written on religion and the U.S. constitution, which positions him to be an important adviser and sounding board for U.S. bishops and other movers and shakers amid today’s increasingly contentious debates over religious liberty.
By inclination, Garvey is a doer, and although Catholic University has long occupied the back burner on the Washington, D.C., landscape relative to its better-known rival Georgetown, on Garvey’s watch the campus is increasingly becoming a go-to destination for Catholic thinkers and activists. Last September, the university welcomed Pope Francis to its campus during his visit to the United States.
Garvey has set his sights on building a great Catholic university here in the United States, one modeled after Pope Francis’s vision of a Church that “works for the integral development of every person.”
Garvey was recently in New York for the Al Smith Dinner where Presidential hopefuls Trump and Clinton roasted themselves, and each other, to raise money for Catholic charities. I caught up with Garvey the day after the dinner to discuss Pope Francis, Catholic education, and, naturally, his thoughts on this election cycle.
White: I thought we’d start by talking about Pope Francis. His papacy has been unifying on many fronts and changed the perception a lot of folks have about the Catholic Church. Yet, the response to his papacy internally has also made some folks on the left and right more entrenched.
As President of the Pope’s university here in the United States, what’s your take?
Garvey: What I really love about Pope Francis and the message that he’s trying to get across is that we’re Catholics, we belong to the Church, and we believe what the Church teaches because Jesus came to redeem us and show us His mercy.
The message to others isn’t, “Gosh, you ought to be Catholic because you should follow this or that set of rules.” The message is, “Good news: you’re redeemed. Here’s what a life lived in response to that truth looks like.”
Imagine you’re speaking to someone from Finland who has grown up north of the Arctic Circle, and had never seen a golf course and had no idea what golf was. You’re trying to explain to this person why you love golf and how important it is.
One way of doing it is saying while you’re in the tee box, you don’t want to hit it outside the white stakes because that’s out of bounds and the penalty is a stroke and distance, and you don’t want to go past the red stakes because those are lateral hazards and there’s a stroke penalty. And you don’t want to get in the sand trap because, while that doesn’t cost you a stroke, it’s hard to get out of.
You’d rather say, “Here’s the deal: you see that hole down there—we’re going down this short grass here and we’re putting it in the hole in the least number of strokes, and we’re going to have a nice visit while we do it.”
It’s not that there aren’t rules for golf—no out of bounds, no lateral hazards, no sand traps—it’s that focusing on avoiding sin is not the message that brings people to love Jesus.
Pope Francis is exactly right—the bull’s-eye of the Catholic message of the gospel is, “Jesus loves you.” Your life is messed up? We’ve got some good news for you. That’s what I love about Francis. There is nothing in any of that that doesn’t appeal to all of us.
How would this be applied to some of today’s issues?
There are some immediate takeaways from that that message: Jesus loves us.
The first is that we have to love one another. So, what are we saying and doing about the poor and people who are crossing borders in search of safety and a better life and a job for their family? Yeah, we ought to be thinking about that too, and maybe in the first instance.
I just love his approach to issues about sex that are so controversial or divisive. People ask him, “What do you think about gay people in the Church?” He says, “We’re all in the Church! Jesus loves all of us.” We’re a Church full of all sorts of people and the Church should be accompanying people like that—as it does everyone else.
That’s not to say there aren’t out of bounds or rules or anything, which he’s stipulated, but because he’s so inviting, people are willing to take a first listen. Some in the media on the left would like to take from that the lesson that the Catholic Church has abandoned all the rules about lateral hazards and sand traps, and some on the right take the same mistaken view. And of course Pope Francis makes clear that’s not what he’s saying.
I think that’s where we all ought to be, and I just think he’s exactly the right person for our times.
You’ve been speaking a lot about the hope and the challenge of building a great Catholic University. Quite simply, who and what is The Catholic University of America?
In a way, the issues that we’ve just been speaking about are isomorphic with this question.
So often in the last twenty-six years, since Ex Corde Ecclesiae and the last sixteen years since the application of Ex Corde from the bishops came out, the conversation has been about sand traps and lateral hazards: Who do you have for your commencement speaker? Do you have a mandate? Are people on your faculty saying things that are unorthodox?
[Note: Ex Corde Ecclesiae was a 1990 document from St. Pope John Paul II on Catholic education, which among other things included a controversial requirement for Catholic theologians to have a mandatum, meaning approval to teach, from the local bishop.]
People mistakenly suppose that the sign of a great Catholic university is to make sure nobody does those things. That’s not a university at all.
The question we should be asking in the first place is, “What are we offering that students should want to spend money to come and get from us?” It isn’t that they’re going to be protected from the voices in the culture. It has to be that we are offering a distinctly Catholic intellectual culture that we’re inviting them to become a part of.
For our undergraduates we consider how to offer a distinctively Catholic invitation to life as a Catholic that we model and offer to them in student life, campus ministry, the sacraments and so forth. What’s our proposal? That’s the thing that we need to talk about in the same way that Francis is saying, “Here’s the Catholic proposal.”
It’s not just about following rules—of course you do! But that’s not the proposal. It’s the same with being a Catholic university. We need to talk about why at our university we offer a different vision of business, law, economics, music, art, history, literature. What does our being Catholic have to do with all of those colleges, departments, subjects, courses?
That’s what we need to do. And so, what Francis is saying is what we’re saying in that respect.
You raise the issue of commencement speakers and invited guests on campuses. It’s often a litmus test for some folks when it comes to an institution’s true catholicity. Given that you are the bishops’ university, where do you draw the line?
Before I became an administrator, I used to write about the First Amendment. In First Amendment law, we draw a distinction between private speech and public speech.
The government—the State of New York, the City of New York, or the Federal Government—is not allowed to tell you that you can’t go out on the sidewalk and preach the Gospel or talk about Hitler or go and do the same thing in Central Park and gather with Jehovah’s Witnesses to pray or to gather with Jehovah’s Witnesses to condemn Catholics in Central Park. The First Amendment means that you can’t control private speech.
On the other hand, public speech is something that the government itself does. And when the Mayor of the City of New York condemns the Stop and Frisk rule or condemns Uber drivers, or when the President of the United States proposes a less interventionist stance in foreign policy or free condoms for school children, and doesn’t let people in his office or his administration say otherwise or do differently, that’s what we expect. We elected him to do that.
That’s a long wind-up, to the following answer: When we invite someone to be a commencement speaker, the university is saying something. That’s why the American Catholic bishops say that Catholic universities shouldn’t give honors, platforms, and awards to people whose view is at odds with the views of the Catholic Church.
What they are saying literally is that universities like us shouldn’t endorse people like that. We should not say “Yay, Barack Obama, you support enshrining the ‘right’ to kill the unborn.” We shouldn’t give him honorary degrees or hold him up to our students as our example.
On the other hand, I would be perfectly happy to invite President Obama to Catholic University, even to talk about abortion if he wanted to. What better place than to have a conversation with the President about an issue that is important to Catholics and others? We’re just not going to give him a prize for taking a position that we condemn.
So, this notion isn’t at all inconsistent with notions of academic freedom on campus. It follows the standard kind of distinction that other universities follow.
Here’s a parallel example. Every year we see the ACLU bashing, say Montana State, for inviting some preacher to say an invocation before the commencement. The First Amendment rule about that is that public universities should not endorse religious positions, therefore, the preacher is welcome to come on campus to talk or to say prayers but they can’t make him the commencement speaker.
The ACLU doesn’t come in behind the bishops on their position, but they are saying the same thing.
[In part two tomorrow, Garvey discusses Catholics and the 2016 election.]