Garvey: Francis fosters new look at Church authority and higher education

Garvey: Francis fosters new look at Church authority and higher education

Garvey: Francis fosters new look at Church authority and higher education

John Garvey, President of The Catholic University of America in Washington, speaks during a July 2 breakout session at the "Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America" in Orlando, Florida. Leaders from dioceses and various Catholic organizations gathered for the July 1-4 convocation. (Credit: CNS photo/Bob Roller.)

John Garvey, President of the Catholic University of America, wants to take a new look at the famed "Land O'Lakes Statement" from 50 years ago, which amounted to a declaration of independence for Catholic universities from ecclesiastical control. He says that's easier to do under Pope Francis, because his teaching is so interesting and relevant that universities more readily understand why it should be part of their conversations.

ORLANDO, Florida – Located in Washington, D.C., the Catholic University of America is the lone institution of higher learning in the country directly founded by the U.S. bishops, and the only one to have been visited by three popes – John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis.

As a result, you’d expect that if there is a “Pope Francis effect” in Catholic higher education in America, you’d feel it there first, and CUA President John Garvey says that’s exactly what’s happening.

First, Garvey said, Francis is driving home the point that when you’re trying to draw people back into the faith, the Church’s moral rules probably aren’t the right place to start.

“He’s not saying that the rules about abortion, the rules about marriage, the rules about divorce are out the window, we’ve moved on,” Garvey said.

“He’s saying, ‘If you are trying to get people to fall in love with the faith, you probably don’t want to begin by saying don’t do this, don’t do that, and that’s why we are Catholic.’ You start with, ‘Here’s what we like about the Church, the rest of this goes along with it but it follows naturally once you buy into it’.”

Second, Garvey said, Francis is making possible a new look at the role of Church authority in Catholic higher education, beyond the essentially “hands off” stance reflected in the famous “Land O’Lakes Statement” of 50 years ago.

“Nowadays we are having a new conversation about the teaching authority of the Church, and it’s because Pope Francis has been so interesting in the things that he’s been saying,” Garvey said.

“If we believe, as we do, that the Holy Spirit is with the Church, then the people who are running the Church, the Holy Father and the conference of bishops, have things to say that we need to make part of our conversation at our universities,” he said.

Garvey spoke to Crux during the July 1-4 “Convocation of Catholic Leaders,” a gathering of almost 3,500 bishops, clergy, religious and laity in Orlando, Florida. The following are excerpts of that conversation.

Crux: You’re scheduled to speak about the mission of Catholic higher education while you’re here in Orlando, so tell us what you want to come out of that conversation.

Garvey: What I’m interested in at Catholic University fits pretty well with the theme of the convocation, and also with the synod that they are having next year on young people, vocations and discernment.

I find that these days higher education is trying to find its way. There’s a lot of thought given by parents to what they are paying for their sons’ and daughters’ education, and what they are getting out of it, so there’s an interest in what’s the job at the end of this? We’re having to ask ourselves questions like, ‘Is that our responsibility?’ I remember reading a book about the making of the middle ages when I was in college, and one of the things that struck me was how young people in those days matured at 13 or 14 years old because, by the time you got to that age, you learned everything you needed to know to get along in life. Nowadays people don’t mature until they are 25, 26, 27.

The world is so much more complicated a place that we develop both intellectually and morally over a much longer time until we are prepared to go out into the world. Part of a university’s responsibility, and we think of it as part of our responsibility at the Catholic University of America, is to tend to the growth of our students in virtue as well as in their intellect. These two things are related to one another, how you think about problems and how you think about the moral life is connected to how you behave in your own life.

What we do at the university is related to the discernment and the vocational growth of the students who come through our university. It’s a wonderful job for that reason. We’re not just peddling a product, like knowledge of Chinese or mechanical engineering, but we are playing a role along with their families and with the Church in the formation of these young people into productive citizens and good Catholics.

When you bring people together with very different experiences, from very different backgrounds and sometimes very different opinions, what is the key to making it work?

One of the nice things about getting people together and living together for a while is that they don’t seem so foreign to you, they are not divided along party lines as we are in the popular culture. This is one of the great advantages at Catholic universities and institutions – if they’re truly Catholic, they don’t fit very well within these ideological categories that we hear of on the nightly news or in the House and the Senate. We are with the left on some things, and with the right on other things.

This year is the 50th anniversary of something called the “Land O’ Lakes Statement” in the late 1960s, when I was a boy. I just wrote an editorial about it as an introduction to a conference that we are having this year about the statement. Catholic University itself kind of blew up in 1967 about the renewal of Father Charlie Curran’s contract to teach in the theology department. He had differences with the Church in sexual ethics and those kinds of things.

At the same time the Church itself was going through this. In 1968 we had just come out of Vatican II, and the American popular culture was blowing up at the same time. This Land O’ Lakes Statement was put together at Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin, at the invitation of Father Ted Hesburgh [of Notre Dame], a Catholic University graduate, to have the presidents of Catholic colleges say what it meant to be a Catholic university. One of the things that they said is that to be truly Catholic you need an academic freedom from any sort of influence, lay or clerical. This is not the view of Lumen Gentium, it’s not the view of Ex Cordae Ecclesiae, it’s not the view of John Paul II, or Benedict, or Francis.

We provide an opportunity for the rest of the Church to think about the intellectual life of the Church at our university. But we are fighting a popular culture in trying to accomplish that.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more acrimonious and polarized political climate than the one we are living in right now. Does that make your life more difficult any time that there is an intersection between faith and politics. For example, if you wanted to put together a conference on the first 100 days of the Trump presidency, would the instinct be, ‘That’s a bigger headache than we need right now?’ 

I can only speak for my own university, the Catholic University of America, and I have to say it wouldn’t be any problem at all. In fact, it would be a great opportunity I think.

There certainly is the sort of climate you described, it’s current in Washington. I think if you look at most elite or private universities in the North East, to say nothing of the rest of the country, the political affiliation of the faculty at those universities is really badly skewed left or right. I think at Catholic University, it’s more or less evenly balanced. We have equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans on our faculty, but we are also very self-consciously Catholic and, as I said before, what that means for people who take it seriously is that we don’t really fit very comfortably with one side or the other.

Before long we will be at the five-year mark with Pope Francis, elected March 13, 2013. Talking about the sphere of Catholic education, do you see any kind of ‘Pope Francis effect’?  

I do. I’d mention two things.

One, a point of emphasis that I really love about the Holy Father is something I read in a Crux article about Father [Julian] Carron, the leader of Communion and Liberation. He said that maybe we are making a mistake [in the way we’re] trying to draw people into the faith who have no attachment to it, or whose attachment is too loose. To draw people into the faith by saying, ‘Here are the moral rules, how do you like it?’

I think that’s what the Holy Father is saying. He’s not saying that the rules about abortion, the rules about marriage, the rules about divorce are out the window, we’ve moved on. He’s saying, ‘If you are trying to get people to fall in love with the faith, you probably don’t want to begin by saying don’t do this, don’t do that and that’s why we are Catholic.’ You start with, ‘Here’s what we like about the Church, the rest of this goes along with it but it follows naturally once you buy into it.’

The other difference: I mentioned the Land O’ Lakes Statement. That was in one way a fight about sex, but really it was a fight about the role of Church authority in higher education. Is the Church a conversation partner in that? Is our work really about faith and reason, or is it just about reason? At that time the ecclesiastical left, if I can put it that way, took a kind of liberal position about sexual issues and took what we might call a liberal position about the role of the Church. ‘Look bishops, this is our job, ours as theologians is to tell you about what to think about these things. You stay out of our work.’

Nowadays we are having a new conversation about the teaching authority of the Church, and it’s because Pope Francis has been so interesting in the things that he’s been saying.

What he says about the environment, or what he says about the moral life, what he says about the economy, are things that put him in the same camp as the more progressive wing of the Church. People on the right are saying, ‘Wait a minute … he doesn’t know what he is talking about with the environment and the economy! Stick to your own business!’ In fact, he’s got a lot of important things to say about those subjects.

The one constant in all of this that I think we need to attend to is that if we believe, as we do, that the Holy Spirit is with the Church, then the people who are running the Church, the Holy Father and the conference of bishops, have things to say about this that we need to make part of our conversation at our universities.

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