The Catholic University of America at a Crossroads

After more than a decade of successful leadership in university expansion and academic excellence, The Catholic University of America’s President John Garvey announced his retirement last month. In a laudatory article in The Washington Post, President Garvey is described as having led “the most successful era of fundraising in university history, resulting in more than $500 million in gifts and grants…the $400 million capital campaign that was launched in 2019 may be extended and given a new half-a-billion dollar goal.” During President Garvey’s tenure, university assets grew to over $900 million. 

Beyond fundraising successes, President Garvey dramatically improved student retention and launched upgrades in residence halls and athletic fields. He helped to launch two new schools, eight new centers and institutes, and new program locations in Alexandria, Virginia, and Tucson, Arizona. He was instrumental in transforming the neighborhood around campus through helping to shepherd the creation of the $200 million Monroe Street Market located across the street from Catholic University—described by the developer’s literature as a multi-phase, mixed-use development including streetscape and hardscape improvements including outdoor art installations—greatly improving the neighborhood by bringing retail stores and restaurants, as well as 720 luxury apartments and townhouses.

Faithful Catholics were encouraged during President Garvey’s first year on campus when he announced that in an effort to address the problems of binge drinking and the hook-up culture that had emerged in the co-ed dormitories, he was reintroducing single-sex dorms. He later established a policy banning pornography from the school’s Wi-Fi. In a most inspiring inaugural address on January 25, 2011, President Garvey promised to promote a “serious Catholic intellectual culture” at the University—claiming that the deans, faculty, and staff were all committed to the vision of Catholic higher education articulated in Ex Corde Ecclesiae. President Garvey promised that Catholic University would continue to be a community of scholars “united in a common effort to find goodness, truth and beauty.” 

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Like the best academics, President Garvey believes that “the intellectual life, like the acquisition of virtue is a communal (not a solitary) undertaking. We learn from each other…. The intellectual culture we create is the product of our collective effort. A Catholic intellectual culture will be something both distinctive and wonderful if we bring the right people into the conversation and if we work really hard at it.”  

But bringing the “right people” into the conversation is much harder than even President Garvey may have realized. In fact, determining who are the “right people” to bring into campus conversations has been a problem that John Garvey appears to have been unable to resolve throughout his entire career—long before his arrival on the Catholic University campus. Quite simply, John Garvey has not been very discerning at all when it comes to hosting and honoring those who persist in defying Catholic teachings on life, sexuality, marriage, and now, gender identity. All of this has had a negative impact on the Catholic identity at Catholic University. 

As far back as 2007, when he was Dean of Boston College’s law school, John Garvey rejected the U.S. Catholic bishops’ policy that said Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles by giving an honorary degree to Representative Edward J. Markey, a pro-abortion Democrat from Massachusetts. Just a few years prior to that, Catholic News Agency reported that Garvey tried to dispel concerns that Boston College’s Catholic identity would require “a certain orthodoxy” by claiming that “no school that regulates ideas can justly call itself a university.” 

Garvey has lauded the leadership of the late Rev. Robert Drinan, S.J., the pro-choice Representative from Massachusetts who promoted anti-life policies expanding abortion during his tenure in politics. In fact, during Garvey’s tenure as Dean of the Boston College Law school, Garvey published an article in the Boston College Law School Magazine, along with the current Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and former Senator John Kerry, praising Fr. Drinan’s “moral leadership.” The entire Spring/Summer 2007 issue was devoted to honoring Fr. Drinan.

This same philosophy has guided President Garvey’s tenure at Catholic University. In 2016, the controversial Fr. James Martin, S.J., was welcomed to campus to speak to undergraduate students about his advocacy work with the LGBTQ Catholic community. Fr. Martin was invited again in 2017 to speak at the Theological College’s Alumni Days on campus, but a backlash from faithful Catholics ensued and the invitation to Fr. Martin was rescinded. In response, President Garvey appeared to side with those who supported Fr. Martin’s return to campus and issued a statement against the faithful Catholics who protested Fr. Martin. Claiming that the Theological College had made the decision to rescind the invitation to Fr. Martin “independently” of the University, President Garvey issued this statement:

The campaigns by various groups to paint Fr. Martin’s talk as controversial reflect the same pressure being applied by the left for universities to withdraw speaker invitations…Universities and their entities should be places for the free, civil exchange of ideas. Our culture is increasingly hostile to this idea. It is problematic that individuals and groups within our Church demonstrate this same inability to make distinctions and to exercise charity…We regret the implication that Catholic University supported yesterday’s decision. 

It appears to some faithful Catholics on campus that, on most matters, President Garvey sides with the campus progressives—against the conservatives. A scathing article published in LifeSiteNews by Theresa Nixon, a former staff member at Catholic University, suggests that President Garvey appears “more intent on pleasing the left than addressing the concerns of staff and faithful Catholics who have long supported CUA.” It is difficult to know whether or not that is true. But what cannot be denied is that Catholic University is clearly committed to embracing some of the most progressive movements in the secular culture. 

Encouraging students to “publicly witness against institutional racism and to pray for the soul of George Floyd and the soul of this country,” President Garvey encouraged interested faculty and staff to “rededicate themselves to the defense of all life and to recommit ourselves to pray for an end to racism” by gathering in Lafayette Park and proceeding to the White House for prayer. 

Under President Garvey’s direction, Catholic University has actually been ahead of the curve in embracing Critical Race Theory on campus. In 2017, Catholic University held a “Teach-In” on how to combat racism, a laudable goal; but the featured speaker for the teach-in was Eleanor Hancock, the Director of White Awake, who presented the divisive rhetoric on the evils of white people. White Awake describes itself as being committed to “combatting white supremacy by focusing on educational resources and spiritual practices designed to facilitate white people’s engagement in the creation of a just and sustainable society.” 

Hancock, the co-founder of White Awake, describes herself as the “white mother of a biracial daughter.” White Awake emerged from a “small group of Insight Buddhist practitioners in Washington, D.C., who, as white allies to practitioners of color within their local sagha, wanted to educate themselves about race. The group called themselves ‘White Awake’ and held two six-month sessions exploring white privilege.” The leaders of White Awake are involved in Buddhist meditation, although one of the members of the Advisory Council of White Awake, Katrina Messenger, is a Wiccan who is also the pro-choice President of the Maryland Chapter of NOW. 

In addition to Critical Race Theory, LGBTQ advocacy appears to have emerged on campus—far beyond inviting Fr. Martin to speak on campus. LifeSiteNews reported that the current Dean for its School of Social Services appears to support homosexuality and gender ideology. There is a CUAllies club with about 25 members offering support for the LGBTQ community on campus.  And although the club is allowed to use university facilities to meet in offices on the Catholic University campus, it does not have “official status” as a university club so it does not receive funding from the university. They are allowed to fundraise though.

Progressive politics is probably almost impossible to avoid on a campus in the heart of Washington, D.C. But Catholic University’s former President, the Reverend David O’Connell was able to live in Washington without becoming a part of the toxic Washington politics. Fr. O’Connell was able to bring the University back from a loss of Catholic identity. He revitalized the Catholic identity that had sadly slipped away. It can be done again. But Catholic University is clearly at a Crossroads. 

President Garvey has accomplished many wonderful things at Catholic University. There is a strong cohort of faithful Catholic faculty there. There is a strong Catholic academic administration at the highest levels that is committed to reclaiming and retaining a strong Catholic identity. But the presidency is the most important position on campus to ensure that the Catholic identity remains strong.  

Right now, the future of The Catholic University of America lies with those on the Presidential Search Committee. Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark—a strong proponent of the activism of Fr. Martin—is one of the leaders of that Search Committee. A supporter of LGBTQ Pride Masses in Newark, earlier this year, Cardinal Tobin signed a pro-LGBTQ statement—along with several other bishops—expressing his support for those with same sex attraction. 

We cannot predict how the Presidential Search will turn out. But it is important that every effort is made to help Catholic University recover its Catholic identity. Founded in 1887 by the Catholic bishops to be the “national” university of the Catholic Church in the United States, it would truly be a tragedy if the university continued down the path to secularization.   

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]


  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

tagged as: Catholic Living

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