March 7, 2011
John Garvey became president of The Catholic University of America last year.


John Garvey became president of The Catholic University of America last year.


WASHINGTON - The new president of the Catholic University of America has called for a rebirth in Catholic intellectual life, a rebirth that is rooted in virtue.

"As Pope Benedict said at this university in 2008, 'This is a place to encounter the living God. . . . This relationship elicits a desire to grow in the knowledge and understanding of Christ and his teaching,'" John Garvey said in a recent address.

"The Catholic University is a university - a community of scholars united in a common effort to find goodness, truth and beauty," said Garvey, 62, who was dean of Boston College's Law School when he was appointed to his new post.

"The intellectual life, like the acquisition of virtue, is a communal, not a solitary, undertaking. We learn from each other," he continued.


"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."

Garvey, who is Catholic University's third lay president, also talked about the secular concept of a conflict between faith and reason.

"The story of this war is so familiar that we often redescribe the conflict of faith and reason as a conflict of religion and science," he said. "And the challenge for Catholic universities is finding a place for Bibles and papal decrees between our telescopes and microscopes."

One of the ways to counter that notion, he said, is to examine the role of virtue in intellectual and campus life.

"A Catholic university should be concerned with the formation of its students. Campus ministry, residence life, service opportunities, athletics and student activities are an integral part of our mission," Garvey said.


"The measure of our success is how our graduates live their daily lives: Do they pray and receive the sacraments; do they love the poor; do they observe the rest of the Beatitudes?"

These days, ethics classes are popular in secular universities, he said. But does that go far enough? he asked. He proposed that "we do not come to understand what is right, or good, or beautiful, through mental exercises conducted from an armchair."

He added, "We come to know virtue by seeing it, we learn from virtue by practising it, we become virtuous when our practice makes it habitual, a part of our character."


Garvey urged those in Catholic academic life to see how virtue guides the intellect.

"It's not the other way around. The particular goals we set for ourselves are illuminated by our character or moral orientation," he said. "In our efforts, Aristotle says, 'Virtue makes us aim at the right mark, and practical wisdom makes us take the right means.'"

He noted the pursuit of virtue can and should be applied to any field of study - not just philosophy or the law, but the social sciences, music, art or architecture as well.

Lastly, he addressed the role of the Catholic university's unique contribution to the acquisition of virtue.

"We learn it better as members of a group," he said. "We deliver one message about materialism, sex, self-sacrifice and alcohol; our children see another in (the world).

"Our lesson gains credibility if the children see a community of people they know and admire living it."