The Catholic University of America

Post-Communion Remarks for the Mass of the Holy Spirit
John Garvey, University President
The Catholic University of America
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Great Upper Church
Sept. 2, 2010


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I want to thank you for the honor and the responsibility you have conferred on me in inviting me to serve as the 15th President of The Catholic University of America. I get a lot of mail addressed to Dr. John Garvey (some addressed to the Rev. John Garvey), and I must confess that I am not a real doctor. I only have a J.D. But I love true academics, and I find joy in the prospect of serving them in my new job.

The first Mass of the academic year is traditionally a Mass of the Holy Spirit. It’s a good occasion to say a few words about faith – one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Faith is, ironically, an unwelcome guest in academic circles. Some see it as the enemy of reason and science; or at best as a kind of emotional commitment fundamentally unlike the intellectual pursuits proper to a university community.

In legal circles some say we shouldn’t give faith a place in the public forum for similar reasons. Justice Blackmun once observed that “Democracy requires the nourishment of dialogue and dissent, while religious faith puts its trust in an ultimate divine authority above all human deliberation. [Faith] ‘transforms rational debate into theological decree.’"1

At bottom the academics and the lawyers see faith as feeling, fantasy, or blind submission. The first two are very well in their place. But none of the three is an appropriate contribution to the business of higher education.

Truth to tell, I have good friends who think this way. But it’s a view of the world fundamentally at odds with what we’re doing here today. If we really believe that Christ is present in the Eucharist, if we really believe that wisdom and knowledge are gifts of the Holy Spirit, then this Mass is a celebration of the importance of faith in the life of the university.

Josef Pieper, who I am happy to say was a lawyer as well as a philosopher, suggests that this is so because faith is a way of knowing, and that is the business of the university. It is, to be sure, not a simple matter of knowing through perception or deduction. Faith always means: “to believe someone and to believe something. . . . [To] believe means: to regard something as true and real on the testimony of someone else.”2 It derives its “legitimacy from someone who knows the subject matter of his own accord.”3

This is isomorphic with a lot of our academic knowledge. The 19th century English inventor Samuel Rowbotham was the founder of the Flat Earth Society and the author of (I’m not making this up) Earth Not a Globe. His successor, Charles Johnson, was the editor of the Flat Earth News, which during the 1970’s and 1980’s carried headlines like “Australia Not Down Under” and “Sun Is a Light 32 Miles Across.” The Apollo moon landings presented a challenge for the society. It maintained, as I recall, that they were actually filmed in Arizona.

Of course they’re nuts. But how do I know this? I’ve never been to Australia or outer space. I saw the Apollo moon landings on TV, but I’ve also seen a photograph of the Loch Ness monster. I could duplicate Eratosthenes’s experiment (he calculated the earth’s circumference from Egypt in about 200 B.C.), but I never have. Fact is, I know they’re nuts because I believe what NASA tells me. I also subscribe to the general theory of relativity because Einstein did, and he was a really smart guy.

Our faith in God is, as I say, isomorphic with all this. It’s not identical. The big difference is that the someone else, the witness whose testimony we believe, is not NASA or Einstein but God himself.4 This is why the Incarnation is centrally important – to our salvation, of course; but also to our faith; and (more selfishly and closer to home) to the intellectual life of the University. Jesus tells us who God is, how He loves us, and what He wants from us. If we believe in him, then the Gospel is as relevant to the work of the university as the general theory of relativity is to the work of the physics department.

But the Gospel is not just the special concern of the School of Theology and Religious Studies. In my own field of law, our belief in the Gospel affects the way we think about our relationship to the environment; our obligations to immigrant populations; the forms and limits of criminal punishment; the construction and support of families; and our care for the unborn and the dying.

  • Or think about the English department.Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor express a very Catholic vision of the world in post-war Southern fiction.5
  • Annie Dillard gives us a modern understanding of the message of Ecclesiastes in For the Time Being.
  • Dana Gioia, one of our best modern poets and (would that this happened more often) chairman of NEA for six years, writes that 
    the Catholic, literally from birth, when he or she is baptized, is raised in a culture that understands symbols and signs. And it also trains you in understanding the relationship between the visible and the invisible. Consequently, allegory finds its greatest realization in Catholic artists like Dante.

I could say more – about architecture and music, politics and history, biology and nursing – but you get the idea. This is what Pope John Paul II meant when he wrote 20 years ago in Ex Corde Ecclesiae that a “Catholic University's task is to promote dialogue between faith and reason, so [we can see how they] bear harmonious witness to the unity of all truth.” A “Catholic University is distinguished by its free search for the whole truth about nature, man and God.”6

May God bless our search this year.

1 Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 607 (1992) (Blackmun, J., concurring).
2 Faith, Hope, Love 29-30 (1997).
3 Ibid. at 42.
4 Ibid. at 56.
5 Farrell O’Gorman, Peculiar Crossroads (2004); John D. Sykes, Jr., Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and the Aesthetic of Revelation (2007); Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own (2003).
6 My italics.


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