John Garvey is inaugurated as Catholic University president

John Garvey, a former dean at Boston College Law School, becomes the first lay person to hold the job in more than three decades.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 9:28 PM

The profanities coming from the mouth of the professor in a recent class on freedom of speech were not, by themselves, all that shocking. But this was Catholic University, a bastion of traditional values. And the professor was its new president, John H. Garvey.

A few students glanced at each other awkwardly as Garvey used the words as part of his lecture on controversial speech. Then Garvey showed a YouTube video of actor Mel Gibson using foul language in a taped conversation with an ex-girlfriend. As his voice grew louder, a student popped out of her chair and turned down the volume.

"You can't pussyfoot around it," Garvey said later. "Forget about taboos."

The scene was a small sign of the change happening at the nation's flagship Catholic university as Garvey, 62, who was formally inaugurated Tuesday, becomes the first lay person to hold the office since 1982. Garvey is a former dean at Boston College Law School and has set a more informal tone on campus while shifting attention toward more open debate and a well-rounded experience for undergraduates.

"The challenge for Catholic universities is finding a place for bibles and papal decrees between our telescopes and microscopes," Garvey said during his inaugural address Tuesday. (He started in July; the inauguration was ceremonial.) "I think the fault for this flat, crabbed, cartoonish vision of Catholic higher education lies not with the critics of religion, but with us. We have been so intent on defending ourselves against charges of fundamentalism and censorship that we have failed to create, let alone promote, a serious Catholic intellectual culture."

Garvey's predecessor, Bishop David M. O'Connell, lived alone in the president's residence and donated his $367,000 annual salary to his Vincentian order. Tall and telegenic, O'Connell was a prominent conservative figure and a frequent guest at the George W. Bush White House.

At Catholic, he forbade an official club for gay students and blocked campus speakers who voiced messages at odds with Catholic teachings. This prevented actor Stanley Tucci from appearing at a film festival in 2004.

Garvey, by contrast, came under fire from Catholic traditionalists in 2007 when he allowed a Democratic congressman who had supported abortion rights to speak at the law school's commencement. He also contributed money to the campaigns of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a fellow Catholic who clashed with some church leaders during his run for president in 2004.

"In the 12 years he was at Catholic, [O'Connell] reestablished Catholic identity in ways only a priest can do," said Michael Sean Winters, a former seminarian who writes books and blogs about the Catholic Church and politics. These included celebrating Mass when the earthquake hit in Haiti and generally "walking around in a collar as a walking advertisement for vocations. For Catholics, leading liturgy is very, very important."

Garvey, who was Catholic-educated, has a wife and five children. He's considered more of a political centrist. Garvey has spoken of elevating the scholarly currency of Catholic just as his predecessor strengthened its spiritual identity.

Thomas Melady, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican who has two graduate degrees from Catholic and attended the inauguration, said the reaction to Garvey has been "very positive."

The differences between the men may be mostly of style, he said. Garvey "may express things a bit differently, but I don't expect to see any tremendous differences," Melady said.

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