Editor’s Note: The Cardinal Newman Society is releasing several articles marking the 50th anniversary of the devastating Land O’Lakes Statement, in which several Catholic university leaders declared Catholic universities independent from “authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself”. In considering the future of Catholic education, it’s impossible to ignore the past. “How did we get here?” is a question essential to determining how many American Catholic colleges and universities can overcome their conformity to secular norms for curriculum, campus life, governance, and academic freedom. Ultimately, these articles serve as hope that the mistakes of the past can be corrected and that God will bless the renaissance of faithful Catholic education in the United States that is underway.
This article was originally published in The Enduring Nature of the Catholic University, a collection of essays released by The Cardinal Newman Society in 2009.
On July 23, 1967, at a meeting in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin, twenty-six leaders of Catholic higher education representing some ten Catholic colleges and universities in the United States of America issued what became known as the Land O’Lakes Statement. This statement, officially titled “The Nature of the Contemporary University,” declared that:
The Catholic University today must be a university in the full modern sense of the word, with strong commitment to and concern for academic excellence. To perform its teaching and research function effectively, the Catholic University must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself. To say this is simply to assert that institutional autonomy and academic freedom are essential conditions for life and growth and indeed of survival for Catholic universities as for all universities.1
Although the few Catholic educators who signed this Land O’Lakes Statement had no mandate to speak for Catholic higher education, their Statement nevertheless turned out to be surprisingly influential, and for many years it enjoyed near “official” status as describing what many had come to think the Catholic university ought to be today. The Statement both articulated some of the reasons for and encouraged the rapid secularization that was taking place on many Catholic college and university campuses from the late 1960s on. For the next few decades, the Catholic identity of many Catholic colleges and universities was either ravaged or, in most cases, simply regarded as a very low priority.
It now appears that the long winter has given way to an emergent but reliable thaw. It began with Pope John Paul II and his 1990 apostolic constitution Ex corde Ecclesiae,2 although at the time one could hardly have expected positive results, given the immediate, out-of-hand rejection of the Vatican’s expectations by many Catholic educators. It was confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI in his address to educators at The Catholic University of America on April 17, 2009, which this book commemorates. Although the hard work of renewing authentic Catholic identity at many of America’s institutions remains undone, the Holy Father was clearly aware that the time was right to present a vision for Catholic higher education that moves far beyond the minimal expectations of Ex corde Ecclesiae. It was a clear signal of the progress that has been made in nearly twenty years—in no small part due to the example of those colleges and universities that stayed true to the Church, as well as the attention of the Vatican and the U.S. bishops to the need for education reform.
But the times were much different in 1967, and the signers of the Land O’Lakes Statement very likely believed they had established a new, permanent direction for Catholic higher education. The Statement represented a virtual declaration of independence from the Church for those institutions that came to accept it. Unfortunately, many Catholic colleges and universities did come to accept it, especially in and through the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU). They accepted it because it justified many of the measures they were taking to secularize their institutions by modifying or dropping many features that had formerly marked an institution as “Catholic.”
The principal idea behind the Land O’Lakes Statement lay in its assertion that the Catholic university must be a university “in the full modern sense of the word.” The leaders of what amounted to an institutional revolt by them against the Catholic Church saw themselves as adopting a modern, secular “model” of a university as the only model of what it was to be a university. If an institution was not such a modern, secularized university, then the implication was that it was not a true university at all. Being relegated to this status was not a fate most Catholic educators wanted to risk.
While the Catholic Church beginning in medieval times had encouraged the founding of the first universities and, indeed, in a true sense could be said to have actually “invented” the very idea of a university, those days were long ago and no longer counted. What those who accepted the Land O’Lakes Statement apparently wanted was full acceptance by the American secular academic establishment. They wanted to be accepted as being on a par with secular institutions, without the baggage, as they considered it, of any odd or embarrassing or moralistic “Catholic” encumbrances. Certainly it was thought that there was no way any truly “modern” university could continue to be “subservient” to an authoritarian Church, for example.
From that day to this, the administrations and faculties of most Catholic institutions, hewing to the Land O’Lakes line, have consistently played down or eschewed specific Catholic policies, practices, or commitments seen as incompatible with the modern secular institutional model. At the same time, they have continued to insist that they are still fully “Catholic.” According to them, their Catholic identity was in no way attenuated or diminished just because, for example, they dropped prayers or chapel requirements, removed crucifixes from classroom walls, abandoned the idea that a critical mass of the faculty ought to profess the Catholic faith, ceased attempting to teach academic subjects in the light of Catholic truth, and eschewed acting in loco parentis as far as their students were concerned.
What everybody had formerly understood to be Protestant “private judgment” was now suddenly taken by the Land O’Lakers to be some new kind of “Catholic” norm: they would henceforth decide, not the Church, what rightly belonged to Catholic higher education, and what could conveniently be downgraded or dropped.
They also continued to belong to the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities as if nothing were amiss in the way of their Catholic identity. The ACCU leadership, meanwhile, over many years, itself followed and championed the Land O’Lakes line and steadily opposed all episcopal or Roman efforts to reinforce or restore policies or practices deemed essential by the Church to an authentic Catholic identity.
One of the principal reasons for the almost instant wide acceptance of the Land O’Lakes Statement within Catholic higher education was the idea that the Statement had ostensibly derived from secular American academic practice, namely, that to be a university in the true sense a school must enjoy “institutional autonomy” and “academic freedom.” However, the near absolutist way in which these two features had come to be understood by most Catholic educators made it difficult if not impossible for the Church to require any real Catholic discipline or to guarantee the integrity of her teachings as presented by theological and other faculties.
As for “institutional autonomy,” properly understood, it is an essential characteristic of any true institution of higher learning, and the Church strongly affirms it; she does not claim, and has never claimed, that universities must be directly operated or managed as a part of or within the Church’s own structure. But it is false that modern secular American universities enjoy the kind of total independence from any authority “external to the academic community itself” which the Land O’Lakes Statement implies they enjoy. American colleges and universities are subject to and regularly answer to a myriad of “authorities” external to themselves, whether federal, state, or local laws and ordinances pertaining to higher education, or the requirements of boards of trustees or regents, accrediting agencies, scholarly, scientific, professional, athletic, faculty, and alumni associations and societies, not to speak of the often stringent requirements imposed on them by legislatures, foundations, and other funding agencies. Secular modern American universities typically today even “answer to” outside “politically correct” pressure groups. So there was never anything inappropriate about independent Catholic institutions answering to Catholic authority insofar as the universities claim a Catholic identity and teach in accord with Catholic doctrine.
As for “academic freedom,” the Catholic Church affirms it when properly understood—although the Church does insist that academic freedom “must be preserved within the confines of truth and the common good” (Ex corde Ecclesiae, 12). Yet the signers of and adherents to the Land O’Lakes Statement appear to understand the term as the near absolute right claimed today by many secular academics. The description of it in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences is often cited as authoritative: “Academic freedom is the freedom of the teacher or research worker in higher institutions of learning to investigate and discuss the problems of his science and to express his conclusions, whether through publication or in the instruction of students, without interference from political or ecclesiastical authority” (emphasis added).
This definition makes the freedom and rights of professors or teachers almost absolute, while the corresponding freedom of churches or other sponsoring institutions to set up, operate, and control their own colleges and universities, as well as the freedom and rights of students and their parents to be assured that the education being imparted is within an announced religious or creedal framework, is simply cancelled out by the supposed academic freedom of professors to do or say what they please. Acceptance of this definition of academic freedom quite simply abolishes the right of the Church to insist that subjects be taught in a Catholic institution in accordance with the truths of the Catholic faith.
The Church was initially slow in responding to the challenge posed by the Land O’Lakes Statement. In 1972 the International Federation of Catholic Universities (IFCU) adopted a document setting forth “the essential characteristics of a Catholic university,”3 which were incorporated into the revised Code of Canon Law promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1983.4 The canons affirm the right of the Church to sponsor universities (Canon 807); require that no university may bear the label “Catholic” without the permission of the competent ecclesiastical authority, namely, the bishop (Canon 808); insure the autonomy of the university while upholding the integrity of Catholic doctrine (Canon 809); stipulate that scholars and teachers may be removed if they fail to meet the Church’s doctrinal and moral standards (Canon 810); and require that those who teach theology in any Catholic university must have a mandate (mandatum) from ecclesiastical authority, again the local bishop (Canon 812).
The ACCU, as well as many of the heads of Catholic colleges, vehemently opposed these canons during the drafting of the new Code. A delegation of American bishops actually went to Rome to lobby against them. Following the promulgation of the Code, the Canon Law Society of America prepared a commentary suggesting that these canons were not applicable in the United States. They were not, in fact, implemented here.
The Holy See responded on August 15, 1990, with Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution Ex corde Ecclesiae. Besides being a beautiful description of everything that a Catholic university should be, ECE includes some twenty-five general norms which, among other things, insist that a truly Catholic university is necessarily linked to the Church and is subject to episcopal oversight, especially in the doctrinal and moral areas. Following a period of intense opposition from many American educators, the U.S. bishops, in November 1999, approved an application of ECE which came into force in June 2001. Another document implementing the theological mandatum requirement was approved by the bishops a year later.
With the enactment of these episcopal ordinances, it could finally be said that the U.S. bishops, after more than forty years, had resumed their proper proprietorship over the definition of the term “Catholic university.” It was never anything but a huge anomaly that a group of self-appointed Catholic educators meeting in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin, should have presumed to be able to redefine this term. But for a long time, it seemed they had succeeded.
The Church has a long road to travel before Catholic higher education is fully back in the fold. The habitual opposition of scholars continues in many places and many Catholic colleges and universities are not fully in compliance with Ex corde Ecclesiae. What is clear, however, is the direction in which things are moving. The restoration of the true definition of the term “Catholic university” by Church authority marked the formal end of the Land O’Lakes era. It is the fidelity and creative leadership of a new generation of educators and leaders—including those whose valuable work is featured in this collection—that point the way forward.