The relationship of Church and university

Half a century after representatives of several Catholic universities declared their schools’ independence from the Church, controversy continues over the Catholic identity of many American Catholic institutions of higher learning.

Supporters say the 1967 manifesto — called the “Land O’Lakes Statement” — brought Catholic colleges and universities in line with their secular peers in regards to academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Critics say that happened at the price of the schools’ diminished relationship with the Church.

One thing is for sure: Land O’Lakes has had a profound effect on Catholic higher education in America — an effect magnified by events that preceded it as well as by the stormy nature of the time during which it was released.

Land O’Lakes Statement

The Land O’Lakes Statement came after more than a decade of public and private criticism of the alleged deficiencies of Catholic colleges and universities. Directly or indirectly, much of that criticism concerned the schools’ relationship to the magisterium — the teaching authority — of the Church.

Significantly, too, the statement appeared less than two years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, an era marked by conflict over change in the Church, and at the midpoint of the 1960s, a decade filled with cultural turmoil and eruptions against authority.

The name Land O’Lakes comes from the Wisconsin conference center, owned by the University of Notre Dame, where 26 academics and others gathered in July 1967 for an invitation-only discussion of Catholic higher education. Hosting the session was Holy Cross Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame 1952-87.

Taking part in the July meeting were representatives from nine schools in addition to Notre Dame: Boston College, The Catholic University of America (CUA), Catholic University of Puerto Rico, Fordham University, Georgetown University, the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, St. Louis University, and Laval University and the University of Sherbrooke, both in Quebec.

Five of the 26 participants came from Notre Dame and nine from four Jesuit schools. The group also included the superior general of the Holy Cross Fathers, the order that founded Notre Dame, and an assistant general of the Jesuits, along with two U.S. bishops — Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan of Atlanta and Auxiliary Bishop John J. Dougherty of Newark, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ education committee and former president of Seton Hall University.

No women were present at the meeting, although many of the country’s 300 Catholic colleges had been founded by and, at that time, were largely staffed by women’s religious orders.

A modern university

The statement released at the end of the meeting is comparatively short — less than 2,000 words. Its key section reads as follows:

“The Catholic university today must be a university in the full modern sense of the word, with a strong commitment to and concern for academic excellence. To perform its teaching and research functions 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 of life and growth and indeed of survival for Catholic universities as for all universities.”

The document says a Catholic university has “the same functions as all other true universities” while at the same time possessing “distinctive characteristics” — especially, those associated with being “an institution, a community of learners or a community of scholars, in which Catholicism is perceptibly present and effectively operative.”

Land O’Lakes was widely welcomed in Catholic higher education circles as a call for change.

Many schools moved rapidly to incorporate separately from the religious orders that had established them and to establish lay-majority governing boards. Faculty hiring policies were changed, curricula were revised and new, more relaxed rules were adopted on lifestyle issues like alcohol and dormitory life.

On many Catholic campuses, academic freedom replaced fidelity to the magisterium as the reigning watchword. Faculty members at Catholic institutions were prominent in dissenting from Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the Church’s traditional prohibition on contraception, a document that appeared in 1968, just a year after Land O’Lakes.

New era, new problems

By then the statement already had critics. They pointed out that the ideal it proposes — “a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind” — was, among other things, unrealistic since their schools, like others, were necessarily accountable to external authorities that included accrediting agencies and federal, state and local governments. Declaring themselves wholly independent of the authority of the Church alone was a strangely selective move for institutions that still wished to be considered Catholic.

In 1990, Pope St. John Paul II, himself a former university professor in Poland, issued a document titled Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”), setting out his view of the relationship of Catholic universities to the Church.

Like Land O’Lakes, the pope’s document affirmed institutional autonomy and academic freedom but with a significant condition: “so long as the rights of the individual person and of the community are preserved within the confines of the truth and the common good.”

Pope John Paul identified four “essential characteristics” of a genuinely Catholic school: the “Christian inspiration” of individuals and the institution itself; reflection on the body of human knowledge in light of faith; “fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church”; and service to the Church and the community. After 10 years of trying, the U.S. bishops eventually adopted their own document implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae and received Vatican approval for it.

A decade after that, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called on its members to meet with presidents of Catholic colleges and universities and assess the situation as it then stood. Many apparently did.

These days the bishops and the schools generally take a live-and-let-live approach, although with occasional flareups over commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients — like Barack Obama at Notre Dame in 2009 — known for advocating legal support for abortion or other practices condemned by the Church. Hence, Catholic identity remains an issue.

In an OSV interview several years ago, John H. Garvey, president of CUA, said academic freedom on Catholic campuses was now secure.

“What we need to worry about,” Garvey added, “is, ‘Where’s the beef?’”

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.