The document that changed Catholic education forever
Land O’ Lakes, the University of Notre Dame’s property on the border of Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, occupies 7,000 heavily-wooded acres with roughly 30 lakes. The area’s lush vegetation and placid waters invite visitors to leave daily anxieties behind to be enveloped in the serene, natural beauty. It was here that Catholic university leaders gathered in 1967 to produce a five-page document that has come to be known as the Land O’ Lakes Statement. The tranquil location of its genesis belies the stormy reception it has received over the years.
After the dramatic and—for many—stirring reforms of the Second Vatican Council, the International Federation of Catholic Universities asked its members to gather in regional conferences and reflect on Catholic higher education. In July 1967 a group that comprised leaders of major Catholic universities, several superiors from their sponsoring religious communities, some Catholic scholars and one bishop gathered at Land O’ Lakes, Wis., in response to this call, and in conversation with a pivotal document of the council: “The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (“Gaudium et Spes,” 1965). The group subsequently released the Land O’ Lakes Statement, which offered a vision for Catholic institutions to be universities “in the full modern sense of the word.” As such, they asserted that each university must possess the “institutional autonomy and academic freedom [that] are essential conditions of life and growth and indeed of survival for Catholic universities as for all universities,” and remain “an institution...in which Catholicism is perceptibly present and effectively operative.”
The tranquil location of its genesis belies the stormy reception it has received over the years.
Although most agree that the Land O’ Lakes Statement has had a pervasive influence on Catholic higher education over the last 50 years, many have seen its influence as unconstructive or simply pernicious. According to David O’Connell, former president of The Catholic University of America and now a bishop, the statement introduced “confusion” into the church. For Patrick Reilly, president and founder of the Cardinal Newman Society, the statement has led to the de-Catholicization of Catholic universities. “It is hard to imagine,” Reilly stated, “[that] such a simple document could have such devastating impact on Catholic higher education.”
The controversy over this statement has served as a proxy war for conflicting narratives about the legacy of Vatican II, the contemporary state of Catholic higher education and the exercise of authority in the church. From the perspective of 50 years on, with new controversies and a very different papacy, we can perhaps better understand the context, vision, limitations and legacy of the Land O’ Lakes Statement for Catholic higher education and for the church generally.
Criticism of the Lakes statement has in essence been that, whether for craven motives (such as desire for academic prestige or government funding) or simple naïveté, its authors set Catholic universities on a course toward the diminishment of a robust and distinctive Catholic character. To support this charge they quote primarily—and in very many cases exclusively—a single sentence from its opening paragraph: “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.” Setting aside the sometimes heavy-breathing polemicists, even serious scholars have failed to read the statement beyond this line.
One esteemed scholar of American higher education, Philip Gleason, quotes in his book Contending With Modernity only that sentence and concludes straightaway that the document was a “declaration of independence from the hierarchy.” While the theologian (and one-time Notre Dame provost) James T. Burtchaell mentions in passing other significant points in the document in his book The Dying of the Light, he writes there that in the statement the Catholic university asks “only to be left alone” by the church. It was, according to critics, this stiff-arm of the church hierarchy by university leaders that led, in Burtchaell’s words, to the “dying of the light”—the diminishment of the distinctive Catholic mission of these institutions.
These narrowly focused critical readings of the Lakes statement have several difficulties. Most obviously, critics have failed to note the character of the autonomy the document’s authors seek. They were indeed concerned about the scope and exercise of ecclesiastical control over Catholic universities, and for them it was more than a theoretical question. In 1954 the International Federation of Catholic Universities’ elected head, Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., received a letter from the superior general of his congregation instructing him to withdraw a book of papers from publication by the University of Notre Dame Press. This instruction was issued because of one paper on religious freedom, written by the eminent theologian John Courtney Murray, S.J, who was at that time highly controversial. (Murray would later become a highly influential contributor at Vatican II.)
Such an egregious intrusion into the academic life of a Catholic university was rare, but in the mind of Hesburgh and his colleagues at Land O’ Lakes, the fact that it was even a possibility threatened the integrity of their institutions. Hesburgh responded that he would resign if he had to do this, and, after much back-and-forth, it was agreed that Notre Dame Press would not reprint the book after the first edition was sold out.
The Holy Office may condemn certain views as incompatible with Catholic doctrine, but it was unacceptable to the defenders of universities that writings in a scholarly press could be suppressed by a secret directive of an ecclesiastical authority. No doubt some scholarly views gain currency for nonrational factors, such as an intellectual fad, and some may abuse academic freedom. The very heart of a university’s work, however, is the pursuit of truth through free and transparent exchange of ideas and arguments. The removal of a serious work by a respected scholar from that exchange by ecclesiastical order—and a clandestine one at that—threatened the university’s central activity and undermined its credibility. Were a university to submit to such intrusion, however orthodox it may be, it would cease to be a university in the full sense.
Because this was their concern, the authors of the Lakes statement immediately qualify the stated need for institutional autonomy with the following: “To say this is simply to assert that institutional autonomy and academic freedom are essential conditions of life and growth and indeed of survival of Catholic universities and for all universities.” The document’s intent, clearly, was not to declare absolute independence from all external authority. It was not claiming, as the critics’ reading would imply, exemption from all civil as well as ecclesiastical laws. It asserted, rather, the independence necessary for the university as a community whose essential activity is the free and open exchange of views and arguments in a common pursuit of truth.
A final flaw in critics’ interpretation of the Lakes statement lies in its failure to recognize the statement’s broad, positive vision.
Critics have also failed to sufficiently acknowledge the context of its composition as it relates to church authority. As noted above, the Lakes statement originated as part of a dialogue of Catholic educational leaders around the world, spearheaded by the International Federation of Catholic Universities, who were responding to a constitution of an ecumenical council. The authors of the Lakes statement were determined to produce a document that would be submitted, alongside documents from elsewhere around the world, for review by the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education of the Holy See. This is hardly the path of one intent on a unilateral declaration of independence from all ecclesiastical authority.
A final flaw in critics’ interpretation of the Lakes statement lies in its failure to recognize the statement’s broad, positive vision. In its second paragraph the statement describes a Catholic university as “a community of learners or...scholars, in which Catholicism is perceptibly present and effectively operative.” The statement’s proposal on how this central objective was to be achieved has gone undiscussed in many conversations about its legacy.
If the Lakes statement’s authors sought to make their institutions places where ideas could be exchanged, defended and criticized openly and free from external intrusion, how did they hope to ensure that Catholicism would be “perceptibly present and effectively operative” in them?
The statement’s answer is clear: Catholicism’s “operative presence is effectively achieved first of all and distinctively by the presence of a group of scholars in all branches of theology.” Initially, academic theology may seem an odd place to begin in shaping a contemporary Catholic university when the liturgical life of campus, the moral and spiritual formation of students and other practical demands are at stake. How can the authors have expected a theology department—even one with excellent scholars in all branches of theology—be expected to make Catholicism present throughout a research university?
The statement’s assumption seems to be that for Catholicism to be present in an academic community, it must first of all inform the intellectual life of the community of scholars. Theology’s role, along with philosophy’s, is not simply to be one department among others that may not be found—or, at least, not found in such a prominent role—at secular peer universities. Rather, the statement asserts that at a Catholic university there must be “constant discussion in which theology confronts all the rest of modern culture and all areas of intellectual study which it includes.” Through this dialogue, it is thought that theology will be enriched by the learning of various disciplines, but will also influence these other areas of study.
The Lakes statement eschews any theological or philosophical imperialism by which these disciplines, through administrative or ecclesiastical fiat, dictate conclusions to others. While the autonomy of disciplines is respected, inquiries proceed according to their respective methods, and it is expected that through interdisciplinary dialogue there will arise an awareness, in the words of the Lakes statement, of “the philosophical and theological dimension[s] to most intellectual subjects when they are pursued far enough.”
The above quotation reflects the authors’ broadly Thomistic framework in which theology, informed by revealed doctrines of faith, studies God and all things in relation to God, while philosophy studies the first principles of all things as these can be discovered by human reason alone. The authors seem to be saying that what distinguishes Catholic universities and makes Catholicism operatively present in them is that, stirred by robust interdisciplinary conversations with theology and philosophy, the intellectual community is open to and engages with questions of ultimacy that eventually lead them to conversations about God and the good for human beings, individually and collectively.
A university is an intellectual community. For this reason, it makes sense that Catholicism must in the first place be found not in its liturgical life, the piety of its members or respect for ecclesiastical authority—as important as all these are—but in its intellectual life. The distinctiveness of the intellectual life of a Catholic university will be achieved by interdisciplinarity in teaching and inquiry that leads students and scholars to conversations about God, good and the ends of human life.
Although they give them less attention, the statement’s authors also recognize that other disciplines and their faculties are critical. To achieve their vision, the document states that a Catholic university must develop “considerable strength” in a range of disciplines, and “in many or most of the non-theological areas” there must be present “Christian scholars who are not only interested...and competent in their own disciplines, but also have a personal interest in the cross-disciplinary confrontation.” Although it will research all fields, a Catholic university will prioritize problems of “greater human urgency or Christian concern.”
In the Lakes statement, the authors imply that a theologically-grounded intellectual community will in turn shape undergraduate education. While there will be “no boundaries or barriers” to inquiry, students should receive “a competent presentation on relevant, living Catholic thought,” which emphasizes ultimate questions across disciplines, reflects a concern for their human and spiritual development and exposes them to pressing problems of the day. The hope of the Lakes statement is that students will find a social situation in which Christianity can be lived and should enjoy “opportunities for a full, meaningful liturgical and sacramental life” and find avenues to engage in service.
All these characteristics, taken together, are intended by the statement’s authors to create “a self-developing and self-deepening society of students and faculty in which the consequences of Christian truth are taken seriously in person-to-person relationships, where the importance of religious commitment is accepted and constantly witnessed to, and where students can learn by personal experience to concentrate their talents to worthy social purposes.”
Critics of the Lakes statement insist it initiated, intentionally or unintentionally, a slide toward secularism. But what the document actually envisions, rather ambitiously, is a university whose Catholicism is pervasively present at the heart of its central activities—inquiry, dialogue, teaching and human formation. The internal dynamic of these activities, as they saw it, would lead to God and to a consideration of all things in relation to God, and these activities would take place in a community of faith redeemed and transformed by Christ.
It was perhaps precisely the confidence of the Lakes statement’s authors, in their Catholicism and their institutions, that led them to overlook some very real challenges to achieving their vision. The statement was produced in the decade when the United States had elected its first Catholic president, when there arose burgeoning opportunities for Catholics to exert influence at the highest levels of society and when global Catholicism shared in the exuberance of the years after Vatican II. Its authors were bullish about the possibilities for their institutions to compare well with the best secular institutions by the ordinary measures of scholarship and education, to be even more deserving of the name “university” through the integrative role of theology and philosophy and to be a resource for the church.
In spite of its confidence—or perhaps because of it—the document failed to appreciate the difficulty of finding scholars to implement the vision.
In spite of its confidence—or perhaps because of it—the document failed to appreciate the difficulty of finding scholars to implement the vision. If their vision was to be realized, Catholic research universities would have to recruit a large number of theologians “in all branches of theology.” These scholars would need to have both the ability and interest not only to conduct research at the highest level in their chosen areas, but also to be intellectual leaders of colleagues across the disciplines, and to foster interdisciplinary, integrative conversations. This expectation placed an enormous burden on theologians, and finding a sufficient number who could bear it would not be easy.
The Lakes authors also failed to consider the challenges of producing and recruiting scholars across the disciplines needed for its vision, which requires interdisciplinary conversation and the presence of Christian scholars in these conversations.
Research at the best institutions is inevitably highly specialized, and truly original research often focuses on narrowly defined areas. Genuinely interdisciplinary conversations, particularly those that go to the philosophical and theological dimensions of a discipline, are difficult to sustain. The Lakes statement offers very little advice about how Catholic universities might do so effectively.
In addition to overlooking the demands of the broader academic sphere to specialize, the statement asks specifically for “Christian scholars” in “non-theological areas...who are not only interested...and competent in their own fields but also have a personal interest...in cross-disciplinary confrontation.” Aside from the point above about specialization, even in the 1960s a trend toward secularization among academics was apparent and continues today. A 2009 survey found that among faculty members in elite research universities, 20 percent said they believed in God without serious doubts, but 35 percent described themselves as agnostics or atheists.
Perhaps most critically, the Lakes statement failed to make any positive suggestion about what the relationship might be between the Catholic university and ecclesiastical leaders, although it did notably reject the intrusion of ecclesiastical authority in ways that compromised academic freedom and the integrity of the university. This failure also left room for misunderstanding of the spirit of “autonomy” that the authors desired. Perhaps the authors assumed that for institutions sponsored by Catholic religious communities, dioceses or, in the case of The Catholic University of America, by the Catholic bishops of the United States, some substantive relationship with the Catholic hierarchy could perhaps be taken for granted.
Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” (1990) echoes the Lakes statement in asserting unequivocally that a Catholic university possesses the “institutional autonomy necessary to perform its functions effectively and guarantees its members academic freedom.” It goes on to assert, however, that a Catholic university must “maintain communion with the universal Church and the Holy See [and] is also in close communion with the local Church and in particular with the diocesan Bishop of the region or nation in which it is located” (Part II, Article 5, No.1).
“Ex Corde” can be viewed as the result of the dialogue begun by the Lakes statement; it echoes some of its themes while providing a corrective to others. Even in it, however, the correct balance between autonomy and communion, and their role in practical decisions, are not precisely defined. Unfortunately, the questions generally come to a head often in the glare of publicity around commencement speakers, honorary degrees and controversial events on campus, as occurred with the invitations to President Obama to Notre Dame in 2009, Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, to Georgetown in 2011 and Enda Kenny, Prime Minister of Ireland, to Boston College in 2013. Certainly, more dialogue is needed between university leaders and bishops regarding such high-profile events.
Despite the brevity of a document composed swiftly, after only two brief meetings, those gathered at Land O’ Lakes in the summer of 1967 presented a bold, hopeful vision informed by Vatican II. While prizing academic freedom and institutional autonomy as essential to a true university, they envisioned a Catholic university that met the highest standards of scholarship, while fostering interdisciplinary integration catalyzed by a theological focus; education of undergraduates at the very highest level, while students grappled with ultimate questions of meaning and purpose, were sustained by a vibrant liturgical life in Christian community and had opportunities for generous service; and the application of the university’s research and scholarly expertise to service to the church. The document’s limitations left questions to be addressed, but the vision in broad outline is one that makes truly serious Catholic research universities possible for our time. It has the vision that has helped shape the University of Notre Dame for the past 50 years.
In his 1998 encyclical, “Faith and Reason,” Pope and Saint John Paul II powerfully articulated the principle in which the call for responsible and free inquiry at a Catholic university is grounded. “The Church has no philosophy of her own, nor does she canonize one particular philosophy over another,” for in its search for truth “philosophy must remain faithful to its own principles and methods,” the pope wrote. “At the deepest level, the autonomy which philosophy enjoys is rooted in the fact that reason is by its nature oriented to truth and is equipped moreover with the means to arrive at truth” (No. 49). While the church’s magisterium may correct it when it has taken a “wrong turn,” this is “intended to prompt, promote and encourage philosophical enquiry” (No. 51).
What the pope said about philosophy can be applied to biology, psychology, history and other disciplines. Each discipline seeks the truth as it can know it by its methods of inquiry and, on the basis of these, it must argue for its conclusions. Catholic scholars and Catholic institutions should bring perspectives, questions and insights to their inquiries—as do scholars of any stripe—but conclusions must be justified on the basis of the principles and methods of the discipline in question. Our rich Catholic intellectual tradition undoubtedly shapes the questions we ask; yet the answers we seek must be grounded not only in that tradition but also in the best secular scholarship in our respective disciplines.
We could say that Catholic universities are the institutional expression of this Catholic belief in the harmony of faith and reason.
This principle—that each discipline must freely seek truth in accord with its own principles and methods—is essential to the integrity of any university, and consequently the signatories of the Land O’ Lakes Statement insisted on it 50 years ago. The embrace of this principle in Catholic teaching arises from a deep confidence that faith and reason are in harmony, that rigorous reasoned inquiry conducted honestly and openly will confirm and deepen our understanding of faith, not undermine it. Admittedly, the pursuit of truth in these inquiries is not usually linear. It is full of surprising turns and discoveries that give rise to a new set of questions; it often takes wrong turns and leads to dead ends; and while the conclusions may initially seem to conflict with certain claims of faith, we can, with time and further insight, come to see that they are compatible with these claims and, indeed, lead us to a deeper understanding of them. Yet a belief in the harmony of faith and reason gives assurance that rigorous rational inquiry in the various disciplines will lead to truth, and that truth will complement and deepen our understanding of faith.
We could say that Catholic universities are the institutional expression of this Catholic belief in the harmony of faith and reason. It is a credit to the signatories of the Lakes statement that they shared the faith that led them to proclaim a confident vision for Catholic higher education. While we acknowledge and correct the limitations of that document, it is our task to continue to strive to realize its vision. Yet it is right, 50 years on, to pause from our striving for a moment to celebrate the depth of their faith and the boldness of their vision.