Land O’ Lakes’ Legacy of Ruin

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by Stephen Wynne  •  •  July 23, 2017   

Catholic higher education still reeling, 50 years on

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Fifty years ago Sunday, a storm of dissent was unleashed on the Catholic university system in the United States.

Over a long summer weekend in July 1967, representatives of Notre Dame, Boston College, Catholic University of America, Fordham, Georgetown and St. Louis University gathered in Land O' Lakes, Wisconsin to chart a new course for Catholic higher education. The conference was spearheaded by then-Notre Dame president Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C.

They sought to construct a statement of principles that would lay the groundwork for implementation of Second Vatican Council reforms. But as with so much "spirit of Vatican II" changes, the document that emerged from that meeting, the Land O' Lakes Statement, marked the beginning of a great unraveling that is still ongoing today.  

By the 1960s, Catholic universities were poised to make a deep impact on American society, in the wake of flagging Protestant institutions. Monsignor George A. Kelly writes that "Catholicism had proved to be a worthy competitor for the soul of Protestant America, whose politics, if not its anti-Catholic crusades, was rationalized on the campuses of well-known centers of Protestant learning."

Those centers, according to Fr. Avery Dulles, had reached the end of a "slippery path ... from denominational to generic Christianity, then to vaguely defined religious values, and finally to total secularization."

But rather than bringing new life to the American soul and mind, most Catholic universities simply followed their Protestant counterparts into oblivion, becoming de facto Protestant in their rejection of magisterial authority and teaching. Rather than reforming the system, the Land O' Lakes Statement sparked a devastating loss of Catholic identity and morality across the board, all behind the mask of "academic freedom."

The fundamental objective is spelled out in the manifesto's 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."  

In an interview with the National Catholic Register in 2008, the late Cdl. Francis George remarked that the statement was a means "to protect the independence and the autonomy of an individual professor, not as a way formally to protect the search for truth, as it is in the Catholic understanding of freedom: Freedom is for the purpose of discovering truth."

In its demands for liberation from clerical authority, Land O' Lakes served as a declaration of independence from the Church. Indeed, it was not truly a call for freedom, by a rally to revolt. The effects of the rebellion were sweeping. 

Within a few years of the statement's release, more than 200 Catholic universities had severed their legal ties to the Church in favor of administration by independent boards of trustees. Many even removed crucifixes from classroom walls to actively distance themselves from their Catholic identity. 

Reflecting on the legacy of Land O' Lakes, Catholic professor Patrick Reilly describes it as "a watershed moment, evidenced by the rapid changes that followed the statement. It was also the culmination of years of unrest in Catholic universities — in many respects, a moral struggle with the temptation to pride and prestige at the expense of Catholic identity."

He laments that ultimately, "It represented a public, deliberate choice for opportunity over mission, resulting in a voluntary exile from the once-lush gardens of truth and wisdom that had distinguished the world's Catholic universities."


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