August 23, 2017 // Columns

Freedom and the mission of Catholic universities

Guest Commentary: Adrian Reimers

Fifty years ago, Father Hesburgh of the University of Notre Dame invited two dozen leaders in Catholic higher education to Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin, to plot out a new path for Catholic universities. At the end of their meeting in July 1967, the group issued its “Statement on the Nature of the Contemporary Catholic University,” better known now as the Land O’ Lakes Statement. This summer and fall we see articles and hear of conferences debating the value of that statement. Some hail Land O’ Lakes as a boon to Catholic education, a decisive moment from which Catholic colleges and universities have grown and flourished. Others have called it a “disaster” that fostered a revolt against Church authority, resulting in the “devastation” of Catholic education.

To some extent, both sides of that debate may be right. Here, I want to say something different. The Land O’Lakes Statement, contrary to its authors’ intentions, fails to meet the challenge of the Second Vatican Council and the vocation of Catholic education. 

The central issue is freedom and autonomy. It was for freedom that these Catholic leaders met in 1967, and academic freedom is the issue today. To do its work of teaching and research, the modern university needs autonomy and freedom from outside interference. Therefore, Land O’ Lakes famously declared, “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.” Consequently, over the past 50 years, including within our own diocese, Catholic colleges and universities have refused to be answerable to the local Ordinary, even while athletic associations and the Title IX office in Washington dictate what values and principles universities must embrace. (Fr. Jenkins of Notre Dame dared to disagree publicly with the NCAA and ACC. Soon after, his football team had its undefeated season stripped from the records.)

On this vital point we have to note two serious weaknesses of Land O’ Lakes, which states: “Every university, Catholic or not, serves as the critical reflective intelligence of its society. In keeping with this general function, the Catholic university has the added obligation of performing this same service for the Church.” This implies that secular universities are actually performing this task of “critical reflective intelligence” for society. They are not. Pope St. John Paul II repeatedly called on universities to resist the influence of materialism, scientific reductionism and secularism on our cultures. A fair and reasonable assessment of our public and even most private universities is that they uncritically accept the regnant materialism and secularism of our consumerist culture.

Concerning the education of undergraduates, Land O’ Lakes states, “The whole world of knowledge and ideas must be open to the student; there must be no outlawed books or subjects.” Yet, on most university campuses today the student is hard-pressed to find discussion or debate of such questions as the immortality of the soul, the bases of morality, metaphysics and the existence of God, or even the meaning of life. Perceptive contemporary observers worry that the best and the brightest graduates of our elite universities are graduating with excellent skills in finance and the sciences but are culturally ignorant, devoid of the intellectual resources to understand their society and their own souls.

So, the first point is that universities in general have serious problems that they cannot even see. It is simply naïve to think that a gathering of intelligent people freely exchanging their thoughts will eventually come to the truth. Wisdom is not a kind of scholarly cream that rises to the top after a sufficiently long scholarly debate. Even on our best and most elite campuses, intellectual fads run rampant.

Although Land O’ Lakes intends to reflect the vision of Vatican II, it does not. The council is not mentioned or cited. Its rich teaching is ignored. The Pastoral Constitution, “Gaudium et Spes,” teaches: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. […] Christ […] fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.” From a later section on culture we can derive a rich understanding of the nature and calling of higher education and particularly of Catholic universities. Pope St. John Paul II drew upon precisely that chapter of “Gaudium et Spes” in his Apostolic Constitution “Ex Corde Ecclesiae.” There he wrote: “The mission that the Church, with great hope, entrusts to Catholic Universities holds a cultural and religious meaning of vital importance because it concerns the very future of humanity.” Let us note that the Pope says that the future of humanity depends on what Catholic universities have to offer. Whenever he spoke to Catholic faculties and scholars, he reminded them that they were responsible for their cultures and as such responsible for man himself. He never failed to offer the riches of Christianity, the promise that the human person has a transcendent destiny to communion with God, a destiny that enriches every culture and orders human wisdom so that all the sciences harmonize in the light of truth.

Land O’ Lakes is naïve. There have been instances of ecclesiastical overreach in Catholic universities. In an article in “America,” Fr. John Jenkins of Notre Dame cites an example from 1954. However, if we look around at American secular universities, we see striking lack of freedom. In them few professors or students feel free to discuss the reality of the soul, the existence of God, the morality of contraception or abortion. By contrast, in my classes at Notre Dame, besides Aquinas and Maritain, we read Marx and Darwin. This is what we understand our job to be.

Professors need freedom to do their research. This is true. But it is simply naïve to think that freedom reigns in the halls of academia. As with teaching, so it is with research. Scholarly fad and political correctness dictate the boundaries of “safe” scholarship. A young scholar hoping for a career in academia must be careful not to tread into the toxic subjects. He must take his standards of analysis from the secularist, materialist paradigm. The supposed advantage to attaining professorial tenure is that one can finally speak his mind. But even the most established professor can find himself in trouble if his writings or lectures stray too far from today’s accepted secular orthodoxy.

In short, Catholic professors and students do not need protection from their bishops. The battle for true freedom of thought is elsewhere. Only in harmony and cooperation with the Church—especially with its bishops — can the university effectively serve as a defender and promoter of the dignity of the human person, because only so can Catholic academia be sure that it is learning from the One who is Truth.

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