WASHINGTON (CNS) — Not all Catholics are familiar with the Land O’ Lakes statement, a document on Catholic higher education with a cool sounding name, but this landmark text needs no explanation for Catholic college and university leaders.
The document’s official name is “Statement on the Nature of the Contemporary Catholic University,” but its catchier title did not give it widespread acceptance. Ever since it was signed July 23, 1967, the text has been both revered and criticized.
Even conferences about the document on its 50th anniversary have different takes. Promotional material for an upcoming symposium co-sponsored by St. Louis University and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities says the statement has not gone uncontested, adding: “Some consider it a revolutionary road map for Catholic education in the modern world; others have declared a half-century of devastation. Others designate it a mixed legacy.”
This past January, the Cardinal Newman Society and the Institute of Catholic Culture sponsored a conference on the text that was described as a discussion of “the crisis in Catholic education under attack from the secularist agenda set forth 50 years ago by the disastrous Land O’ Lakes Statement.”
The document, which is still promoting such strong discussion, was put together by a group of two dozen Catholic college educators at a retreat center in Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin — hence the statement’s name.
The group — invited by Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh, then-president of the University of Notre Dame and Jesuit Father Paul Reinert, then-president of St. Louis University and what was the Jesuit Secondary Education Association — met to examine the role of Catholic colleges and universities in the modern world and, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, to submit a paper to the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education.
The group’s members were primarily priests, including superiors from colleges’ sponsoring religious communities, Catholic scholars and a bishop, all of whom belonged to the North American region of the International Federation of Catholic Universities.
Their statement said in part that Catholic universities must have institutional autonomy and academic freedom along with their commitment to Catholic faith and life. It raised eyebrows at the time, and now, for its wording about university autonomy that some say has contributed to the secularization of many U.S. Catholic universities.
Critics have primarily focused on this sentence: “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.”
Leaders in Catholic higher education who spoke to Catholic News Service said the document should be judged on its entirety and by what it helped to promote — the success of Catholic colleges in today’s academic environment.
Michael Galligan-Stierle, president and CEO of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said the group that gathered at Land O’ Lakes, “wasn’t a bunch of renegades or people who didn’t love the church and didn’t want Catholic education to advance.”
He also said the document should be examined and compared to “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” (“From the Heart of the Church”), an apostolic constitution issued in 1990 by St. John Paul II that outlines the identity and mission of Catholic colleges and universities and provided universal norms to ensure colleges maintain these standards.
At its essence, Galligan-Stierle said the statement was meant to be a “a way to strengthen our schools” to be competitive with other universities and provide options for students to want credible degrees.
The fruit of the document, he said, is in the success today of Catholic colleges and universities — where enrollment has doubled what it when the document was written. Another testimony to what Catholic colleges are doing today, he said, are studies that show Catholic college graduates are often active lay leaders in their parish.
Marc Pugliese, assistant professor of theology and religion at St. Leo University near Tampa, Florida, said before the document was written, Catholic universities were already taking some of the steps it outlined, particularly in making their governing boards and theology staffs include more lay people.
He said one weakness of the document is that it says Catholic colleges and universities need to be a strong Catholic presence but it is vague about what that means.
But the document itself acknowledged it wasn’t covering all the bases. The text’s preamble says it “does not pretend to present a full philosophy or description of the Catholic university. It is selectively and deliberately incomplete.”
Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, the current president of Notre Dame, writing about the Land O’ Lakes statement in an America magazine article posted online July 11, said that “despite the brevity of a document composed swiftly,” the statement “presented a bold, hopeful vision informed by Vatican II.”
“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,” he added, stressing that Catholic leaders should acknowledge and correct the limitations of the text but also “continue to strive to realize its vision.”
Jesuit Father Christopher Collins, St. Louis University’s assistant to the president for mission and identity, said the tension that Catholic universities face today are not unlike those the Land O’ Lakes writers considered.
In many ways, he said, today’s Catholic universities are living out that call of Pope Francis, to be at the peripheries.
“It’s messy and confusing, but it’s exciting. It’s good stuff,” he said.