Forty years ago this coming summer, some two dozen prominent Catholic educators met at a Wisconsin resort and issued the “Land O’Lakes Statement.”
Those were heady days in the academy: the Council of “openness,” Vatican II, had ended 18 months before; student protests against the Vietnam War were heating up; the once-staid Catholic University of America had exploded in the spring of 1967, as both students and faculty protested the administration’s decision not to renew the contract of a hitherto obscure moral theologian, Father Charles Curran.
Land O’Lakes was also written in the shadow of John Tracy Ellis’s 1955 essay, “Catholic Intellectual Life in America Today,” which rightly challenged U.S. Catholic institutions of higher education to a level of excellence worthy of the Church which had given the West the very idea of a “university.”
As I read Ellis, though, he was urging Catholic colleges and universities to play-to-strength by making themselves into first-rate liberal arts institutions with a distinctively Catholic character; he wasn’t urging Catholic colleges and universities to imitate every contemporary fashion in the wider world of American higher education.
The Land O’Lakes signatories would deny that that’s what they wanted; but that’s largely what they got, thanks to the Statement’s call for “true autonomy,” which was read in many quarters as invalidating any significant relationship between Catholic colleges and universities and the teaching authority of the Church. The new “magisterium” to be followed would be the vision of higher education defined by elite American schools.
Alas, this was precisely the moment when Harvard, Berkeley, Cornell and other trend-setting universities were in intellectual, cultural and moral meltdown. The net result was what we see on more than a few elite Catholic campuses today: curricula, faculty, and modes of life that would have stood John Tracy Ellis’s elegant shock of white hair on end.
A few months after Land O’Lakes, an accrediting agency, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, issued its report on Catholic University and averred that, unless drastic changes were made in the ways the university functioned academically and was governed, CUA’s accreditation should be withheld.
Now, no one familiar with CUA in those days can doubt that change was required. But change is one thing, and revolution is another. And revolution is what the Middle States report prescribed. An exaggeration? Here’s one of the most striking sections of the Middle States report:
“[CUA's] concern for tradition and orthodoxy have been an inhibiting factor [in its functioning and growth]…. A good institution must endow its students with the capacity to reconcile orthodoxy with dissent and must impose a framework of discipline at the same time as it encourages rebellion against it.”
That second sentence is not a misprint. It is, however, a pluperfect expression of the intellectual and moral confusions of the late Sixties. Those confusions set the cultural context in which the Land O’Lakes Statement (which makes some entirely valid points) was received and implemented in many Catholic colleges and universities, with damage visible down to today.
Two generations later, new winds of change are blowing through Catholic higher education in America: the bracing winds of dynamic orthodoxy. Some elite Catholic schools are, sadly, lost — and quite likely lost for good. Yet others have made significant comebacks in recent years, thanks to generational change in theology departments, courageous presidential and board leadership, students who demand authentic Catholicism from schools that market themselves as “Catholic,” and the work of alert alumni.
Moreover, several smaller Catholic liberal arts colleges, in virtually every part of the country, are giving fresh life to Msgr. Ellis’s vision of revitalized classical learning in a Catholic context — and proving once again that that kind of learning is a better preparation for a professional future that the intellectual disarray that still reigns supreme on some campuses with stratospheric U.S. News & World Report ratings.
These new-wave Catholic schools consider their linkage to the Church an integral part of their lives. In doing so, they remind us that doctrine is liberating, even in institutions dedicated to critical thought.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.