Father Theodore Hesburgh, who convened the group that produced the 1967 Land O' Lakes statement on Catholic higher education, poses for a photo on Notre Dame campus in 1987

On October 1, Pope Francis visited the University of Bologna, where I spent almost twenty years as an undergraduate student, graduate student, and finally researcher and adjunct professor, before moving to America in 2008. Bologna is said to be the oldest university in the western world, its establishment pegged to 1088 or so. The term “alma mater” derives from the school’s full name: University of Bologna Alma mater studiorum, “nourishing mother of the studies.” Now a secular university in the Italian system of higher education dominated by state universities, Bologna has played a special role in the history of universities and, in particular, Catholic theology in the Middle Ages, from canon law (the famous Decretum Gratiani of 1140, the most important collection of law for many centuries) to debate about marriage (the role of consummation in marriage) to St. Dominic and the Dominican Order. In his speech to students and faculty at Bologna, Francis talked about the role of the university in our divided world: “The identity to which we belong is that of a common home, of the universitas. The word universitas contains the idea of the whole and that of the community”.

In addition to its nonacademic brevity, Francis’s speech was also timely, coming as many Catholic institutions of higher learning in the United States have been marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Land O’Lakes Statement. Issued in the summer of 1967, it reimagined and set to lay out a new path for Catholic higher education in the United States. While similar discussions were taking place in Colombia, France, and the Philippines under the auspices of the International Federation of Catholic Universities, Catholic higher education in the United States was stronger and of greater relevance relative to the rest of the world (it still is).

Soon enough the statement came to be seen in light of post-conciliar turmoil, and the attention it gets today reflects ongoing intra-Catholic culture struggles. Fifty years after its drafting, Land O’Lakes is a document that is attacked as much as it is celebrated, reliably cited in the anti-Vatican II reaction of the most vocal, neo-conservative and neo-traditionalist circles of American Catholicism, including the Cardinal Newman Society and the magazine First Things. It has also aged: Firmly rooted in the conciliar theological vision of the role of the Church in the modern world—the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes much more than the conciliar decree on education, Gravissimum Educationis—Land O’Lakes needs an update. But it is not clear if, when, or even how there might be another such meeting of leaders in American Catholic higher education.

The challenge is in finding common ground. In the half-century since Fr. Theodore Hesburgh convened the Land O’Lakes conference, differences among Catholic colleges and universities have grown. There’s a wider gap between top research universities and small liberal arts colleges. There’s a more diverse cultural spectrum within Catholicism, and more ideological polarization, with campuses reflecting these differences. Catholic identities and missions are in flux: while religious-cultural wars play out in theology departments, there’s otherwise a general indifference to theology elsewhere on Catholic campuses, and at some schools traditional theology and philosophy course requirements are being reduced or eliminated. There are many fewer women religious among faculties, and more laywomen. And, of course, more institutions historically run by religious orders are gradually giving way to lay-board leadership.

In his Bologna speech, Francis briefly mentioned the relationship between the role of the university and “our common home,” referencing Laudato si.’ That encyclical to some extent plays the role that Gaudium et Spes did in the immediate post-conciliar Church: a vision for the role of the Church in the world contending the emergencies of the time. Laudato si’ has become part of the syllabi at many Catholic universities, where it has gotten a better reception than it has from the U.S. bishops. Yet that reception still seems rooted in the notion that Laudato si’ is an encyclical only on the environment, when in fact it is also, and maybe more, a document on political power and knowledge. 

Laudato si’ has become part of the syllabi at many Catholic universities, where it has gotten a better reception than it has from the U.S. bishops

On politics, Laudato si’ advocates the rethinking of international relations (LS 51) and comes out specifically against the use of foreign debt as a way to control poor countries (LS 52). On knowledge, it speaks to the issue of technology, “which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others” (LS 20). It goes on to denounce the distorted connections among politics, economic interests, and the manipulation of information (LS 54). It criticizes the “divinization” of the market economy (LS 56). It challenges ideological polarization by linking social-justice concerns for economic equality, environmentalism, and pro-life culture (LS 90-92). And it advocates talking about gender and sexuality in a context of “human ecology” (LS 155): “It is not a healthy attitude which would seek ‘to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it.’” It reminds Catholics of the foundational concept of the “common destination of goods” for a truly Catholic understanding of private property (LS 93-94). It restates the key role of government in the protection and promotion of the common good (LS 157), the role of the state and of legislation, and the need to defend society, through politics, from economic interests (LS 177, 189, 196). Laudato Si’ and its call to “generate alternative solutions for our problems of today” was also in the opening paragraph of the more recent speech Francis gave to the Catholic University of Portugal on October 26.

Updating “Land O’Lakes” now, in light of Francis’s ecclesiology, would thus be important—not because of the prospect of the unknown of the next pontificate, but rather because his papacy signals an epochal shift in global Catholicism and therefore U.S. Catholicism. Francis embodies a new relationship between propositional Catholicism and testimonial Catholicism—something that challenges both liberal and conservative takes on the relationship between higher education and the institutional Church. Though the propositional and dogmatic thinking of John Paul II and Benedict XVI constituted a big obstacle in the relationship between academic theology and the magisterium, it is time for liberal theologians to leave the papacies of those three decades in the past. There seems to be little consensus now, other than on the value of critical thinking about religion and culture, on the value of “Catholic” and “ecclesial.” On the other side, the language of Francis on life issues and its refusal to use the rhetoric of the “non-negotiable values” makes it apparently impossible for neo-conservative, traditionalist, and “orthodox” Catholicism to acknowledge the evangelical and missionary side of this pontificate and its potential for the culture of Catholic educators. It’s not clear whether Catholic theological academia still sees itself with an ecclesial role, cooperating in building the Catholic tradition.

Francis may have said little on Catholic higher education directly, but a reception (or non-reception, depending) of his ecclesiology would impact the future of Catholic colleges and universities. Reception would likely help correct some misperceptions on the real challenges facing Catholic higher education. The debate on the legacy of Land O’Lakes tends to focus on issues of Catholic “identity” and (or versus) “mission”, in a political-ecclesiological framework largely centered on the issue of the relationship between Catholic institutions of higher education and the institutional Church—the papacy and the bishops. This is a consequence of what happened after Land O’Lakes: a growing autonomy of Catholic universities from the Church, and the response of John Paul II with 1990’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae, issued in order to correct some trajectories of post-Vatican II Catholic higher education, especially in the United States.

In this respect, this pontificate has interacted less than its predecessors with academia, in part too because of Francis’s anti-elitist reluctance to engage in a dialogue with academic theologians. Yet his theology and ecclesiology are rich in suggestions for the future of Catholic higher education, and particularly applicable to the challenges of today, primarily the survival of the idea of “university as a community” that believes in the education of the human person, not her enslavement to the technocratic paradigm.

Francis’s speech in Bologna was about the role of universities (not specifically of Catholic universities) in the world. While there’s a difference between the histories of what we think of as the “Western university” and American Catholic higher education, his ecclesiology helps us see either way that the university is part of a social, political, and economic context much larger than the relationship between Catholic academia and institutional Catholicism. Universities are not and should not be the intellectual counter-part of the institutional Church of the bishops—studium (education and scholarship) vis-à-vis sacerdotium (the clergy). Universities are also part of a constitutional view of our common home, where key pillars were and still are political power (regnum), society, and the market economy. In this sense, the debate on the future of Land O’Lakes has to have at least two areas of focus.

The first one is ecclesiological. A lot has changed in Catholic higher education since 1967. In addition to the factors mentioned above, there’s also now a wider gap between academic theology and the magisterium; stronger opposition to the idea of Catholic (including pontifical) universities serving as institutions of higher education for ecclesial movements like Opus Dei, the Legionaries of Christ, and Focolare; and a greater tendency to move research from universities to privately funded think tanks with a specific political agenda (see the Acton Institute, for example). And there is now also the question of the role of Church authority in higher education, as Catholic University of America president John Garvey pointed out a few months ago. Yet the real ecclesiological question still lingers: just what is the real “constitutional role” of Catholic universities in the Catholic Church? The recent Boston College conference on Amoris Laetitia gives us one possible example; Catholic University’s invitation to Charles Koch to speak on “good profit” gives us another.

The other and more urgent area of focus is the political. Is the “politics of knowledge” (David O’Brien’s coinage) expressed by Land O’Lakes still adequate? At the very beginning, Land O’Lakes states that “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.” There is no question that Catholic colleges and universities have acquired a remarkable autonomy from ecclesiastical institutions: this is something that should be treasured. But it should also be re-examined in light of Pope Francis’s missionary ecclesiology, especially in Evangelii Gaudium. Still more urgent: Who really threatens the “true autonomy and academic freedom” of Catholic higher education today? In light of the crisis of the humanities and of pretty much everything that does not directly meet the demands of the market, an exclusive focus on the relationship between the university and the bishops largely misses the point, or is an expedient alibi. Corporatization of the university, threats to academic freedom, the disappearance of tenure-track positions, and reliance on (if not exploitation of) an adjunct workforce are more worrisome than the dreaded intrusions of the magisterium or the local bishops. The reshaping of the university is well within the reach of the wealthy and the politicians on whom they lavish their money.

In short, how a Catholic college strikes a balance in its relationship with a weaker institutional church isn’t the problem. If there is to be an update of the Land O’Lakes Statement, the real starting point would be to learn where leaders in American Catholic higher education really stand on the increasing marketization and politicization of knowledge. There’s nothing less than our minds, but also maybe our souls, at stake.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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