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.