The Idea of a Catholic University 50 Years After Land O’Lakes

William Inge (1860-1954), Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University and Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, was frequently in the literary crosshairs of G.K. Chesterton for his anti-Catholic polemics and strident promotion of eugenics. Fortunately, Chesterton also rejected his advocacy of nudism. Given Dean Inge’s eclectic version of progressivism, one is struck by his cynicism about faddish thinking: “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.”

Exactly fifty years ago, fads ran wild at the “Land O’Lakes Conference” in Wisconsin organized by Father Theodore Hesburgh of the University of Notre Dame to update the culture of Catholic higher education. Its summary document was published on July 23, in a year when society seemed to be having a nervous breakdown. It was a time of Vietnam protest rallies, an exploding drug culture, the Cold War at fever pitch, and actual combat in the Six Days War. Instead of challenging the cultural neurosis, the Church succumbed to it, as theological and liturgical chaos disappointed what Joseph Ratzinger would call the Pelagian naivetés of the Second Vatican Council. The heads of Catholic colleges and universities who gathered at Land O’Lakes were fraught with a deep-seated inferiority complex, rooted in an unspoken assumption that Catholicism is an impediment to the new material sciences, and eager to attain a peer relationship with academic leaders of the secular schools whose own classical foundations were crumbling and whose presidents and deans were barricading their offices against the onslaught of Vandals in the guise of undergraduates.

Like Horace’s mountains that gave birth to a ridiculous mouse, the 26 conference participants labored for three days and then declared portentously in the first line of their Statement: “The Catholic university today must be a university in the full modern sense of the word.” Then they rallied the rhetorical anesthetics at their disposal to call for “warm personal dialogue” and “a self-developing and self-deepening society of students and faculty in which the consequences of Christian truth are taken seriously in person-to-person relationships.” While these cadences anticipate the cobbling of what in our present time have come to be “safe spaces” for students and faculty fleeing from facts or ideas they find upsetting or offensive, the Statement then trumpeted its real message: “…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.”

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What we see on college campuses today, to wit the defiant prohibition of any speech that contradicts secular orthodoxy, is rooted in that false conceit of intellectual freedom which in fact is an unthinking acceptance of the Kantian antimonies of will and reason. Twenty years after Land O’ Lakes, the first Jesuit president of the Catholic University of America, Father William Byron, wrote: “We have never said that a student coming here is going to be indoctrinated. Just as a Catholic hospital is, first of all, a hospital, a Catholic university is, first of all, a university.” In that same year, as this writer recalled in an essay published in 1995, the president of Marymount College in New York, Sister Mary Driscoll preened: “In the 1960s and early 1970s most Catholic colleges severed even tenuous ties to the Church… We became independent and named lay trustees because of accreditation, the increased sophistication of higher education as a major enterprise and because of demands of growth.” On the fortieth anniversary of the Land O’Lakes Conference, Marymount College was dissolved.

The Land O’Lakes Statement was hardly innovative, save in its destructive influence on Catholic education, for it was in fact a reactionary return to the early nineteenth century materialist pedagogy in Prussia which developed after the shock of its defeat in the battle of Jena, and to the utilitarian syllabus of Jeremy Bentham in England.

In many ways, John Henry Newman faced crises parallel with those of 1967, when he delivered his “Lectures on the Idea of a University” in 1854. He was founding the Catholic University of Ireland in Dublin when most of the Catholic bishops themselves were conflicted about what constitutes university education. Newman’s vision extended beyond their parochial borders and his genius was a perplexity to prelatical mediocrity. Newman saw even more clearly than those at Land O’ Lakes that there is a distinction between natural knowledge and revealed knowledge, and that indoctrination is malignant only when it does not see the difference. Orthodoxies should be thought out, lest they become independent of reason. The ambiguous Catholicism of Land O’Lakes invoked a phantasm guised as freedom for truth but which was nothing more than liberty to reject truth.

Fifty years later, secular schools have their own orthodoxies, and there are inquisitors ready to arraign anyone who doubts the dogmas of global warming or “transgenderism.” Where there is no right learning there will be rote learning, be it that of the fideist or atheist, and the two in fact will become indistinguishable. Newman taught in the classical sense of liberal education, whose core curriculum is largely abandoned now in schools that have become training centers for future hedge fund managers and computer engineers. “The end … of a Catholic University or of any university is ‘liberal education’; though its ultimate end may be Catholicism.” This was not a declaration of independence from Catholicism, but very much a declaration of dependence on that rational thought which provides the system and structure for Catholic culture in all its aspects.

Newman’s project in Ireland was by many accounts a failure and not the only one of his disappointments, as he had to contend with a defensive insecurity among the Catholic leaders of his generation as palpable as that of those who huffed and puffed at Land O’Lakes. The singular difference was that in 1854 they thought the life of the mind might wreck the Faith, while in 1967 they though that it was the Faith. In exasperation, Newman wrote to a friend in 1873: “The laity have been disgusted and become infidel, and only two parties exist, both ultras in opposite directions.”

So Newman wrote in his journal in 1863 words which could apply equally to the bishops of his day in Ireland as to the signatories of the Land O’ Lakes Statement: “From their very blindness [they] cannot see that they are blind. To aim at improving the condition, the status, of the Catholic body, by a careful survey of their argumentative basis, of their position relatively to the philosophy and the characters of the day, by giving them juster views by enlarging and refining their minds, in one word, by education is (in their view) more than a superficiality or a hobby—it is an insult.”

If I have belabored citation of Newman, it is because he is as grand in thought and expression, as those at Land O’Lakes were not. Newman still is, while Land O’Lakes never was. Their ideas of a university clash, but in the perspective of history, the meager ruminations and pompous assertions from that gathering in Wisconsin someday will be embarrassing curiosities more interesting to anthropologists than to theologians. As Dean Inge predicted, their marriage to the spirit of the age has left them as widowers. But the wreckage of Catholic education around us, notwithstanding the bright spots in places where classical liberal education is getting a second breath, witnesses to the harm that wrong thinking and limited imagination can do. Superficial thought can be deeply ruinous. The Land O’Lakes Conference was to higher Catholic education what the Yalta Conference was to Eastern Europe. I neither indulge pessimism nor tease gloom if I suspect that few students in academic institutions today have ever read Newman’s Idea of a University even though it may be the most sublime discourse on the art of learning since Aristotle. If there are pieces to be picked up and a new start made against all odds, it will be while heeding what Newman wrote by lamplight on a dim day in Dublin:

Hence a direct and active jurisdiction of the Church over [the university] and in it is necessary, lest it should become the rival of the Church with the community at large in those theological matters which to the Church are exclusively committed, —acting as the representative of the intellect, as the Church is of the religious principle.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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