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A Perspective on Catholic Higher Education Forty Years after Vatican II and the Land ‘O Lakes Statement

I hope there are two things upon which we can agree at the beginning: Vatican II had a profound impact on the Church, on both its institutions and its people. Second, the Land O’ Lakes position paper of 1967 proposed a vision for Catholic Higher Education reflecting the energy, optimism, and boldness of the Council. Retrospectively, we know what worked and what didn’t; where the optimism was warranted; where it wasn’t; which ideas gained momentum; which fizzled; what proposals were eagerly embraced; which were rejected. We also know that, whatever your opinions about the results, not since the 1960’s have so many American Catholics possessed so much exuberant confidence.

The Land O’ Lakes statement was an early and important effort to define the mission of Catholic Higher Education in light of the Council and in light of the perceived need to challenge those within and outside the Church to take seriously these academic institutions as legitimate participants on the landscape of higher education. This era might be characterized as a kind of “debut” for an emboldened American Catholicism that stepped on to center stage among national players in politics, higher education, etc. The energy of the Council, the election of the first Catholic President, and the sheer numbers of Catholics finding acceptance within many exclusively WASP associations and institutions—among them universities—signaled to many American Catholics that they were no longer considered bit players, outsiders, members of an immigrant Church. They had finally arrived.

Of course, any retrospective of this period must also consider the limitations of manifestos like that written in Land O’ Lakes. Activism of this sort was, after all, “so 60’s!” Yet, for its time and circumstances, these academic leaders understood that the Council Fathers’ call for the Church to engage the modern world implied a corresponding response among Catholic institutions, especially universities. For all its lofty idealism, the manifesto was also prompted, as historian David O’Brien and others have suggested, by very pragmatic concerns about such things as gaining access to federal grants, negotiating matters of authority and control between university administrations and sponsoring religious congregations. They considered the context and conditions in which they found themselves and acted according to their best lights.

This combination of idealism and pragmatism is, in my opinion, precisely what has served Catholic universities from their inception and will continue to serve them. It must be remembered that the Church got into this university enterprise originally in response to the real needs of twelfth century communities coping with the problems and challenges associated with the creation of cities, a merchant class, demands for educated lawyers, doctors, and clergy, etc. Despite what some may assert, the study of religion and theology was, except for the training of clerics at places like the University of Paris, rarely pursued. These earliest communities of scholars and masters were often the spontaneous outgrowth of lay initiatives; in some cases supported by local bishops; still, in others, protected from Episcopal interference by papal intervention. The origins of these first European universities were as diverse as were their purposes. One size did not fit all from the beginning; nor does it now. In fact, these were Catholic universities because of their basis in the life of the faith community, their context, their circumstance; less so because they conformed to some abstract standard of Catholic authenticity removed from an atmosphere of communal interchange with the world. To describe Catholic universities as born from the heart of the Church would be, in the context of their origins, also to describe them as born from the heart of the World or Society, for, in those times and in those places, these were virtually one and the same.

The history of the development of Catholic colleges and universities offers one lens through which to read our own signs of the times. For example, the nineteenth century public and protracted arguments between the Bishops of Ireland and John Henry Newman, the founding Rector of the Catholic University of Ireland ended when Newman resigned, protesting the Bishops’ interference. Newman’s insistence that the university adopt a more secular curriculum, not that of the seminaries as the Bishops proposed, echoes the frequent struggles that marked university life since its inception. The conference at Land O’ Lakes in 1967 and the more recent arguments about the application of the document Ex Corde Ecclesiae and the issuing of the mandatum might be considered variations on a theme. These controversies, in turn, have their counterparts at every turn where Catholic universities intersect with Church and Society. Thus, the history of Catholic Higher Education suggests that it enjoys a far more expansive and dynamic character that exposes the limitations of a precise, formal, or absolute mission and identity of Catholic universities. Why? Because one dominant mark of a Catholic university is its openness to an intellectual exchange with the world, its ability to lean from the society in which it lives, and its development within a specific historical, theological, and contextual situation. All of this, of course, was both affirmed and confirmed by the Second Vatican Council. The notion that there exists some immutable, absolute standard for what constitutes an authentic Catholic university defies its historical, theological, and contextual development.

My point is not to dismiss the yearnings of those who long for such absolutes, nor to deny that our faith provides us with a distinctive perspective and insight into God’s truth. Some remember an era, often conditioned more by nostalgia than history, when the abundant presence of priests and religious, a predominantly Catholic population of students and faculty combined to create a culturally Catholic environment. In many places, this was, indeed, the situation; but not in all. My point is that the strength, the genius, and the contributions of Catholic universities are not necessarily weakened as authority shifts from clerical to lay; as the demographics and culture become increasingly diverse and correspondingly less homogenous. In fact, a significant mark of a Catholic university is precisely the ease with which it moves freely within its dynamic relationships with Church and Society.

When one considers the identity or character of Catholic universities in situ; that is, within the context of their relationships both to the Church and the World, it broadens the scope of our discussion in, at least, three ways.

First, it underscores the dynamic and ever-changing nature of these relationships, offering Catholic universities the opportunity to assume leadership in transmitting and creating the intellectual and artistic capital that enriches these relationships through their graduates, their scholarship, and their service. Because Catholic universities relate well with all who stand along the continuum where faith and reason interact, they offer common ground for the free exchange between the sacred and secular.

Second, because Catholic universities are at the fulcrum of the Church and Society and in relationship with both, they bear a special responsibility to hold these in tandem and in tension, offering and receiving from both anything and all that contributes to the enhancement of these communities, including criticism, but also returning the fruit of their labors. This implies a nimbleness, flexibility, and adaptability; in other words, the exercise of responsible freedom to engage on all fronts and under any circumstances the issues, problems, and challenges of the times. To this end, Catholic universities have the particular advantage of drawing upon the full array of inherited wisdom and tradition, with a special competency in tapping the various intellectual, social, moral, and spiritual traditions of the Catholic Church.

Third, Catholic universities, by virtue of their relational character and development within both the Church and Society always benefit—in fact need—the full participation of both. Thus, these universities become microcosms of Church and Society in relationship and partnership, where sameness is not a virtue; diversity of belief, perspective, experience, and expertise is. Clergy, religious, and laity; believer and non-believer; young and old; the learned and the neophyte; men and women of every race, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation---all who make up the People of God in Church and Society-- belong at the deliberative table of the Catholic university.

What is normative for Catholic universities is their sheer location among the constellation of all those institutions—from the most parochial (like the parish) to the least (like Catholic Health Care, Catholic Charities, etc.)—that share the faith traditions and teachings of the believing community. Catholic Universities, in particular, proceed from the heart of the Church and from the heart of the world (ex corde ecclesiae et ex corde orbis), standing at the intersection of Church and society. The central documents of the Second Vatican Council advance this concept by acknowledging and respecting the role of hierarchical discernment that takes seriously the discovery of the fullness of truth through dialogue and exchange with the world. Here the formative influence of culture, the role of the laity in its contribution to the faith, and the Church’s constant advance “toward the plenitude of divine truth” is carefully delineated in Dei Verbum, 8; Lumen Gentium, 12-14; Apostolicam Actuositatem, 2-4. This model is communal and interactive, not formulaic and abstract.

By recasting the perspective on Catholic universities in terms of a “contextual” identity of dynamic relationships instead of a more formal “definitional” identity of immutable and fixed ideas, we begin to understand their potential as leaven within both Church and Society, accelerating progress on behalf of the human community which is also in service to the Gospel.

Over forty years ago, the Council Fathers and the drafters of the Land O’ Lakes Statement read the “signs of the times” and responded accordingly. The signs of our own times suggest that Catholic universities may be particularly suited to engage many urgent challenges, like those posed by globalization. Two examples:

In addition to the notable strengths of intellectual capital and service, so generally characteristic of higher education of the United States, Catholic universities enjoy the privileges and bear responsibilities associated with their relationship to a global Church. The repository of the Church’s intellectual, social, and spiritual traditions can be mined for wisdom by student and scholar alike in seeking solutions to many of the global threats posed by conflicts between and among religious groups; between those invested in national economic or political self-interest and those committed to transnational policies on the environment, monetary policy, and arms control.

Catholic universities de facto enjoy an international network, connected by the sponsorship of religious congregations; initiatives from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, or professional associations like the International Federation of Catholic Universities. The potential for mutually beneficial exchanges among groups like these simply leverages the great asset of a wisdom tradition that both informs and is formed by its encounters with cultures and traditions of Asia, Africa, the Americas, Eastern and Western Europe. This is the global landscape of Church and Society; it is also the landscape of Catholic universities.

To conclude, I offer two brief examples of a Catholic university expanding and extending its academic and service mission because of its relationships with a global Church and society:

In January 2003, the Catholic Bishops of the United States and Mexico issued a pastoral letter Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, focusing on the increasing mortality of migrant workers, especially those crossing the US-Mexican border. In October 2003, the Transborder Institute of the University of San Diego sponsored a week-long conference that brought together students, academics, law enforcement and government officials, activists, and migrants to examine the many problems associated with migration raised by the Bishops’ pastoral letter. In addition to the many academic benefits of this conference were the transformative experiences that resulted from the exchanges among those who rarely encountered one another.

The Archdiocese of Mbarara, Uganda witnesses the deaths of over 10,000 infants a year from water borne diseases like malaria and river fever. At the request of the Ugandan archbishop and with the financial support from a local parish in the San Diego Diocese, the University of San Diego, and students themselves, a team of six graduate nursing students and their professor traveled to Mbarara in March 2007 and conducted a feasibility study for constructing a children’s’ hospital that would reduce the mortality of children, train health care workers, and study the long-term effects of nursing intervention on children. In January 2008, a follow-up team from the University returned to Mbarara that also included students and professors from programs in business and chemistry. Their work and research aimed at assisting the Mbarara community in business planning for its hospital and in mitigating the environmental damage to its water supply.

These are simply two examples that many Catholic Colleges and Universities might offer to authenticate their particular character. All of this implies, of course, continuing efforts to develop the desire and the competencies of faculty and others within our universities, so that they can embrace the many challenges of this educational mission with all its ambiguities. At their best, these faith-based, academic communities—neither totally ecclesiastical nor totally secular—stand at the crossroads of Church and society, exercising responsible freedom on behalf of both. With this perspective, forty years after the Council and the gathering at Land O’ Lakes, Catholic universities remain well positioned to read and respond to the signs of the times.

Mary E. Lyons, Ph.D.
University of San Diego

[Delivered at the annual meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, 3 February 2008]

David O’Brien, The Land O’ Lakes Statement,” Boston College Magazine, (Winter, 1998) accessed at www/

For a study of the diverse origins of Catholic universities and the battles over autonomy, see Olaf Pederson, The First Universities, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997), 122-189.

See Gaudium et Spes, 42-44 in Walter Abbott, S.J., ed., The Documents of Vatican II, (New York: Guild Press, 1966), 245ff.

In this regard, one must consider the following statement from Ex Corde Ecclesiae as conditioned by the historical context within which it was written: “…every Catholic University, as Catholic, must have the following essential characteristics ….” On Catholic Universities: Ex Corde Ecclesiae. (Washington, D.C: United States Catholic Conference, Fourth Printing, March 1999), 13.

Abbott, passim.

For a more recent example of scholarship that examines this history, see John T, Noonan, Jr., A Church that Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005).