Land O’Lakes at 50: Catholic Universities Cave to Culture

COMMENTARY: Part of a Register Symposium

(photo: Pixabay)

Fifty years ago this summer, a group of prominent Catholic university presidents and professors put forth a “Statement on the Nature of the Contemporary Catholic University,” now commonly known by its provenance as the “Land O’Lakes Statement.” As is typical of the work of committees, the statement consists wholly of vague abstractions. Most of these were meant to sound notes of confidence.

The signatories were sure they and their institutions would meet the unspecified challenges of the time. They wished to affirm the distinctive yet undefined character of a Catholic university and to celebrate with benign satisfaction the wonderful development of said university, from its humble beginnings under the tutelage of the Church to its current adulthood, ready to stand alongside its secular counterparts and to be recognized for its seriousness and its independence.

Had they taken themselves less seriously, the statement might have enduring merit; but then they never might have drafted a statement in the first place.

As it is, Land O’Lakes must go down in history as a case of the maximum possible error: a prediction that flies in the face of what the predictors could have seen had they not shut their eyes to the obvious, and that is therefore proved in short order to have been disastrously and absurdly wrong.
Let us consider the natural before we move to the divine.

“With regard to the undergraduate,” say the signatories, “the university should endeavor to present a collegiate education that is truly geared to modern society. The student must come to a basic understanding of the actual world in which he lives today.”

Who could be against understanding the actual world?
But what is that little word “actual” doing in there? The signatories suggest that other forms of education might not be geared toward “modern society” and that “actual” world, but rather toward, I suppose, past societies and a world that no longer exists.

Yet a few sentences later, they tell us that the young person must be able to draw upon “the insights and the achievements of the great men of every age.” Why so? The signatories do not explain. Let me attempt to explain for them.

You may read Virgil’s Aeneid not merely to learn about Rome during the days of Augustus Caesar, but to deepen your understanding of the most human things, what Russell Kirk called “the permanent things.” Virgil can never be irrelevant to man because he is one of the great poets and a prodigious philosopher of human motivations and because human nature does not change. The “actual” world is in important ways the same world, age after age, because the same creatures dwell in it: human beings, marred and soiled by sin. The circumstances change, the modes of expression change, but the underlying reality is constant.

But it is precisely the naive fascination with the modern — the “New and Improved” cultural toothpaste — that characterizes the modern as such and is its most terrible and obvious weakness.

Aeneas always turned to his father Anchises for counsel. Modern man looks upon Anchises with bemused tolerance or scorn; and that is why modern man is a damned fool. He reinvents cultural wheel after wheel and rarely condescends to make them circular.
C.S. Lewis once said that if you aim for heaven, you get earth in the bargain, but if you aim for earth alone, you lose heaven, and what you gain on earth won’t be worth much either. That wisdom applies also to the permanent truths of human life and the ephemeral.

Those who are caught up in the raving of the day ultimately prove to be the most useless servants; they miss the eternal, for which they do not aim, and they cannot judge even the temporal things before them.

That explains why the signatories, who believed themselves to be immersed in the pressing troubles of the time, ignore the abyss at their feet. Let us recall the time.

What in 1967 bore signs of promise? Popular culture had sunk into the celebration of drugs and death. Why Johnny Can’t Read was already more than a decade old. Whole orders of priests and nuns were about to crumble into apostatic ruin. Thirty percent of African-American children were born out of wedlock, and the one sociologist who pointed out that was a dangerous trend, Daniel P. Moynihan, was reviled as a racist and reduced to silence.

And then there was the controversy over sex.

That, I fear, is the real cause behind the blandly phrased but defiant rejection at the opening of the statement: “To perform its teaching and research functions effectively 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 was at that time no chance — none — that the secular powers of the United States would be brought to bear upon the Catholic college to threaten its identity.
Since 1967, of course, Catholic colleges have tamely and sometimes eagerly embraced the authority of the state. There is hardly anything that the state will demand that any but a handful of Catholic colleges will resist.

What made the signatories of Land O’Lakes wheeze and gasp was not the possibility that the state would give them their marching orders. They seemed ready to jump and salute — we are Americans (and Canadians) too! The threat, they perceived, was from the Church.

Now, it does not occur to them that the Church’s authority differs from that of the state or from that of a secular academic organization.

The “autonomy” that the signatories demand is an illusion, if it means anything more than a relative area of freedom, such as Catholic colleges have always enjoyed, no matter the occasional controversy.

We are not laws unto ourselves. We cannot be, first because we are sinners, second because none of us is sufficient unto himself; but most of all because, as made in the image of God, we seek authority out. Authority properly understood is a source of increase for those who heed it: Latin augere. The dutiful son, the more he matures, takes into himself his father’s wisdom and grows greater and wiser and more capable by it. His obedience, his hearing, is his way of participating in that authority.

The signatories give no sign that they understand this dynamic. I could forgive that in a secular organization, but did these men not claim to follow that Jesus who said that the Son does nothing but what he sees the Father do?

Ah, but Jesus is never mentioned in the “Land O’Lakes Statement.” I doubt very much that the signatories wanted to shrug away the authority of Holy Mother Church for any reason whatever.

So we turn to the neuralgic pressure point of that time and of our own. I wish it were really something as respectable as a quarrel over the provenance of genuine authority. No, I fear that we do not turn to the library for the source of the conflict, but the bedroom, rather, or a bathhouse.

Would that the signatories had been resistant to the authority of the culture around them and what passed for its reasoning. When the U.S. Supreme Court (in Griswold v. Connecticut, 1965), in what we may call the high prophetic mode, legalized the sale of artificial estrogen pills, finding a right to artificial estrogen pills lurking in the penumbra of a Constitution gone into eclipse, Justice William Douglas stood as it were in holy awe before the sanctity of the marital relation. That particular holy awe was never to be heard from again, and the pills were peddled to all people regardless of marriage, just as the half-hearted lawyers for the state of Connecticut said they would be.

Indeed, the court would shortly declare that the pills had to be made available for everyone, and any concern for the effects upon marriage was nowhere to be found (Eisenstadt v. Baird, 1972).

Then, in the infamous decision of Roe v. Wade (1973), the court, now apophatic, professed not to know when human life began, nor would they open a biology textbook to find out — and again speaking from out of the midst of holy darkness, ignoring the marital relation altogether, and seemingly unaware that there ever was such a thing as a husband and father, the court trembled before the sacrosanct bond between “a woman and her doctor.” 

The Land O’Lakes signatories lived in the midst of those currents, and instead of swimming manfully against them, they floated along like dead things, defying the Church who watched from the shore.

Pope Paul VI would issue Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth) in 1968, in an exercise of unwarranted authority as far as such Catholic leaders as the signatories saw it.

But it was really a lifeline that they refused to grasp.

In The Dying of the Light, Holy Cross Father James Burtchaell, who knew to his own agony whereof he spoke, said that the first sign that a Catholic college was going to become another secular also-ran was its compromise on matters sexual.

Like Pope Paul, Father Burtchaell was if anything not pessimistic enough.

Nobody, even 20 years ago, would have predicted the sheer insanity of our time, when academics, the biggest suckers on the Barnum parade, can say, without doubling over in laughter, that a man can give birth to a baby.

Nobody, even 10 years ago, would have said that a baby at birth was “assigned” a sex, as you might be assigned a homeroom for your first year in high school based upon where you were in the alphabet.

We have arrived at a point where, if you believe about sex what everybody believed about it before Land O’Lakes and for a long time afterward, you are considered vile and hateful.

Hedonism and cruelty are kissing cousins, and bleeding cousins. It has always been so.

Pope Paul, not ignorant of history, knew it and said that the contraceptive mentality would reduce women to the playthings of men; he did not see that it would also end up reducing men to the playthings of women.

Fifty million (or is it 60 million — what’s a few million here or there?) dead babies give their mute and bloody witness to its hardness of heart.

Forty percent (or is it 42% — what’s a million here or there?) of U.S. children born out of wedlock long for true fathers in their lives, and sometimes for true mothers, but the grunts of overgrown adolescents seeking pleasure drown out their mutterings and their sighs.

The chaos of the “hookup,” the dread loneliness of young people who stay clear of that, the fracture of marriages everywhere, or the failure to marry in the first place — what millstones should we hang about our necks now, after all the evidence is in?

“And you also,” said the Lord to the apostles, when many of his disciples had left him because the saying was hard and who could accept it, “where will you go?”

“To whom shall we go?” said Simon Peter. “You have the words of everlasting life.”

Land O’Lakes, a dry gulch, with the bleached bones of cattle lying about. If only they had remembered where the living waters flow.

Anthony Esolen is a

fellow at

Thomas More College

of Liberal Arts

in Merrimack, New Hampshire.