Land O’Lakes (1967-2017): What Have We Learned About Falsely Framed Freedom?

COMMENTARY: Part of a Register Symposium

(photo: Shutterstock)

In July 1967 a group of Catholic educators, mostly university presidents and vice presidents, gathered at a conference center in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin, to discuss the nature of the modern Catholic university. The statement they produced touched on the important place of theology in the curriculum, the importance of dialogue between theology and other academic disciplines, and the Christian spirit that should permeate the university community.

But the document began with this proclamation about academic freedom:

“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. To say this is simply to assert that institutional autonomy and academic freedom are essential conditions of life and growth and indeed of survival for Catholic universities as for all universities.”

With this introduction the “Land O’Lakes Statement,”  as it has come to be called, began a debate about academic freedom and the Church’s teaching office that we are still engaged in half a century later.

It has also defined the terms of the debate. The statement sets up an apparent conflict between academic freedom and Church authority: The Catholic university must have academic freedom “in the face of” clerical authority. Our discussions have largely assumed that this conflict is real. They are framed as issues of conflicting claims of right — the right of academics to independent inquiry, the right of the Church to preserve and teach the faith, the right of the faithful to know whether a professor teaches theology in communion with the Church.

Before we ask how we ought to resolve the tension among these claims, though, we should ask whether they really conflict. At first glance, it would seem that they do.

The “Land O’Lakes Statement” expressed an idea of academic freedom popularized in American higher education over the course of the 20th century, particularly by academic associations like the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

In its 1915 “Declaration of Principles,” the fledgling AAUP stated that the “first condition of progress” in the discovery of truth “is complete and unlimited freedom to pursue inquiry and publish its results.” The “genuine boldness and thoroughness of inquiry and freedom of speech” required for the progress of knowledge is not compatible with the proscription or prescription of any idea. Schools committed to teaching the tenets of a particular faith, the AAUP concluded, “do not, at least as regards one particular subject, accept the principles of freedom of inquiry” (my emphasis).

This creates a dilemma for Catholic universities. Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution on the Church, says that “bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are ... witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, [they] speak in the name of Christ.” Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, applies this notion to higher education. Theologians should “be faithful to the magisterium of the Church as the authentic interpreter of sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition.”

But is the Church’s view of university life really inconsistent with academic freedom? I think not. To my way of thinking, it’s the AAUP’s view that limits free inquiry. The 1915 declaration will not countenance the pursuit of knowledge by any means other than the method endorsed by the dominant academic culture. Religious tradition, which is older than that culture, has its own theory of knowledge. According to that theory, truth is something we can’t fully grasp through our own unaided reason. According to that theory, God reveals himself to us in the Person of his Son, in Scripture, and in the Tradition and teaching authority of the Church. To be sure, it is a matter of faith whether this epistemology is right or wrong. But the same is true of the secular rationalism the AAUP would have us all embrace (McConnell, Academic Freedom in Religious Colleges and Universities, 53 Law & Contemp. Probs. 303, 313-314, 1990). How is the academic enterprise more free, rather than less, if we close off one path to understanding and force universities to confine their efforts to approved modes of inquiry?

It’s also a bit condescending for the AAUP and the Land O’Lakes drafters to suppose that they alone have a care for academic freedom. John Paul II stresses in Ex Corde Ecclesiae that the Church, too, “recognizes the academic freedom of scholars.” This is true “in each discipline in accordance with its own principles and proper methods, and within the confines of the truth and the common good.”

Some might object that John Paul’s is a more limited vision of freedom than the one proposed in the AAUP’s “Declaration of Principles.” The AAUP advocates a “complete and unlimited freedom,” not a freedom “in accordance with [the discipline’s] principles and proper methods.” But Ex Corde Ecclesiae actually speaks more carefully than the declaration. Academics in every field are constrained by the nature of their material and governed by principles and paradigms laid down by the scholarly community. A botanist is not free to say that a lily has legs. A scholar of Chinese law is not free to say that in Beijing the internet is unregulated. A doctor cannot learn surgery by watching medical dramas on TV. Come to think of it, the AAUP limits the freedom of theologians to believe that the Holy Spirit plays an active role in the life of the Church. If that were a permissible hypothesis, we would have to take a different view of Church teaching authority.

The “Land O’Lakes Statement” suggests that the AAUP can meddle in academic affairs, and the Church cannot, because the Church is an authority “external to the academic community itself.” This is certainly not how the Church sees the matter. Ex Corde Ecclesiae says, “Bishops ‘should be seen not as external agents, but as participants in the life of the Catholic university.’”

Whether the teaching office of the Church is internal or external to the university really depends on the epistemological dispute I alluded to earlier. We can’t answer the question without taking a position on whether the Church has something to contribute to our knowledge of God.

The subject matter of theology is God, as he has revealed himself in the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church. As Pope Benedict XVI has written, the Church “is that new and greater subject in which past and present, subject and object come into contact. The Church is our contemporaneity with Christ.” It cannot be a foreign or external authority in theology. “We must,” Benedict continues, “factor Church and dogma into the theological equation as a generative power rather than as a shackle.”

Fifty years after the Land O’Lakes conference, we academics speak frequently about a dialogue of faith and reason. This represents real progress from the narrower view put forward in 1967. It assumes that they — faith and reason — have something to say to each other. Openness to that dialogue is real academic freedom.

John Garvey is the president of

The Catholic University of America.