Response to Land O’Lakes: ‘In a Word, It’s Fidelity’

How some Catholic colleges resisted the secularization of the ’60s.

The interior of the chapel at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California. The college will open a campus in Northfield, Massachusetts, in the fall of 2018.
The interior of the chapel at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California. The college will open a campus in Northfield, Massachusetts, in the fall of 2018. (photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons)

This month is the 50th anniversary of a turning point in Catholic higher education: the signing of the “Land O’Lakes Statement,” which unleashed a tide of secularization among those universities that accepted its principles but also spurred a countercurrent of renewal and revitalization among those that avoided its pitfalls.

The “Land O’Lakes Statement” stressed academic freedom and institutional independence over the authority of the Church. “Put simply, Land O’Lakes was a prideful attempt to separate Catholic education from the obligation to be faithfully Catholic,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, a watchdog in Catholic higher education that produces a guide to faithful schools, akin to the Register’s own annual “Catholic Identity College Guide.”

Since the 1967 statement, Catholic identity at schools like Georgetown University, Boston College and Fordham University has faded. Those that remain faithful today include both older schools such as Franciscan University of Steubenville and The Catholic University of America as well as a number of smaller colleges that were founded in response to the decline of so many of the older ones. 

“The ‘Land O’Lakes Statement’ reflected the tenor of the late 1960s: a deep suspicion of the hierarchy and a desire for lay-directed institutions. But, ironically, many of the most faithful colleges that were later established in opposition to Land O’Lakes are lay-run: Thomas Aquinas College, Christendom College, Northeast Catholic College, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, Ave Maria University, John Paul the Great Catholic University, and Wyoming Catholic College,” Reilly said.

A common key to remaining faithful for both older and newer schools is hiring faculty who are not merely baptized Catholics, but who are also committed to their faith, letting it shine through their lives and their work.

“We have intended, in hiring faculty, to [fulfill our commitment to] attracting and hiring people who are committed to building a vibrant Catholic intellectual life in the various disciplines at the university — not just in philosophy and theology and canon law, but in arts and sciences, in music, in architecture, in law, and business and so on,” said John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America.

At Thomas Aquinas College, understanding its distinctive mission statement is a prerequisite for prospective teachers, said President Michael McLean. Likewise, at Franciscan University, the vice president of pastoral care and evangelization reviews faculty applicants to ensure their adherence to the school’s mission statement, according to Franciscan Father Sean Sheridan, the college’s president.

The idea is to attract great minds who are working on the same kinds of problems with the same set of presuppositions and same goals in mind, according to Garvey, who likens the approach to the University of Chicago economics department, which is known for its distinctive free-market emphasis.

“It’s nothing that’s inconsistent with academic freedom or building a great university. In fact, it’s the recipe for building a great university,” Garvey said. 


Freedom and Approach

A major fault line between faithful colleges and others is academic freedom.

“What fundamentally sets us apart from those Catholic colleges and universities which have arguably drifted from their initial mission are really fundamentally different interpretations of the notion of academic freedom,” McLean said.

In the wake of Land O’Lakes, many of those institutions adhered to a distorted notion of academic freedom in which it became the basis not just for exploring different opinions, but for hiring faculty. In other words, it is one thing to host a debate on atheism — it is another to actually hire an atheist in the name of academic freedom, critics say.

Academic freedom led older schools to question the fundamental propositions of their faith, according to McLean. Thomas Aquinas College takes the opposite approach: It teaches from a standpoint of conviction, he said. But that doesn’t mean other viewpoints are excluded from the classroom. In fact, due to the school’s distinctive curriculum, which is built around classics or Great Books of the West, students are directly exposed to the arguments of figures like Hume and Nietzsche by reading their original works.

“So it’s not a question of shielding students from that, but helping them study those things within a framework of general commitment to the conviction about the truth of the faith and using that as kind of a standpoint or a basis upon which to judge other positions and other opinions,” McLean said.

For Garvey, academic freedom is the freedom to be Catholic — to learn not only through reason, but also through the light of faith. “To say that there are ways of knowing in addition to logic and empirical science is, I think, an expansion rather than a contraction of our work as a university,” Garvey said.

A common denominator among these schools is their holistic approach to educating their students. “A great Catholic university isn’t just a place where we transmit information from faculty to student and churn them out with diplomas certifying that they’re good at Mandarin Chinese or mechanical engineering. We also devote a lot of attention and effort to what kind of people they become during their time here,” Garvey said.

“The key to staying faithful is the same for a college as it is for an individual: recognizing that faith changes how we do everything — how we think, act and teach — and Catholic identity can never be divorced from its one source and summit. In a word, it’s fidelity. There’s no other secret. Those who value faithful Catholic education will find ways of supporting it,” Reilly said.

Franciscan’s view is the same. “We’re very strong on having pastoral care and evangelization pervade everything we do — whether it’s in student life, whether it’s in athletics, whether it’s in all the various clubs that are on campus. There’s always some type of faith-based component to all of those activities,” Father Sheridan said.

The university’s vibrant interior life, in turn, has contributed to the overall success of the school. The Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement was particularly instrumental in revitalizing the campus culture in the 1970s and 1980s, according to Father Sheridan, who noted that today there are a number of Catholic spiritualities represented on campus.

The university also stands out for its alternative to traditional college fraternities and sororities: the households system, a voluntary brotherhood and sisterhood of students, each of which runs from a handful to a maximum of 50 members, who are dedicated to supporting one another in Catholic life. Each household is a community with a distinctive charism, drawn from a specific Marian devotion, a saint’s patronage, a line of Scripture, or a way of evangelization, and students have to apply to them and, if accepted, agree to participate with their fellow “household sisters or brothers” in activities that serve the mission of the community.

The households were the idea of Father Michael Scanlan, the longtime president of Franciscan credited with steering the school through the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s. In a sense, the “story of Steubenville” is a testament to the difference a leader can make.

But it also points to the importance of hiring like-minded school administrators and other staff who share that vision — something Father Scanlan made a point of doing, according to Father Sheridan.

Farther Scanlan set an example for other colleges, as well, Father Sheridan said. “I think many of the institutions look to Franciscan University for that example, for that witness of how to do these things in a way that it is possible to be faith-filled: adhering to what the magisterium has [put] out, but also being a university at the same time.”


Oversight Models

Trustees are also critical to a school’s leadership. Here, there appear to be several different paths to success. Franciscan has a 25-member board of trustees, of whom seven must be Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular, Province of the Most Sacred Heart, including the president of the university and the chairman of the board.

Catholic University has a notably different model: It is the official national university of the Church in the United States, with two separate governing boards. The board of fellows consists of every cardinal-archbishop in the United States, plus four bishops, and ensures that the university is persevering in its Catholic identity and mission. A lay board of trustees handles the day-to-day business of running the school.

Thomas Aquinas exemplifies a third model: It is lay-founded and lay-governed. When the school was established in the early 1970s, this was practically unheard of in the United States — in general, Catholic universities were started by religious orders or sponsored by a diocese. Some had also begun as seminaries.

Inspired by the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on the laity, Thomas Aquinas became the first of a new vanguard of small faithful colleges. “I think the first in any group is often a leader and sets an example for others about what’s possible in education,” McLean said.

At least among the 18 schools recommended by the Newman Society, Thomas Aquinas is one of the first in time among the new contingent of schools. Others that soon followed suit were: Northeast Catholic in 1973, Christendom College in 1977, and Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in 1978. (Benedictine College dates its founding to 1971, but the institution was not really new. Instead, it was a merger between two older men’s and women’s colleges, both of which were founded by religious orders.) The University of Dallas also has a religious-order background. The first graduating class was in 1960.


Thriving and Expanding

Colleges like Thomas Aquinas have not only persevered, but thrived. In fact, Thomas Aquinas recently announced its expansion to an East Coast campus in Massachusetts that is set to open in fall 2018.

Their success is now sparking yet another trend: a move among those older schools to recover their identity. “The colleges we recommend in The Newman Guide have been tremendous examples to more secularized colleges,” Reilly said. “Although problems persist, we are seeing evidence of a gradual renewal of Catholic identity across Catholic higher education.”


Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.