The Land O’ Lakes Statement Has Caused Devastation For 49 Years
by Patrick Reilly
In hindsight, what they did was appalling.
But when several Catholic university leaders gathered in the summer of 1967 at a remote retreat in Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin, did they fully anticipate the consequences of their vision for “modern” Catholic education? Hopefully not.
It was 49 years ago, on July 20-23, when Notre Dame’s Father Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., gathered his peers to draft and sign the “Land O’ Lakes Statement,” a declaration of the independence of Catholic universities from “authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.”
Over the course of just a few years following the statement, most Catholic colleges and universities in America shed their legal ties to the Church and handed their institutions over to independent boards of trustees. In the quest for secular prestige and government funding, many went so far as to remove the crucifixes from their classroom walls and to represent their Catholic identity in historical terms (such as, “in the Jesuit tradition”).
The wound of secularization deepened over the next few decades: many Catholic colleges and universities weakened their core curricula in favor of the Harvard model of electives and specialization, adopted a radical notion of academic freedom, embraced relativism and political correctness, and largely abandoned the project of forming young people for Christ outside the classroom.
It wasn’t until 1990 that the “Land O’ Lakes Statement” was soundly repudiated by Saint Pope John Paul II in Ex corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution for Catholic universities. Although not yet accepted in its entirety, Ex corde Ecclesiae turned the tide toward renewal of Catholic identity and gave prominence to those faithful institutions that never accepted the Land O’ Lakes mentality. In the meantime, however, Fr. Hesburgh’s declaration did much damage.
It’s for good reason, then, that the “Land O’ Lakes Statement” has become a focal point in American Church history. It’s sometimes described as an explosive, revolutionary act that changed the trajectory of Catholic higher education, which may be an exaggeration. But it certainly was a watershed moment, evidenced by the rapid changes that followed the statement. It was also the culmination of years of unrest in Catholic universities — in many respects, a moral struggle with the temptation to pride and prestige at the expense of Catholic identity.
With the “Land O’ Lakes Statement,” that struggle was momentarily lost. It represented a public, deliberate choice for opportunity over mission, resulting in a voluntary exile from the once-lush gardens of truth and wisdom that had distinguished the world’s Catholic universities.