University Presidents Analyze Pros and Cons of Statement

The Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism hosted a panel Tuesday night to discuss the controversial 1967 Land O’ Lakes Statement.

Professor Kathleen Cummings presided and was joined by the presidents of five schools: Father John Jenkins, CSC, of the University of Notre Dame, Father William Leahy, SJ, of Boston College, Father Joseph McShane, SJ, of Fordham University, Patricia McGuire of Trinity Washington University, and Julia Sullivan of the University of St. Thomas. Dean John McGreevy hosted a preceding talk on the history of the document.

The evening began with Fr. McShane’s remarks on the document from the perspective of his own school’s history. Noting the frequent perception of the statement as a “dangerous document”, Fr. McShane stated that, in fact, Fordham itself was founded as a place where the faith could be spread by preparing the university’s students for modern American society, and this means that “we have to evolve” in unison with the rest of the culture. Without this evolution, he said, their graduates could not gain “a place at the American table.” Land O’ Lakes, he concluded, had the same vision. It is thus a necessary document, and “not a radical break” from the Church.

Next, Julia Sullivan noted the dichotomy often created between a school emphasizing being Catholic and a school emphasizing being a university. She proposed that the words “Catholic university” should rather be taken as an “integrated phrase.” This, she said, was what the Land O’ Lakes Statement truly aimed to do. She advocated for the removal of strict dichotomies, instead envisioning a model of Catholic university in which there is room for the “intellectual, moral, and spiritual development of all persons….[including] Catholics and non-Catholics,” Such a university would reject superiority, discrimination, and certain dichotomies.

Fr. Leahy, the subsequent speaker, addressed the common criticism of the document for its secularizing impact, remarking that secularization in Catholic universities “began before Land O’ Lakes.” He also stated that the infamous “true autonomy” part of the document—asserting a university’s power to work outside the bounds of church authority—certainly did not have any anarchist intention within it. However, he also noted that there were “things [the document’s writers] didn’t see.” They had, for example, a “simplistic view” of the ability of theologians to influence a university’s vision as they hoped.

Following his remarks, Patricia McGuire gave an analysis of the document, saying that the document’s writers paved the way for modern Catholic education, but also fell short in the exclusion of minorities and women from the conference. She then noted Trinity Washington’s own emphasis on reaching out to low income and minority students, adding that there is value in having “a Catholic university that looks more like a field hospital than a great library.” This moral vision, she stated, stems from the vision of the document, and given the increasing “human oppression” and strife in the country, makes the mission of Catholic universities, and their reaching out to all people in the country and elsewhere more important than ever.

Fr. Jenkins delivered the final set of remarks, noting that even in Medieval times, there was tension between universities and Church authorities, making the vision articulated by the document nothing new. Hopefully, Fr. Jenkins stated, any conflict between the Church and universities ought to simply be a “creative tension” in which new ideas can be articulated.

The subsequent question–and–answer session covered a wide range of topics, from the need for vocational development of students in universities to the relevance of the document. Notably, Fr. Leahy and Fr. Jenkins criticized some of the language of the document which states that the Catholic university is “the critical reflective intelligence of the Church.” This, the priests agreed, was an “arrogant” assertion to make.

Following the panel, seminarian Tom Bodart, CSC, told the Rover that the event helped bring nuance to a discussion that “is easier to approach…with a hatchet”, adding that he thought Fr. Jenkins’ point that tension within the Church is good when “seeking deeper understanding.”

Other students were not so enthusiastic: Brooke Tranten emphasized her worry that the language used by the panelists was too vague: “is the [Catholic] tradition they’re talking about [just] a talking point? […] Or is tradition something that’s uniquely rooted in the understanding of the Church itself?”

James Rahner is a junior majoring in philosophy and theology. He recently moved to Duncan. If you would like to talk to him about this decision, he can be reached at