Fifty years ago, representatives from 26 of our nation’s Catholic universities gathered to discuss the requirements for being a flourishing Catholic institution in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Their conclusion was unsettling, with ramifications that have become increasingly evident in the decades since, and in a unique way at Notre Dame.
The representatives were summoned by Notre Dame’s president at the time, Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, to Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin, where they crafted a statement that has since become infamous. In short, they determined that thriving as a Catholic university would require unrestricted institutional and academic freedom:
“The Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical … institutional autonomy and academic freedom are essential conditions of life and growth and indeed of survival for Catholic universities.”
Parts of what the document proposes are surely desirable, but this premise of absolute freedom from any authority—including that of the Church—was deeply flawed, and as a result, its predictions about how that freedom would enable a university community to flourish have largely failed to come true.
To be sure, Catholic universities should not function as mouthpieces of Rome or of a local bishop. But it cannot be true that, to be Catholic, a university must be wholly independent of the Church. If being authentically Catholic requires embracing particular truths about God, human nature, and the created world, a Catholic institution is called to uniformly uphold and proclaim those truths.
For Notre Dame, the nation’s preeminent Catholic university, the responsibility to advocate Church teaching is especially grave. And yet, too often, the University uses its moral imprimatur to take stances that will curry favor with higher education’s increasingly progressive bent, championing sustainability and immigration reform but studiously avoiding opportunities to mention controversial topics such as abortion, marriage, or gender identity.
Academic freedom—while valuable to a point—does not excuse a Catholic university from educating its students in the truth of the faith and being a voice for that faith to the culture at large. Land O’ Lakes misses the mark on this point, in particular when it asserts that the “internal autonomy” of every area of study must be affirmed and guaranteed.
“There must be no theological or philosophical imperialism,” the statement continues. The fact that it is deemed “imperialism” to allow revelation to inform every discipline indicates exactly where Land O’ Lakes goes astray. If that insistence upon total autonomy is taken to its logical extension, any discipline can easily devolve into directly contradicting core tenets of Catholicism.
For example, some scientists or doctors might believe it is perfectly ethical to conduct medical research using stem cells from embryos created by in vitro fertilization. According to Catholic doctrine, to do so would be a grave moral evil. How can Catholic tradition on this point hold up against the total autonomy of a department or researcher set upon embryo–destructive research?
In this way, a Catholic institution dedicated to complete academic autonomy might be tempted to recruit experts whose accomplishments lend the university prestige but whose beliefs and work directly contradict Church teaching—despite Land O’ Lakes’ assertion that “university decisions and administrative actions should be appropriately guided by Christian ideas and ideals.”
Consider Notre Dame’s recent decision to hire Denis McDonough, former chief of staff to President Barack Obama, as an executive fellow of the Global Policy Initiative in the Keough School of Global Affairs. McDonough is an expert in his field, but his work in advancing Obama’s often anti-Catholic agenda is surely not indicative of what an authentically Notre Dame faculty should promote, not to mention the fact that the Obama administration’s HHS contraception mandate has forced the University to expend copious resources to avoid violating its Catholic principles.
Even more importantly, Notre Dame has made controversial decisions in recent years to honor men whose work and advocacy contradict non-negotiable Church teaching: first in 2009 when President Obama was granted an honorary degree at Commencement, and again at my graduation in 2016, when the University honored former Vice President Joe Biden with the Laetare Medal, traditionally given to American leaders for outstanding service to the Church.
Decisions to hire certain experts or honor prestigious leaders, regardless of how well they represent the truths central to the Catholic faith, arise when academic freedom and institutional autonomy are placed on a pedestal, unlimited by preeminent loyalty to the core teachings of the Church.
And, in the end, the Land O’ Lakes statement must be judged successful based not on its text but on whether its conception of flourishing has come to fruition. The document states that if its prescriptions are followed, there “will arise within the Catholic university a self–developing and self–deepening society of students and faculty in which the consequences of Christian truth are taken seriously in person–to–person relationships.”
Take as just one example, the annual sexual–assault statistics released by the University, which reveal that this hope has not been borne out. Aided by campus leaders who turn a blind eye to over–drinking and casual sex, sexual assault has increasingly ravaged Notre Dame’s campus. Rolling out federal programs such as the Green Dot violence-prevention strategy or marketing campaigns such as “It’s On Us” can only go so far.
As a Catholic university, Notre Dame has the unique resources to articulate human dignity and a holistic view of fulfilling, virtuous personal relationships. A vision of sexuality based only on mutual consent is far too shallow to achieve the radical change needed to make sexual assault unthinkable. Especially in a context where lines are blurred by alcohol and drugs, much more is needed. An authentically Catholic university would provide it.
Surely those gathered at Land O’ Lakes fifty years ago believed their statement would usher in an age of renewal. But if Notre Dame is a test case, the definition of being an authentically Catholic university has only become hazier. By the standards of the world, Notre Dame is flourishing. Whether it flourishes as an unabashed voice for the truth of the Catholic faith is much less certain.
Alexandra DeSanctis graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2016 with a degree in political science. She is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow in Political Journalism at National Review magazine.