U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Academic Freedom in a Catholic Register: Theodore Hesburgh, Part 3

The first two posts in this series are here (3/5/2015) and here (3/19/2015). In those posts I’ve been building an argument that Theodore Hesburgh was more than an ‘intellectual Catholic’ or mere university president/administrator, but a rare bird in the so-called “Catholic Intellectual Tradition”–a Catholic public intellectual. Today I will finish the series by looking at Hesburgh’s intellectual leadership in higher education through the Land O’Lakes conference and statement.

WI mapGenerally speaking, the Land O’ Lakes statement addressed the place and role of Catholic universities in the modern world. It grew out of two meetings that took place in early 1967 in a Notre Dame-owned vacation lodge located in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin, with the statement itself emerging from the second July 20-23 session.

The gathering was convened by Hesburgh. Although I’ve not explored Hesburgh’s archived papers on this topic, several secondary sources explore the lead up, the event, and consequences of the conference. I’ll draw from two historians here, from David J. O’Brien and Philip Gleason, to the convey the essence of the event and Hesburgh’s role in it.[1] The conference and its report are so important to the history of Catholic higher education that Hesburgh’s centrality to it, alone, cements his place in the history of American Catholic higher education. His role in both confirms him as a mid-century liberal and public intellectual. For those who care little about American Catholic intellectual history, if you remember Hesburgh’s importance to Land O’Lakes, you’ll possess a key mnemonic to his place in the historical landscape.

While “Land O’Lakes” has taken on a life of its own in the history of American Catholic higher education, at the time it was merely a preliminary meeting for the International Federation of Catholic Universities. The North American region of that group was tasked with producing a “position paper.” Hesburgh was president of that organization. The participants’ charge was to discuss the following question: “What is the nature and role of the contemporary Catholic University?” In the end their findings became part of a Rome-approved 1968 document, “The Catholic University in the Modern World.”[2]

Hesburgh made the cover of Time Magazine in February, 1962.

Hesburgh made the cover of Time Magazine in February, 1962.

Hesburgh’s group consisted of 26 people. They were university presidents, bishops, officials from religious orders, and laypeople. There were no women. It’s too burdensome to list all the participants here, but they included: John Cogley (a Catholic progressive intellectual and then editor of Commonweal magazine), John J. Dougherty (president of Seton Hall University, bishop, and president of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference committee on higher education), Paul Hallinan (archbishop of Atlanta), Louis A. Vachon (monsignor and rector of Laval University, Quebec), and Robert Henle (academic vice president of St. Louis University), and Paul Reinert (Jesuit president of St. Louis University). According to Gleason, Hesburgh, however, was the “moving spirit” behind the meeting.[3]

The meeting, Gleason narrates, emphasized and “strongly affirmed” the “importance of academic freedom and institutional autonomy.” Titled “STATEMENT ON THE NATURE OF THE CONTEMPORARY CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY,” the relatively concise, 10-point document consisted of only a bit over 2000 words.[4] But its opening paragraph (under point #1) contained a statement (in bold below) that sets the tone:

The Catholic University today must be a university in the full modern sense of the word, with a strong commitment to and concern for academic excellence. 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.

The Catholic university participates in the total university life of our time, has the same functions as all other true universities and, in general, offers the same services to society. The Catholic university adds to the basic idea of a modern university distinctive characteristics which round out and fulfill that idea. Distinctively, then, the Catholic university must be an institution, a community of learners or a community of scholars, in which Catholicism is perceptibly present and effectively operative.[5]

Gleason-ContendingGleason attends to the bolded statement in his work. But what’s interesting to me, from those first two paragraphs, is that there’s no Catholic qualifier to excellence. ‘Academic excellence’ is set up as a shared intellectual ideal not to be restricted by Catholic concerns, theology, or dogma. Also, research is explicitly acknowledged as a pursuit that falls under that unqualified shared excellence. The Church is in no way set up as a restricting authority on the life of the mind in a university setting. There is no wall between things Catholic and things of the world. Indeed, the authors of the statement—with Hesburgh as a prime mover—assert that Catholic higher education institutions will wither on the vine if they are not independent actors in relation to the question of how to serve society.

Despite the declaration of autonomy, Catholicism is not left behind. The authors argue for a perceptible and operative presence. To me this says one must be a Catholic intellectual and not an intellectual Catholic when swimming with a Catholic “community of learners” and scholars. Discovery and understanding are primary. Questioning is essential and all forms of answers are pursed—then Catholicism is brought to bear on the answers discovered. This is academic freedom in a Catholic register. And this is Hesburgh’s signal contribution to the history of Notre Dame University, to Catholic higher education, and to American history generally.

There is much more in the statement—too much for any one brief blog post. Read it. It’s worth your time, whether you are a Catholic or otherwise.

Although the Land O’Lakes statement is remembered in histories of American Catholic higher education, it is worth reminding ourselves that it is representative of only North American Catholicism. That statement was constructed in preparation for an upcoming meeting at Lovanium University, Kinshasa, Congo. The statement’s preamble continues: “Similar discussions have also taken place in Buga, Colombia, in Manila and in Paris for the other regions of the Federation.” It seems, then, that a larger movement was in the making to foster a modern, cosmopolitan Catholic university ideal. (And it should be noted that the authors specifically focused on universities rather than Catholic higher education broadly. The authors left space for a different model for Catholic liberal arts colleges and smaller universities.)

This larger, more cosmopolitan sensibility correlates with O’Brien’s argument that the progressive spirit of Vatican II enabled Land O’Lakes (i.e. the conference and the statement that followed). In the context of Catholic higher education, it occurred during a time when Catholic institutions were transitioning from boards of trustees consisting of religious personnel to boards composed of laypeople. The Land O’Lakes participants’ goal was both simple and complex. On the former, they sought to “join in the renewal of the Church” occurring during the 1960s. On the later, as with Vatican II, Catholic higher education institutions that had formerly been at war with modernity (both theologically and culturally) were now trying to both accept and make peace with it. Indeed, Land O’Lakes grew into something nearly revolutionary. O’Brien quotes Gleason to say that the final document produced by the conference became “a declaration of independence from the hierarchy and a symbolic turning point.” The conference confirmed what Cogley had declared a year earlier, in August 1966—i.e. that American Catholicism’s “cold war with modernity” was over.[6]

Here’s how David O’Brien reflected, in 1998, on the “dynamic young president” and “Vatican II Catholic” Hesburgh’s role in this process:

Graceful, charismatic and eloquent, [Hesburgh] made the case for Catholic higher education in the language of American civic idealism, summoning Catholics to exert themselves for the good of Church and country. He made it clear that Notre Dame’s goal was academic excellence and that intellectual seriousness must be a corollary goal for the American Church.[7]

Hesburgh himself was no stranger to interference from the hierarchy and the Vatican. Here’s O’Brien again on those topics:

Hesburgh himself experienced intervention from Rome early in his presidency when pressure on his religious order forced Notre Dame’s press to withdraw from circulation a book with a paper written by the controversial Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray. Just a few years before Land O’Lakes, Roman officials tried to nullify Hesburgh’s election as president of the IFCU.[8]

One potential piece of evidence of Hesburgh’s influence, in relation to his prior work on Notre Dame’s great books program, comes from this tidbit in the statement (under point #8, bolds mine):

The whole world of knowledge and ideas must be open to the student; there must be no outlawed books or subjects. Thus the student will be able to develop his own capabilities and to fulfill himself by using the intellectual resources presented to him.

Great books liberalism at work—though in a Catholic register. And a further bit from that bullet point in the Land O’Lakes statement shows a direct concern, perhaps from Hesburgh, for teaching and students:

Thus the student will be able to develop his own capabilities and to fulfill himself by using the intellectual resources presented to him. Along with this and integrated into it should be a competent presentation of relevant, living, Catholic thought. This dual presentation is characterized by the following emphases:

A) a concern with ultimate questions; hence a concern with theological and philosophical questions;
B) a concern for the full human and spiritual development of the student; hence a humanistic and personalistic orientation with special emphasis on the interpersonal relationships within the community of learners;
C) a concern with the particularly pressing problems of our era, e.g., civil rights, international development and peace, poverty, et cetera.

O’Brien added the following about Hesburgh’s legacy, tying together the issues in the Land O’Lakes statement with religious control and identity—as well as giving another clue about why Hesburgh and others involved in the statement might be remembered less than fondly by orthodox/rigorist Catholics:

Hesburgh and Paul Reinert, SJ, of St. Louis University—indeed an entire generation of academic leaders and the religious communities to which they belonged—came to believe that their colleges and universities could best serve God and God’s people by seeking excellence in teaching and research under new, independent governance structures in which religious leaders shared responsibility with laypeople. As Hesburgh would comment in an interview years later, while others were debating about Catholic identity he and his colleagues at Notre Dame were arranging to give away the university.[9]

Of courses that “giving away” meant from former control by religious orders to control by laypeople. But, for rigorist Catholics, it meant something more nefarious: Hesburgh and his ilk had sold out the Catholic Intellectual Tradition for popularity in modern America. And this is why those same hyper-conservative Catholics would welcome Ex Corde Ecclesiae in August of 1990. To them the latter was a reassertion of Catholic hierarchical control over Catholic universities. It would be a guarantee of Catholic identity.

And that, in short, is why Hesburgh’s work on the Land O’Lakes statement matters. It shows his intellectual independence. It reveals him as a progressive/liberal Catholic intellectual whose profile matters to larger narratives of American intellectual history. This, I think, gets near the true legacy of Hesburgh’s own identity, both in the Church and beyond. – TL


[1] David J. O’Brien, “The Land O’Lakes Statement,” Boston College Magazine (Winter 1998): 1-14; Philip Gleason, Contending with Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).
[2] Gleason, 317; O’Brien, 2, 8.
[3] Gleason, 317; O’Brien, 1, 2, 5, 7. A brief preface to the document implicates a host of other midcentury Catholic intellectuals: “A particular word of appreciation is in order for those who prepared the background papers which helped greatly to shape the document. They are: George N. Shuster, John Tracy Ellis, Michael P. Walsh, S.J., Thomas Ambrogi, S.J., Paul C. Reinert, S.J., Neil G. McCluskey, S.J., William Richardson, S.J., John E. Walsh, C.S.C., Larenzo Roy and Lucien Vachon. The bulk of the final editing of the document itself was done by Robert J. Henle, S.J.”
[4] Gleason, 317; “STATEMENT ON THE NATURE OF THE CONTEMPORARY CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY,” Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin, July 23, 1967. It’s 2102 words if you count the preamble. Gleason said it was only 1500 words.
[6] O’Brien, 1, 9; Gleason, 158, 317.
[7] O’Brien, 1, 5.
[8] O’Brien, 4.
[9] O’Brien, 7.