Bishop Conley: 50 years after Land O'Lakes, Catholic education needs renewal

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Bishop James D. Conley in Rome, Italy, May 4, 2012. Credit: CNA.

The 50th anniversary of a historic statement that changed Catholic higher education in America represents both a cautionary tale and a chance to reflect on Catholic renewal, said Bishop James D. Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska.

“The Land O’Lakes statement proposed to redefine the mission of the Catholic university. It rejected the authority of the Church, and of her doctrinal teaching,” Bishop Conley said. “It rejected the idea that faith and reason work best in communion with one another. It prioritized the standards and culture of secular universities over the authentic mission of Catholic education. It was a statement of self-importance, and self-assertion.”

Bishop Conley delivered his remarks July 5 in Denver to teachers and principals at the Regional Catholic Classical Schools Conference at the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education.

He said that the Land O’Lakes statement “declared that Catholic universities would become independent from the hierarchy of the Church, from any obligation to orthodoxy, and from the authentic spirituality of the Church.”

Fifty years ago, 26 Catholic university presidents and administrators gathered at the Land O’Lakes retreat center in Wisconsin for the North American summit for the International Federation of Catholic Universities. The University of Notre Dame’s influential president, Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, was president of the federation at the time.

The meeting aimed to help the federation develop a vision for Catholic higher education in light of the Second Vatican Council, produced a document called “Statement on the Nature of the Contemporary Catholic University,” signed July 23, 1967. Many observers consider the statement a watershed moment in Catholic education.

Bishop Conley cited historian Philip Gleason’s characterization of the statement as “a declaration of independence from the hierarchy,” then suggested it represented “the ‘non serviam’ moment of many of America’s Catholic universities.” The Latin phrase, meaning “I shall not serve,” is used by the Prophet Jeremiah to refer to the Hebrew people’s disobedience to God. The phrase is also used to characterize Satan’s rejection of God.

“Fifty years ago, a ‘declaration of independence’ in Catholic education transformed the Church,” the bishop told the Catholic educators gathered in Denver. “Today, may your humility, wonder, and dependence on the grace of God transform your schools, transform the Church, and transform hearts for Jesus Christ.”

For Bishop Conley, the 1967 statement represented a burgeoning trend of Catholics becoming prominent in public life, but doing so by playing down faith elements that were out of step with general American culture.

He focused on several principles of the statement, including its commitments to “contemporary and experimental” liturgy, favoring “creative dialogue” over “theological or philosophical imperialism,” and “true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.”

He was critical of the statement’s presentation of Catholic universities as the Church’s “critical reflective intelligence” that could “objectively evaluate” the Church’s life and ministry in order to give “the benefit of continual counsel.”

“It seemed to bemoan the fact that Catholic universities were not asked more often how bishops should be undertaking their ministry,” he said.

The bishop suggested that secularization in the universities and colleges has “impacted every single facet of Catholic life” and secularized many Catholic elementary and high schools. This impact is found both in textbooks and teachers who have “not been trained to think or teach from the heart and wisdom of the Church.”

He cited the decline of Catholic school attendance from 5 million in the early 1960s to 2 million today, faulting factors like the decline of the Catholic university. The university, properly ordered, can also be “a training ground for dynamic and faithful Catholic educators, and as a context in which to discern and discover vocations.”

Bishops, clergy, religious and lay Catholics were formed in the wake of the statement, Bishop Conley said – himself included – resulting in “all of us doing the best we can, but regrettably, without being exposed to much of the truth, goodness, and beauty of the Church’s tradition.”

But there is still cause for hope: if dissenting universities can have a deep impact on Catholic and civic life, so can faithful schools. “The work being done to foster renewal in Catholic schools across the country will significantly impact the culture of the Church in the United States,” the bishop told the Denver gathering,

He encouraged Catholic educators to avoid several temptations and not measure Catholic universities “according to the standards of the world” or “to confuse influence, sophistication, or social acceptance with virtue and fidelity.”

“Meaningfully engaging with modernity is much more difficult than either capitulating to it or rejecting it out of hand,” he said.

The Land O’Lakes statement’s self-importance and self-assertion show the importance of “humility, docility, wonder, and receptivity,” Bishop Conley added.

“Encountering the living God is at the heart of true and meaningful Catholic education. This means that teachers, and administrators, must first themselves be disciples of Jesus Christ. It means that prayer – silent communion with the Eucharistic Lord – is at the center of the vocation of a teacher.”

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