The Real Threat to Catholic Higher Education

Fifty years (and two days) ago, Catholic university leaders signed a kind of “Declaration of Independence” for Catholic universities who wanted freedom from the Church.

Fifty years later, the results are in and the consequence is clear: What Catholic universities really need is freedom from the intellectual shackles of political correctness.

On July 23, 1967, Notre Dame’s Father Theodore Hesburgh met with leaders from Georgetown, Boston College, Fordham and the Catholic University of America met at a retreat center in Land O’ Lakes, Wis., and signed a document giving their vision of Catholic higher education.

Famously, the document declared:

“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.”

No authority outside academia can interfere with a college, it said. Scientific associations can set scientific standards, but a bishop can’t set theological standards.

The document’s defenders point out that there is much more to the document than this one line. That’s true.

But documents often become defined by a standout statement like that — or even by a footnote. John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution on Higher Education Ex Corde Ecclesiae is known for requiring that Catholic theologians receive a mandatum from a bishop — footnote 50.

The mandatum was a remedy in canon law that sought to address exactly the declaration in the Land O’ Lakes document.

But why did Catholic universities separate themselves from the Church authority in the first place?

In America magazine, Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins  gives an important bit of backstory: In 1954, a nonacademic religious superior told Father Hesburgh to withdraw a scholarly book from publication by Notre Dame Press. He objected to a John Courtney Murray paper on religious freedom in it.

“Such an egregious intrusion into the academic life of a Catholic university was rare,” writes Jenkins, “but in the mind of Hesburgh and his colleagues at Land O’ Lakes, the fact that it was even a possibility threatened the integrity of their institutions.”

If that threat looked big in the 1960s, in the 2010s, academic freedom has a far more formidable threat: secularism’s “dictatorship of relativism.”

In the New York Times, Casey Williams says the problem has gotten so bad that the very idea of “searching for truth” makes no sense in many universities.

“Call it what you want: relativism, constructivism, deconstruction, postmodernism, critique,” he writes. “The idea is the same: Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power.”

He sees dire political consequences as a result. “It’s this version of critical social theory that the populist right has seized on and that Trump has made into a powerful weapon,” he writes.

Megan McArdle at Bloomberg News sees the same phenomenon — but with Republicans as the victims.

She points out how often student groups are pressuring universities to disinvite speakers whose ideas they disagree with.

At Berkeley, rioters objected to speakers who were provocative and outspoken. At Vermont’s Middlebury College, students prevented a respected researcher from speaking.

It seems as if anything can trigger opposition to speech on today’s campus. It could be hurt feelings, like the Yale case that started with a memo about Halloween costumes. At Evergreen State College in Washington state, it was  a professor’s opposition to what amounted to racial segregation.

Vice President Mike Pence spelled out what campuses are dealing with:

“Far too many campuses across America have become characterized by speech codes, safe zones, tone policing, administration-sanctioned political correctness, all of which amounts to nothing less than suppression of the freedom of speech.”

He spoke those words at a Catholic university, where he thought things were different.

“Notre Dame is a campus where deliberation is welcomed, where opposing views are debated, and where every speaker, no matter how unpopular or unfashionable, is afforded the right to air their views in the open for all to hear,” he said.

Many students didn’t hear him, however. They walked out before he spoke, refusing to listen to ideas they prejudged as unworthy.

The Land O’ Lakes document calls for a “society of students and faculty in which the consequences of Christian truth are taken seriously in person-to-person relationships, where the importance of religious commitment is accepted and constantly witnessed to.”

That’s a beautiful vision. But it will never happen in a school rejects the Church — and it will only happen in a school that rejects the dictatorship of relativism.

This article appeared at Aleteia.

Photo: Chris Becker, Flickr

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.