November 10, 2017

"Land O’Lakes Conference Introduction"
University President John Garvey
The Catholic University of America

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Land O’Lakes Statement, a brief reflection on the nature and mission of a Catholic university in the modern world.  It has been described by admirers and critics alike as a watershed moment in American Catholic higher education.

The statement was produced by a small group of Catholic university presidents, two bishops, and religious superiors from the Society of Jesus and the Congregation of the Holy Cross, gathered at a retreat center in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin in July 1967.  They set out to describe the distinctive characteristics that make a university Catholic, from the central place of theology in the university community to a “meaningful liturgical and sacramental life” for its members.

The document they produced is benignly titled “The Idea of the Catholic University.”  But it began with, and is best remembered for, its statement about what a Catholic university is not.  According to its authors a Catholic university is not, and cannot be, an institution accountable to any external authority – including the authority of the Church.  “To perform its teaching and research functions effectively,” the Statement said, “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.”

Much has already been written about the contested legacy of the Land O’Lakes Statement.  Admirers believe it paved the way for Catholic universities to take their place among the best universities in the full sense of the word, on an equal footing with their secular peers in scholarship.  Critics believe it was effectively a “declaration of independence” from the Church hierarchy.

Discerning the authors’ intentions and the 50-year legacy of the document is the primary aim of this conference.  But I would like to point out that it has much to say to us as we engage the Church’s magisterium today.

In the first four and a half years of his papacy, in encyclical letters and apostolic exhortations, Pope Francis has used his teaching office to speak about the economy and the environment, marriage and family, sexual differences and abortion.  In the process he has managed to draw both praise and criticism from nearly every corner of the Church.

The critics often take the same approach as did the theologians who dissented from Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae in July 1968.  (The most prominent of them was Fr. Charles Curran, who taught at Catholic University.)  Responding to the Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, for example, some point out that nothing in the encyclical is infallibly taught.  They say that the Church’s magisterium extends only to matters of faith and morals, not economics or climate science.  The implication is that the Holy Father’s teaching on these subjects is due no more deference than his opinion on who might win the Super Bowl.

Let me take up these two points in order.  The first objection suggests that we are free to ignore Church teaching that is not infallible (like Laudato Si’).  We are not.  Three years before Land O’Lakes Pope Paul VI and the world’s Catholic bishops promulgated Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.  Section 25 of that document talks about the bishops’ duty to preach the gospel, and it says this:

Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth.  In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent of soul.  This religious submission of will and of mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra.

This doesn’t mean every offhand comment the pope makes (in a press conference, let’s say) deserves the same respect as an encyclical.  The authoritativeness of papal pronouncements varies with the intention and formality of the document.  This is a familiar distinction to lawyers, both canon and civil.  In American law a statute deserves more respect than a regulation.  And it’s not clear what, if any, respect is due a “Dear Colleague” letter like the one the last administration used to lay out its Title IX agenda.

Laudato Si’ is an encyclical, just like Humanae Vitae, a document that began with observations about the competency of the magisterium.  Critics on the right should pay it the same heed as critics on the left should have given to Paul VI’s letter in 1968.  

The second objection we hear to the teaching of Pope Francis is one of jurisdiction rather than authority.  Some say that in teaching about the economy or the environment the pope is straying outside his lane. Look again at the language of Lumen Gentium.  It says that “[i]n matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching.”  

This objection assumes that the world can be carved up into airtight, non-overlapping categories, and that the Church’s teaching authority operates in just two of these.  It reminds me of the Miller Lite beer ads that ran in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  They featured overweight former athletes who would start the modern-day equivalent of a saloon fight.  One would claim that Miller Lite was less filling.  The other would argue that it tastes great.  Those were the terms of the dispute.

This is silly.  And that’s my point.  The Church’s teaching about faith and morals is not an abstract game that we play on a field set apart from everyday life.  It is instruction about how to live the lives that we live. Put another way, economics is not a value-free science.  Arguments about the economy are not just disputes over mathematical formulae.  The design of the tax code, the policies of the Federal Reserve, the regulation of trade, all have moral implications.  They affect the future of the poor, the unemployed, families, private institutions (like churches and colleges), and so on.  So too with the environment.  It was St. John Paul II, not Pope Francis, who said that Christians “realize that their responsibility within creation, and their duty towards nature and the Creator, are an essential part of their faith.”

Applying the Church’s moral teaching to everyday life is an exercise of the virtue of prudence.  This means that it’s complicated, even for the pope.  As Donum Veritatis acknowledges, when the magisterium makes interventions in the prudential order, applying the faith to new situations in human life, “it could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies.”  Bishops are not always the best informed voices on a particular issue, even in the area of theology.

But it would be a mistake today, as it was a mistake 50 years ago, to dismiss the teaching of the magisterium.  As The Catholic University of America, the official university of the Catholic Church in the United States, we have a special role in collaborating with the bishops as the heirs of the apostles, inspired by the Holy Spirit in their leadership.  John Paul II opened his encyclical Fides et Ratio with the idea that “[f]aith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”  In hosting this conference, we recognize that there are many moments in our history when we have clipped one of these wings through dissent or unbelief.  Learning from these, we attempt to ensure that moving forward as a Catholic university, we are free to use both faith and reason in our search for the Truth.


1.Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), in The Documents of Vatican II § 25 (Walter M. Abbott ed. & Joseph Gallagher trans. Ed., 1966). Canon 752 of the Code of Canon Law uses almost the same language. 1983 Code c. 752.

2.Humanae Vitae § 4 (1968).

3.John Paul II, Message for the 1990 World Day of Peace, 15: AAS 82 (990), 154.

4.Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction Donum Veritatis, On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian (1990).

5.John Paul II, Fides Et Ratio 1. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091998_fides-et-ratio.html

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