I can’t help but get defensive when confronted with overstatements about the demise of the University of Notre Dame, my alma mater.
After all, my Catholic faith blossomed on Our Lady’s campus, nurtured by friendships with well-formed Catholic peers living out their faith with joy and fidelity.
At precisely the moment when the simplistic worldview of my youth was beginning to falter under the pressure of existential questioning, these friends witnessed to me the beauty and satisfaction of a life wholly Catholic.
I have similar sentiments for another oft-maligned Catholic institution, the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, where I recently earned a master’s degree in Catholic studies.
Whatever the weaknesses and inadequacies of the university as a whole, the Catholic studies program is a bedrock of orthodox Catholic thought and community that has contributed profoundly to my intellectual and spiritual life.
Undeniably, my faith was enriched at both Notre Dame and St. Thomas. But upon reflection, it seems clear that the integrated Catholic worldview I received in these places came about independent of — or even in spite of — the animating spirit of the broader institution.
In fact, my experience seems to be something of an exception rather than a rule. In too many cases, students attending Catholic universities like Notre Dame and St. Thomas are not equipped to engage with modern life in a way that is uncompromisingly Catholic.
The “Land O’Lakes Statement” has likely contributed to this reality.
Signed 50 years ago this month by the leaders of many Catholic universities, including Notre Dame’s Father Theodore Hesburgh, the statement declared the independence of the Catholic university from the Catholic Church.
Complete intellectual autonomy from “authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical,” its signatories argued, was necessary if the Catholic university were to truly be a place where academic freedom reigned and truth was pursued uninhibitedly.
Whether the statement itself ushered in a new era or instead merely articulated the direction in which Catholic higher education was already heading, the spirit found within Land O’Lakes has weakened the capacity of many Catholic universities to adequately address the challenges of an increasingly secular and relativistic culture.
As a result, far too many students are left incapable of squaring the Catholic faith of their youth with the realities they confront as adults.
How could it be any other way? The underlying logic of Land O’Lakes is that fealty to the Church is incompatible with freedom: The claims Christ makes on us are fine for Sundays, but they stop at the threshold of our minds.
Such an understanding distorts academic freedom, which is the freedom to pursue the truth. The suggestion that the Church has no special claim to truth in matters like theology and morality implicitly undermines the authority of the Church in all aspects of our lives.
In turn, it undercuts Catholicism as a comprehensive way of life, blinds one to an integrated Catholic worldview, and leads to a false tension between faith and reality.
I’ve seen what this looks like at both universities I’ve attended.
At St. Thomas, which a decade ago abruptly ended the long-standing practice of making the local archbishop chairman of the board, Catholicism is treated like an embarrassing family ritual. The administration appeals to it in sentimental ways, but it would never dare suggest that the faith is objectively true in any way.
Its treatment of Catholicism is inherently relativistic and has affected everything from the university’s new tagline, an appeal to a vague and make-of-it-what-you-will “common good,” to campus ministry, which was recently gutted in favor of an interfaith approach aimed at meeting the “needs of students” instead of molding them in the Person of Christ.
At Notre Dame, the Catholic identity is far stronger. Eighty percent-plus of the student body identifies as Catholic, and liturgical life is vibrant, with more than 150 Masses celebrated on campus each week. There are also many brilliant orthodox Catholic academics spread throughout its halls, especially in the humanities and business.
Nonetheless, the same logic that informs Land O’Lakes pervades academic and student life, resulting in a practice of Catholicism that is deeply compartmentalized and disintegrated. Students may go to Mass on Sunday, but many have difficulty applying Catholicism to their academic pursuits or their social lives.
Things like single-sex dormitories and theology requirements still exist, but the justification for them is often presented as continuity with arbitrary tradition, not deep and meaningful principles. Uncoincidentally, the hookup culture and careerism characterize the attitudes of many students.
Certainly cultural forces beyond campus shape incoming students, but the administration provides no convincing corrective to them. If anything, their own relentless pursuit of earthly prestige models that it’s okay to desire things detached from Christ.
Additionally, the fact that the faculty is not comprised of a majority of faithful Catholics — a necessary criterion for a university to be meaningfully Catholic, according to both St. John Paul’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae and also the university’s own mission statement — inhibits students’ ability to encounter an integrated Catholic worldview.
The sad irony of Land O’Lakes is that its signatories sought to shift the Catholic university so it could better face the challenges of modernity. Instead, the logic of the statement has rendered those universities that have embraced it incapable of preparing their students to engage with modernity in a way that is fully and authentically Catholic.
In an age when young people struggle more than ever to find purpose and firm grounding for their identity, students need to be offered a vision of Catholicism that demands everything of them — their Sundays, yes, but also their careers, their politics, their sexuality — and life itself.
A Catholic university that treats the faith as anything less is doing a grave disservice to her students, no matter how well she prepares them for earthly success.
Jonathan Liedl, a 2011 graduate of the University of Notre Dame and a
2016 graduate of the University of St. Thomas, is a board member
of the Sycamore Trust, an alumni organization committed to
protecting Notre Dame's Catholic identity.