As our college campuses lose track of what “truth” and “free speech” mean, Catholic colleges may need to lead the way to clarity.
On July 23, 1967, leaders from Georgetown, Notre Dame, Boston College, Fordham and the Catholic University of America met at a retreat center in Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin, and signed a document giving their vision of Catholic higher education.
Critics of the document cite this declaration from it: “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 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 its footnote reminding university theologians that they must receive a mandatum from a bishop.
Why did Catholic universities separate themselves from the Church authority?
In America magazine, Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins gives an an important bit of backstory for the Land O’ Lakes document: In 1954, a nonacademic religious superior told Father Theodore 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.”
Today academic freedom has a far more formidable threat: Radical 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 rescind invitations to speakers whose thought they dislike.
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 over a professor’s opposition to what amounted to racial segregation.
Vice President Mike Pence spelled out what campuses are dealing with: “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 if a school rejects the Church — and it will only happen in a school that rejects the dictatorship of relativism.
Catholic universities should lead the way in insisting that the search for truth is not in vain.
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