Autonomy and the Catholic University

Last week, Notre Dame’s president, Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C., gave a nuanced and thoughtful presentation of the 1967 “Land O’Lakes Statement.” In it, he criticizes polemicists who dismiss the statement for a single sentence, taken out of context. The statement reads:

 “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.”

Jenkins clarifies that such a statement comes in response to past intrusions by ecclesial figures into university life, and it seeks a balance between academic freedom and Catholic commitment. 

Contrary to polemicists’ characterizations, Jenkins writes that the autonomy in the statement was qualified. He argues that the drafters did not seek “exemption from all civil as well as ecclesiastical laws.” They sought the “independence necessary for the university whose essential activity is the free and open exchange of views and arguments in a common pursuit of truth.” In addition, Jenkins clarifies that the Land O’Lakes Statement was not intended as a manifesto, but as a document submitted “alongside documents from elsewhere around the world, for review by the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education of the Holy See.”

Indeed, Jenkins argues that Pope John Paul II’s later “Ex Corde Ecclesia” bore the influence of the statement. Ex Corde states that the Catholic university “possesses that institutional autonomy necessary to perform its functions effectively and guarantees its members academic freedom, so long as the rights of the individual person and of the community are preserved within the confines of the truth and the common good.” Jenkins writes that Ex Corde Ecclesiae can be viewed in relation to the Land O’Lakes Satement, echoing some of the latter’s themes and providing a corrective to others.

Jenkins defends the statement’s concern about over-involvement by ecclesial authorities in the life of the university. He discusses an incident in which a religious official once attempted to secretly coerce Father Theodore Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame at the time, to suppress an academic publication. Hesburgh resisted and eventually struck a compromise. Hesburgh discusses the incident at length in his memoirs.

The incident seems to come up frequently by Catholic proponents of academic autonomy. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I tire of the reference to Father Hesburgh’s publishing incident. This is simply anecdotal evidence of a single incident, significant though it may be. On the other hand, Catholic university life has historically been threatened by ecclesial leaders. Proponents of the ill-named Cardinal Newman Society should take note of Newman’s failed time as a rector (a role roughly equivalent to today’s “president”) at the founding of the Catholic University of Ireland. Newman’s vision for the University failed, and he eventually resigned his position, in no small part due to the resistance and criticism of the local Archbishop Paul Cullen. Visions of an easy relationship between academia and ecclesial authority have historically been naive and inaccurate. Not even Newman could implement his vision for the university.

I don’t say this simply as a critic of Newman or as a proponent of the “Land O’Lakes Statement.” I find many of the statement’s arguments troubling. Land O’Lakes sacrifices an ecclesial understanding of truth for a preoccupation with vague inquiry. But the statement presents a more fundamental problem in its argument for “autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority… external to the academic community itself.”

One great danger presented by the Land O’ Lakes Statement, and by modern academia generally, is that academic groups tend to ordain a thing as true simply by virtue of its conformance to a discreet and self-structured set of criteria, criteria necessarily bounded by the prejudices of its creators. This “truth” of a thing will elude anyone who might wish to make an integrated critique of it. Today’s academic disciplines adopt such a disposition. That is, various disciplines establish their own criterion for intellectual validity and resist external impositions.

Indeed, facts established by a particular discipline, under such a view, will be invulnerable to critique by outsiders, simply because outsiders fail to play by the rules of a game set by an esoteric and self-referential circle. Under such a view, education and truth cannot be ecclesial, simply because of the diversity and complexity inherent in ecclesial life. Nor can they be properly humane, given the integrative nature of the human experience. I worry that such a vision of education will lead to fragmentation, closed-mindedness, conformity of thought and method, and hostility to outsiders. And I worry whether modern education has already arrived at this place.

This state of affairs leads to inconsistencies in Catholic universities. Given the academic community’s commitment to the “autonomy” of the disciplines, it might seem odd that Notre Dame refuses to fund or participate in embryonic stem cell research. Such a ban can only be seen as an imposition on science of ideas extrinsic to scientific methods and principles.

When viewed from within science qua science, this ban can only be seen as an intrusion upon disciplinary autonomy and a limitation upon free academic inquiry, analogous to the banning of texts. The scientific community largely views the natural world as a series of texts, freely available for use and manipulation, just as an English department might treat Mark Twain’s novels. Indeed, Notre Dame and other Christian research institutions who ban embryonic stem cell research decidedly choose to impose their religious tenets in direct opposition to the broader academic community and its expectations. Whatever might be said, in such situations Notre Dame refuses to grant “true autonomy and academic freedom” to its researchers.

Cognizant of this hypocrisy, Notre Dame researchers occasionally criticize such policies. They recognize that the language of morality enters into scientific discourse as a threat to autonomous and internally-directed inquiry. Where the disciplines view themselves as bound exclusively by the authority of the “academic community,” such policies can only be deemed “unreasonable.” Morality is for the Church; science is for science.

The “unreasonable” nature of cross-disciplinary dialogue at Notre Dame can be seen when one evaluates Catholic universities’ curricula and the roles of various disciplines in them. Disciplines do not justify or promote their roles in the university through intellectual discourse, but through the methodologies of modern politics. How could they act otherwise? Disciplines, with their individual internally-structured criterion for truth, can only assert themselves against each other through concerted force. At Notre Dame, this could be seen with particular clarity during the 2015 curriculum review, in which the theology department and its proponents essentially became lobbyists in a fight for theology requirements in the university.

The political, rather than academic, nature of that fight might be disguised by the fact that many advocates made intellectual arguments. But one may simply compare the ratio of Observer columnists to petition-signers and tweeters to see a university community overrun by lobbying groups, rather than the exchange of ideas. The review debate did include a very compelling argument by the former dean of the Mendoza College of Business, but the “fight for theology” could be most characterized by a hashtag and repeated sound bytes.

And the students and alumni who wrote more than their names during the debate most often shaped their defenses of theology not by the role academic theology plays among the disciplines, but by the ways in which it affects their personal lives. Such stories may be important in considering the place of various disciplines under an integrative view of truth. But they neither adopt nor propel forward the vision of academia-structured knowledge put forward by modern academia. Academic standards had little place in the debate.

But, of course, it may be difficult for a university paying $400 million for a stadium addition to pretend that academia sets the priorities for its pursuits. How many department heads were consulted prior to the “Crossroads” project? And why does it seem proposterous to think that such a consultation ought to have taken place? It may be because arguments by administrators on the importance of academic priority in the university are simply sound bytes largely used to help them do as they–or their donors—wish.

The theology fight and the stadium addition and the prejudices and odd hypocrisies of modern academia don’t particularly worry me. They remind me that, whatever academics may say about their roles in university life, actual human life and its complexities are inescapable. The self deceptions and hypocricies of modern academia shouldn’t be a source of despair, but a source of hope. Wherever human persons go, their spirit of transcendence and integration and complexity breaks in. It doesn’t ask for or need an invitation. It will come, whether we see it or not.

*Note: Views by various leaders at Notre Dame on autonomy and academic freedom are, admittedly, diverse, and Fr. Jenkins himself does not claim these as unqualified values. For example, see here.


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