Land O’Lakes On Steroids


The ascendancy of the Land O’Lakes statement, the charter for the secularization of Catholic universities, over Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II’s charter for the preservation of their Catholic identity.

In this final bulletin on the Laetare Medal/Biden episode, we consider its broad significance. As Bishop Rhoades declared, the university has given scandal, but there is much more. In publicly spurning the counsel of Notre Dame’s (and his) bishop for the third time, Father Jenkins has further undermined the crucially important relationship between Notre Dame and the Church. More, he rejected the recommendations of his faculty committee and took an action he knew would divide alumni, becloud the commencement, and again stain Notre Dame’s reputation in the pro-life community. His actions mark the ascendancy of the Land O’Lakes statement, the charter for the secularization of Catholic universities, over Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II’s charter for the preservation of their Catholic identity.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae versus Land O’Lakes

Father Wilson Miscamble, C.S.C., award-winning Notre Dame historian and author of For Notre Dame: Battling for the Heart and Soul of a Catholic University, has characterized the battle at Notre Dame as a “debate between these two documents,” Land O’Lakes and Ex Corde Ecclesiae. “How this contest gets worked out in practice,” he has declared, “will determine the future of Notre Dame.”

The Land O’Lakes 1967 statement by representatives of 26 Catholic universities, mostly Jesuit, coincided with the astonishingly swift transfer of control of almost all Catholic schools, including Notre Dame, to lay-dominated boards. Father Hesburgh chaired the meeting, held at the Holy Cross Land O’Lakes facility in Wisconsin.

The statement opened with a declaration of independence from the Church:

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.

The statement sounded this self-sufficiency theme throughout, as Father James T. Burtchaell, C.S.C., former provost of Notre Dame, explained in his masterful study of the secularization of religious schools, “The Dying of the Light.”

“From the Church,” he writes, “the university asks only to be left alone.” Again, “Apart from a wary welcome to theology,” which should be “explored ‘critically,’” “no other means to make Catholicism perceptively present and effectively active is mentioned. (pp. 594-5)

Land O’Lakes does not co-exist comfortably with Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II’s 1990 definitive description of the essential elements of a Catholic university, which has been applied to the United States by its bishops in a 1999 decree.

In Land O’Lakes, the Church is held at a distance. In Ex Corde Ecclesiae, in contrast,

Every Catholic University, without ceasing to be a University, has a relationship to the Church that is essential to its institutional identity. One consequence…is a recognition of and adherence to the teaching authority of the Church in matters of faith and morals.

The bishops are the Church’s representatives in this relationship. They “have a particular responsibility to promote and assist in the preservation and strengthening of the Catholic identity” of Catholic universities. They “should be seen not as external agents but as participants in the life of the Catholic University,” and there should be “close personal and pastoral relationships between University and Church authorities, characterized by mutual trust, close and consistent cooperation and continuing dialogue.”

Notre Dame and Her Bishops

Father Jenkins began his presidency with a very public dispute with Bishop John M. D’Arcy over the student production of “The Vagina Monologues,” a startlingly graphic paean to lesbian sex.

Father Jenkins knew this was coming. Bishop D’Arcy had condemned then president Rev. Edward Malloy’s approval of this production when it was first staged in 2004, citing Ex Corde Ecclesiae and noting,

The bishop is the teacher within his diocese, bearing special responsibility on moral issues, especially when the souls of young people are involved.

Next came Bishop D’Arcy’s denunciation of the honoring of President Obama, which was echoed by 82 other cardinals, archbishops, and bishops. In an notable “America” article, “The Church and the University,” the bishop discussed both the Vagina Monologues and Obama episodes in terms of the link between Notre Dame and the Church, his relationship with Father Jenkins, the choice between Land O’Lakes and Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and the responsibility of the board of trustees.

He disclosed, for example, that Father Jenkins “chose not to dialogue with his bishop on these two matters, both pastoral and both with serious ramifications for the care of souls, which is the core responsibility of the local bishop.” This, he wrote, raised serious questions:

What is the relationship of the Catholic university to the local bishop? No relationship? Someone who occasionally offers Mass on campus? Someone who sits on the platform at graduation? Or is the bishop the teacher in the diocese, responsible for souls, including the souls of students—in this case, the students at Notre Dame?

Bishop D’Arcy cited Dr. John Cavadini, then chair of the theology department:

The statement of our President [Father Jenkins] barely mentions the Church. It is as though the mere mention of a relationship with the Church has become so alien to our ways of thinking and so offensive to our quest for a disembodied “excellence” that it has become impolite to mention it at all. There is no Catholic identity apart from the affiliation with the Church.

Finally, there is the breach between Father Jenkins and Bishop Rhoades over the award of the Laetare Medal to Vice President Biden.

Bishop Rhoades advised Father Jenkins that his action would cause scandal. Who can doubt it? Reasonable people will assume that Notre Dame would not confer this honor “for service to the Church” upon Biden if it took seriously his well-known pro-choice view and his support of same sex marriage (to say nothing of his support of embryonic stem cell research and the Obamacare contraception mandate). Even those present at the commencement were  unlikely to take seriously Father Jenkins’s bizarre disclaimer — “many of us have grave moral doubts about some of your actions” — as he handed Biden the award.

It is instructive to listen to someone with actual experience. A former Minnesota legislator, James Seifert (ND ‘79), wrote us in part:

Based on my own experience in the Minnesota legislature, conferring public praise by a national symbol of the Church on Catholics like Joe Biden has secondary consequences that are devastating….[P]ro-choice Catholics troll for votes from other Catholics with the very persuasive argument that if it wasn’t OK to be a pro-choice Catholic, Notre Dame would never have awarded a pro-choice Catholic its highest award.

The Laetare Medal Conundrum

The most puzzling, and troublesome, question is why Father Jenkins took this action. In the Vagina Monologues case, there was faculty pressure and (flimsy) assertions of academic freedom. In the Obama case, there was, well, the president, and a (sort of) tradition. Here, Father Jenkins rejected the faculty’s recommendations, and he knew that his action would divide alumni, becloud the commencement, and stain Notre Dame’s reputation in the pro-life community.

And for what? To convert the Laetare Medal into a civics award to politicians whom no one would call distinguished but who have generally (though certainly not always) been affable with opponents and generally (though certainly not always) inclined toward compromise rather than conflict.

This is meager reward at high price, surely. It suggests Father Jenkins may have seen benefit in demonstrating Notre Dame’s absolute independence of its bishop and willingness to disregard criticism by “too Catholic” alumni and pro-life and pro-marriage organizations and laity.

This is a deeply worrisome affair.


For a forceful criticism of Father Jenkins’s action, see the letter to the South Bend Tribune by Sycamore Trust board member Dr. Susan Biddle Shearer (ND PhD ’88). And here’s one alumna’s explanation to the university as to why she didn’t attend her 20th reunion,which  calls to mind  Alexandra De Sanctis’s essay about why she didn’t attend her commencement that we reproduced in our last bulletin:

I’ve been disappointed and discouraged in some of the decisions made by Our Lady’s University recently, and have not enthusiastically identified as an ND grad as of late. Honoring our pro-abortion President was bad enough, but giving a Catholic award to his Vice President, who himself claims to be Catholic while publicly and adamantly opposing the Church’s teachings, including that on human life, is horrible and horrifying.  I applaud the University for standing up against the contraceptive mandate, and for sending a huge group to the March for Life, but don’t understand how a University that is Catholic in name decided to provide benefits to those in adulterous or same-sex relationships. It is not just the old fuddy duddy alums who are appalled at some of the decisions being made on campus. Notre Dame’s job is not to win a popularity contest, but to raise honorable and educated citizens in an environment of truth.  I read about the decisions of the University and pray that someone will help right the ship out there. It is a ship worth righting.
— Respectfully, Sheila Cole (’91)

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