Land O’Lakes and the CUA Wars, forty years later

Forty years ago this coming summer, some two dozen prominent Catholic educators met at a Wisconsin resort and issued the “Land O’Lakes Statement.” Those were heady days in the academy: the Council of “openness,” Vatican II, had ended eighteen months before; student protests against the Vietnam War were heating up; the once-staid  Catholic University of America had exploded in the spring of 1967, as both students and faculty protested the administration’s decision not to renew the contract of a hitherto obscure moral theologian, Father Charles Curran.

Land O’Lakes was also written in the shadow of John Tracy Ellis’s 1955 essay, “Catholic Intellectual Life in America Today,” which rightly challenged U.S. Catholic institutions of higher education to a level of excellence worthy of the Church which had given the West the very idea of a “university.” As I read Ellis, though, he was urging Catholic colleges and universities to play-to-strength by making themselves into first-rate liberal arts institutions with a distinctively Catholic character; he wasn’t urging Catholic colleges and universities to imitate every contemporary fashion in the wider world of American higher education.

The Land O’Lakes signatories would deny that that’s what they wanted; but that’s largely what they got, thanks to the Statement’s call for “true autonomy,” which was read in many quarters as invalidating any significant relationship between Catholic colleges and universities and the teaching authority of the Church. The new “magisterium” to be followed would be the vision of higher education defined by elite American schools. Alas, this was precisely the moment when Harvard, Berkeley, Cornell, and other trend-setting universities were in intellectual, cultural, and moral meltdown. The net result was what we see on more than a few elite Catholic campuses today: curricula, faculty, and modes of life that would have stood John Tracy Ellis’s elegant shock of white hair on end.

A few months after Land O’Lakes, an accrediting agency, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, issued its report on Catholic University and averred that, unless drastic changes were made in the ways the university functioned academically and was governed, CUA’s accreditation should be withheld. Now, no one familiar with CUA in those days can doubt that change was required. But change is one thing, and revolution is another. And revolution is what the Middle States report prescribed. An exaggeration? Here’s one of the most striking sections of the Middle States report:

“(CUA’s) concern for tradition and orthodoxy have been an inhibiting factor (in its functioning and growth)…A good institution must endow its students with the capacity to reconcile orthodoxy with dissent and must impose a framework of discipline at the same time as it encourages rebellion against it.”

That second sentence is not a misprint. It is, however, a pluperfect expression of the intellectual and moral confusions of the late Sixties. Those confusions set the cultural context in which the Land O’Lakes Statement (which makes some entirely valid points) was received and implemented in many Catholic colleges and universities, with damage visible down to today.

Two generations later, new winds of change are blowing through Catholic higher education in America: the bracing winds of dynamic orthodoxy. Some elite Catholic schools are, sadly, lost — and quite likely lost for good. Yet others have made significant comebacks in recent years, thanks to generational change in theology departments, courageous presidential and board leadership, students who demand authentic Catholicism from schools that market themselves as “Catholic,” and the work of alert alumni. Moreover, several smaller Catholic liberal arts colleges, in virtually every part of the country, are giving fresh life to Msgr. Ellis’s vision of revitalized classical learning in a Catholic context — and proving once again that that kind of learning is a better preparation for a professional future that the intellectual disarray that still reigns supreme on some campuses with stratospheric U.S. News & World Report ratings.

These new-wave Catholic schools consider their linkage to the Church an integral part of their lives. In doing so, they remind us that doctrine is liberating, even in institutions dedicated to critical thought.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.