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In honor of Christendom’s 45th anniversary this year, College Executive Vice President Mark Rohlena wrote this reflection for the latest issue of Instaurare Magazine on the last 45 years of Christendom, how it came to be, and why the mission of the college matters more than ever.

In July 1967, American Catholic university representatives, religious order leaders, and one bishop gathered in Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin, for a second meeting to consider the nature and future of Catholic university education. The group finished its work by issuing a statement that would serve as a sort of “declaration of independence” for Catholic higher education in the United States. The language in the document—strongly in tune with the spirit of the times—has not aged particularly well.

The movement for which the Land O’ Lakes statement provided cover unleashed a great transformation in colleges and universities throughout the country. It pushed hard against the hierarchy of the Church and its potential influence on university life, while seeking a place for Catholic higher education among the “respectable” classes. The document helped to achieve the latter aim, but at an incredible cost. Current defenders have since moderated their views on the statement and its aftermath. They condemn the “narrow views” of the statement’s critics, but now speak of “limitations” inherent in the document as well as the need, perhaps, to revisit it. They lament institutional decline and loss of Catholic identity, but feel they can still get this right with just a few careful tweaks to the approach.

The Land O’ Lakes document is flawed in its understanding of the proper relationship of the Catholic college and university with the Church and her teachings, no doubt. St. John Paul II would articulate the more balanced vision for Catholic colleges and universities in 1990 with the Apostolic Constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae. And while the defenders of Land O’ Lakes still miss the mark on the Church’s relationship with the university, a major problem in the document rests on a fundamental misapprehension of human nature. Sadly, this problem is still not well understood by many Land O’ Lakes adherents. Even if it were, over 50 years of campus life built on these flaws have created an enormous task for those who might want to reverse the trend.

Many ideas outlined in those five fateful pages seem to rest on a lofty premise that a student has all he needs just to be on the same campus with people of faith and the trappings of religious practice. The statement appears to hope for a spontaneous deepening of faith and growing understanding of fundamental truths by osmosis and happenstance communing. Somehow, the powerful influence of faith and the faithful would persist even while license is given to push this beating heart of the institution from the center of campus life into the periphery. Not surprisingly, this hope has been dashed by the reality that has since unfolded.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote, “Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit.”

St. John Henry Newman extended Aristotle’s thought to higher education over 2,000 years later. Though Newman felt that the subjects within a liberal arts education are worthy of study for their own sake, he writes: “[T]he College is for the formation of character, intellectual and moral, for the cultivation of the mind, for the improvement of the individual, for the study of literature, for the classics, and those rudimental sciences which strengthen and sharpen the intellect” (Rise and Progress of Universities).

This story comes from the latest issue of Instaurare Magazine, the official magazine of Christendom College. Read more from Instaurare here!

What was well understood by these men should be clear to most people if they would reflect for a moment. Human flourishing is the result of coming to understand who we were created to be and following the corresponding path which is written into our very being. The human person best becomes ready to see the most important truths—and live by them as he ought—in environments where the mind can be well cultivated to recognize them. Education must form the intellect to find and recognize truth, and educators must take seriously this task.

But the human person is also heavily influenced in his understanding of and adherence to these truths by the company he keeps. In short, moral formation and a community centered on virtue must accompany intellectual growth if a student is to be formed as a whole person. As St. John Henry Newman preached: “I wish the intellect to range with the utmost freedom, and religion to enjoy an equal freedom; but what I am stipulating for is, that they should be found in one and the same place, and exemplified in the same persons.”

Educational communities that understand this link are keenly aware that they must continually rededicate themselves to cultivating virtue in both the classroom and broader campus life. For fallen human beings, true excellence can only be the fruit of intentional, continual, and painstaking work.

In 1973, Dr. Warren H. Carroll began contributing to Triumph magazine and took the reins of the Christian Commonwealth Institute, which oversaw an educational program held at San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain. While established places for higher learning in the United States hoped for a growth in “experimental” Catholic life (as Land O’ Lakes described it), the Christian Commonwealth Institute provided a truly transformative experience built on bedrock things. In a breathtaking setting, students were guided through disciplines like philosophy and theology, among other subjects, by teachers with both a deep love of a liberal arts education and love of the faith.

But alongside the rich educational content, the Institute’s organizers understood the fundamental truth that Aristotle and St. John Henry Newman made so apparent: Moral formation and immersion must come alongside classroom education if a person is to be changed permanently by what he learns. And so, the sacraments, spiritual direction, exploration of the lived and historical Catholic vibrancy which surrounded them, were all integral to the program.

In 1977, when Dr. Carroll gathered together four other intrepid souls who had experienced and/or contributed directly to the Institute and related groups to form Christendom College—Dr. Kristin Burns (Popik), Mr. Raymund O’Herron, Dr. William Marshner, and Dr. Jeffrey Mirus—the power of the lessons from Spain were front and center. Forty-five years later, they still are.

At Christendom College, there is a deep recognition that robbing students of the cultivation of mind that aids them in coming to see who they are and what they are made for is a great tragedy. Dr. Carroll would often say that “Truth exists.” The College has embedded this reality into its DNA. Real freedom from oppression is found, not in license to put every novelty on equal footing with wisdom, but in the great moment when the universe begins to make sense to us because we are created to make sense of it. I note with some sadness that the word “truth” appears only once in Land O’ Lakes and in a section about social undertakings. Without a commitment to truth, the human soul is left to resort to animal instincts—survive, get ahead, get what is coming to you, and then try to live forever.

With professors who know they can point students toward truth in theology, philosophy, history, English literature, political science, classics and early Christian studies, mathematics and the natural sciences, the world opens rather up than closes in on itself. The true, the good, and the beautiful are meant to captivate and shape us. Hope is restored because nothing appears so desperate as unbridled incoherence.

For 45 years, Christendom has been extremely blessed with professors who see the whole person and extend their care and mentorship outside the classroom. We have been given the gift of able administrators who strive to build conditions on campus where what is learned can be lived. Students are not interchangeable, faceless cogs in an indoctrination machine. They are, rather, human persons with inherent dignity, deserving of an education that aims at the deepening of their knowledge toward their present and future flourishing.

And Christendom has been given the great grace of wonderful leaders. Dr. Warren Carroll was able to cast a vision and draw brave souls into it. Dr. Damian Fedoryka brought stability, culture, and connection with the wider academic and ecclesial world to us. And Dr. Timothy O’Donnell has, for 30 years, ably shepherded Christendom’s growth in student population, campus footprint, cultural richness, relationship with Catholics all over the world, and understanding of and adherence to the founding mission as it was entrusted to his care.

This commitment of the College to forming the whole person animates all we do—our small class size and capped enrollment, the background of and commitment to the Magisterium by our profes-sors, the active campus life with the availability of the sacraments, love of festivity, and constant work to inculcate lives of virtue and communion. Though Land O’ Lakes explicitly sought to exclude small schools and the liberal arts from its message, even in a large university system a commitment to both intellectual and moral formation must have a central place. To do otherwise is to build on shifting sands and cede the very ground that so often has the greatest hold on a student’s attention. In Catholic higher education, we cannot leave such critical matters to chance.

Contributed by Mark Rohlena, Executive Vice President, Christendom College. Rohlena double-majored in history and political science and economics at Christendom before earning his law degree from Ave Maria School of Law.

Read more from Instaurare Magazine here.

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