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This Essay is composed of four parts. In Part I, we sketch the origins of the concept of academic freedom in colleges and universities in the United States. We then examine the contemporary understanding of the concept as set forth in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Next, we provide a brief history of the experience of academic freedom in Catholic universities in the United States. This history includes a series of pivotal controversies in the 1950s-1960s at four Catholic universities: the University of Notre Dame, St. John’s University, the University of Dayton, and the Catholic University of America. It also includes a brief review of two transformative documents — the Land O’Lakes Statement (1967) and The Catholic University in the Modern World (1972) — in which leading Catholic educators endeavored to articulate a conception of a modern Catholic university that included a robust role for academic freedom. In light of these developments, Catholic universities revised their policies on academic freedom.

In Part II of the Essay, we offer a conceptual critique of academic freedom as defined in the 1940 Statement. We argue that this widely accepted articulation of the concept is question begging at best, and at worst internally incoherent. The AAUP definition of academic freedom is question begging because it assumes a particular conception of the university as normative and then draws its definition of academic freedom from that conception. There are, however, other reasonable conceptions of what constitutes a “university” with their own entailed conceptions of academic freedom, such that the AAUP’s implicit assumption stands undefended. Furthermore, the AAUP definition is internally incoherent. The AAUP conception of academic freedom declares that every idea must be subject to challenge and possible refutation while, at the same time, harboring certain ideas as unassailable and immune from criticism. All rational thought, including the 1940 Statement, must proceed by assuming the truth of certain presuppositions. Yet, without argument, the 1940 Statement singles out religious propositions as uniquely obnoxious to the academic enterprise.

In Part III of the Essay, we argue that the many striking contradictions between the conception of academic freedom (as articulated in the 1940 Statement and typically defended in academic circles) and the actual practice of academic freedom in American universities (private and public, secular and religious) indicates that few people actually believe in the AAUP version of the principle. This disconnect also suggests that the 1940 Statement is not so much the articulation of a foundational principle of academic life as an ideology that serves ends other than those it purports to advance. Of course, some version of academic freedom is necessary for universities to fulfill their mission as conveyors of knowledge and centers of inquiry. This is no less true of Catholic universities.

In Part IV of the Essay, we offer some practical suggestions for how Catholic universities can remain faithful to the truth professed by the Church, while giving their faculty members the freedom necessary to raise questions, conduct research, and participate in the great conversation that is the essence of the scholarly enterprise.