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“American Priest” by Rev. Wilson Miscamble, C.S.C.

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.@NotreDame's secular acclaim and religious decline in Rev. Wilson Miscamble's Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Father Ted Hesburgh. #GoCatholicND Click To Tweet

With the permission of First Things (copyright reserved), we reproduce below an arresting review by Rev. Paul Mankowski, S.J., of the just-published biography by Rev. Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C., of Fr. Theodore Hesburg: American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh.

As Mankowski observes, Miscamble, an award-winning historian, “brought to the task the extraordinary advantages of firsthand acquaintance with the man himself, intimate knowledge of Notre Dame and many of the key players in the pertinent period, and approximately thirty hours of interviews recorded in the summer of 1998, conducted expressly for the purposes of the biography.”

A friend of Hesburgh who admired much of what he did, Miscamble is nonetheless clear-eyed about Hesburgh’s shortcomings, especially the course he set for Notre Dame that has led to a critical weakening of its Catholic identity even as it has amassed a huge endowment and gained recognition as a premier university alongside prestigious secular schools.

Father Miscamble gives us a capacious portrait of Hesburgh as man, priest, university president, and public servant, and situates him within the major religious, political, and social currents of his often turbulent times.

Mankowski has, understandably and to considerable effect, focused on this and related themes. It is at Notre Dame and in Catholic higher education generally that Father Hesburgh has left his most significant and lasting mark. Drawing upon Miscamble, Mankowski describes how the forces Hesburgh set in motion have drained much of the “Catholic” from “Catholic University.”

We will bring you our own review shortly, but we should perhaps note here that, while the substance of what Father Mankowski says is anchored in Father Miscamble’s book, the portrait he draws of  Father Hesburgh is unleavened by much of what Miscamble reports about Hesburgh in other contexts. For Father Miscamble’s absorbing account of both the positive and negative aspects of the legacy of this remarkable Notre Dame figure, read American Priest (modestly priced at $17.96 in hardcover from Amazon ($14.99 Kindle, $10.99 Audible).


In 2008, Father Theodore ­Hesburgh (1917–2015) gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he said, “I have no problem with females or married people as priests, but I ­realize that the majority of the leadership in the Church would.” True, he was ninety-one at the time, and had long been retired as the president of Notre Dame, but the debonair self-confidence with which he conflated doctrine and discipline was entirely characteristic of the man, as was his subordination of both to the imperatives of liberal sentimentalism. He was an American priest.

Fr. Wilson Miscamble, like ­Hesburgh a priest of the ­Congregation of Holy Cross, joined the history faculty at Notre Dame in 198­8 and knew Hesburgh personally. When he approached Hesburgh in 1994 with the proposal of writing his biography, Hesburgh was initially hesitant: “He . . . explained that it would be hard for a single historian to capture in a full and meaningful way the extent of his actions over the years.” Hesburgh was not one to underestimate the magnitude of his accomplishments, and throughout his career was actively, even punctiliously, concerned with the curatorship of his reputation and legacy. Miscamble prevailed, happily, and brings to the task the extraordinary advantages of firsthand acquaintance with the man himself, intimate knowledge of Notre Dame and many of the key players in the pertinent period, and approximately thirty hours of interviews recorded in the summer of 1998, conducted expressly for the purposes of the biography.

For all that, Miscamble starts with a singular disadvantage, namely, that his protagonist had none. Most biographers have a level of interest built into their narrative simply by recounting the struggles of their subject in overcoming adversity: the usual ups and downs, setbacks and triumphs that attend the early lives of the famous. Never was Hesburgh an underdog. His career, from the time he left high school, was an unbroken series of advances, successes followed by more successes, rescued from monotony only by one’s curiosity as to how long the string might remain intact. Hesburgh was a man of exceptional energy, ambition, charisma, and self-control, endowed with a precise knowledge of his own abilities. He focused on using those abilities to advance himself and the institutions in which his allegiances were enshrined. In this he succeeded brilliantly.

In Miscamble’s telling, Hesburgh’s loyalties as a young man were typical of an upper-middle-class American Catholic of his era. He was conventionally patriotic in his churchmanship and citizenship, and studies in Rome and France in the late 1930s resulted in few strong attachments in either place. They did, however, give him a familiarity with the mechanisms of ecclesiastical influence, which he used to his benefit throughout his career. Assigned in 1945 to the Holy Cross community at Notre Dame, he immediately caught the attention of administrators, acquitted himself masterfully in a series of progressively demanding positions, and was named (by his religious superior) president of the university in 1952. On Hesburgh’s retirement in 1987, Notre Dame’s annual budget had grown from less than $10 million to $176 million, its endowment from $9 million to $350 million, student enrollment from five thousand to ten—and his own stature in the public eye increased proportionately. The evolution of Hesburgh’s allegiances is a more complicated story.

Hesburgh seems to have been almost preternaturally astute at choosing subordinates: men of exceptional competence and energy willing to put both at the service of their leader’s direction. Hesburgh didn’t surround himself with yes-men, but he was nervous in the company of assistants as ambitious as himself, and displeased whenever football coaches received more media attention than he. More than once in this biography one is reminded of Herodotus’s account of Thrasybulus of Miletus, who, when asked for instruction in the art of autocracy, strode silently through a field of wheat, snicking off with his switch the head of every conspicuously higher stalk. By the same token, ­Hesburgh became resentful of direction—which he viewed as interference—on the part of agencies claiming superior authority, most notably the Holy See and his own religious congregation. Much of his career as a churchman and educator was spent in declaring, and effecting, independence from the Church, even as he emphasized the ­atmospherics of ­pious, picturesque Catholicism: choirs, clerical garb, the Marian grotto.

An instructive example is found in the history of Hesburgh’s ideas on the nature of Catholic higher education. Already in his first term as president he was lecturing on the subject. In a 1953 address to the faculty titled “A Theology of History and Education,” he said, “We do not rest in human reason, or human values, or human sciences—but we certainly do begin our progress in time with all that is human in its excellence. Then, after the pattern of the Incarnation, we consecrate all our human excellence to the transforming influence of Christ in our times.” In a 1954 talk, called “The Mission of a Catholic University” (note, by the way, the last-word-on-the-subject swagger of his titles), Hesburgh said that the task of a Catholic university was one “that no secular university today can undertake—for they are largely cut off from the tradition of adequate knowledge which comes only through faith in the mind and faith in God, the highest wisdom of Christian philosophy and Catholic theology.” Deprived of context, one might be forgiven for thinking that these passages came from Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on the ­Catholic university. Yet by 1990, Hesburgh was vigorously opposed to Ex Corde and its ecclesiology. Says Miscamble, “He and Dick McBrien [then chair of the Notre Dame theology department] let no opportunity pass to express their opposition to what they saw as a dangerous challenge to the institutional autonomy of Notre Dame and a wrongheaded assault on the American approach to higher education.”

Much had happened in the intervening years; most important—at their midpoint, in July of 1967—Hesburgh summoned a group of carefully chosen Catholic educators to an informal caucus at the Land O’ Lakes villa in Wisconsin, including sympathetic college presidents from the U.S. and Canada and Fr. Theodore McCarrick, president of the University of Puerto Rico. The discussion resulted in a manifesto insisting on the independence of the academy:

The Catholic University today must be a university in the full modern sense of the word, with a strong commitment to and concern for academic excellence. 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 term “excellence” has become so debased today as an empty buzz-word that it is hard to believe it was once taken seriously. It was in fact a key concept, a non-negotiable, for Hesburgh, who Miscamble shows was caught up in the “near-mania for excellence” (Philip Gleason’s phrase) that intoxicated Catholic educators after the issuance in 1958 of a ­Rockefeller Brothers Fund report called, without embarrassment, The Pursuit of Excellence. Hesburgh believed excellence in higher education to be objective and measurable, metered by the volumes in the university library, faculty salary levels, value of government research grants, percentage of faculty with doctorates in hand, and so forth. Nor was he in doubt about the way forward; Miscamble quotes Hesburgh more than once as saying that the ten greatest universities in the United States are those with the ten richest endowments, and he made it his goal to do the fundraising necessary for Notre Dame to buy its way into the premier league. It was an era of confidence in “the best and the brightest,” of Management by Objectives. The Land O’ Lakes statement’s insistence on a secular notion of excellence, and Hesburgh’s enthusiasm for it, should be viewed against this background of managerial optimism. Yet his fellow priests and religious spotted the flaw in Hesburgh’s project of severing the mooring lines between Church and university; Miscamble’s verdict on Hesburgh is as devastating as it is understated: “Without making a major and formal decision he began to allow what might be called the pursuit of excellence approach to supplant the pursuit of the truth.”

Among the good things on offer in the book is Miscamble’s perspective from inside the religious community that ­founded, and remains connected to, the University of Notre Dame. We learn, for example, that in 1969 priests of the Holy Cross accounted for fifteen full professors, twenty associates, and twenty-two assistants at Notre Dame—numbers unimaginable today for any order at any university. He describes how Hesburgh, resentful of his order’s prerogative of naming its members to university posts, negotiated a two-tier trustee system on the Harvard-Berkeley model with a lay majority; how he outmaneuvered his superiors in their plans that Notre Dame fund a seminary on its campus; how he arranged that presidents succeeding him, though restricted to priests of the Holy Cross Congregation, would no longer be assigned to the job by the superior but proposed to the board for confirmation. We see too how the balance of power shifted, as a man in charge of an enterprise with a couple thousand employees and a budget of over a hundred million dollars not only gained ­ascendancy over his nominal religious superior, but was able to advance, stall, or redirect the careers of many of his brother priests. Hesburgh was seldom bashful in wielding his influence.

Hesburgh’s climacteric year was 1968. The political turmoil of the time affected the student body, no longer docile under traditional measures of campus discipline, even when conveyed by Father Ted. Sentiment for and against the Vietnam War alienated Hesburgh from friends and political contacts on both sides of the issue. His steadfast and courageous stance on civil rights was inadequate, in some circles, to the new urgency in racial grievances. But for Hesburgh the Catholic, Hesburgh the priest, it was Humanae Vitae that starred the mirror once and forever.

The policy wonks of The Pursuit of Excellence generation were perfectly capable of devising countermeasures against political threats; what they failed to grasp was the depth of the lifestyle revolution, and its promise of sexual freedom, communicated to the younger generation through its headphones. Like the three hundred foxes Samson used to terrorize the Philistines, the issues that convulsed the universities in 1968 were joined by the tail.

Well before 1968, ­Hesburgh himself had large areas of sympathy for the sexual revolution. Since 1961, he had been on the board of directors of the Rockefeller Foundation, which advocated “population control” measures—including abortion, sterilization, and contraception—in underdeveloped nations. While he consistently dissented from the Foundation’s promotion of abortion, he concurred with the other proposals, and his priesthood as well as his personal prestige helped—as the Foundation and he knew it would—to defuse some of the Catholic resistance. Further, Miscamble documents that Hesburgh lent support to a series of meetings held at Notre Dame annually from 1963 to 1967, sponsored by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations in collaboration with the Planned Parenthood Federation, ostensibly aimed at the “population problem,” but intended to provide, in the words of historian Donald Critchlow, “a liberal forum to create an oppositional voice within the Catholic Church on the issue of family planning.” Having done what was in his power in the matter, Hesburgh was confident that Pope Paul VI would accede to a change in Church teaching, and was shocked when, in July of 1968, he was proven wrong.

Stanley Hauerwas remarked, “It has been the project of liberal political and ethical theory to create just societies without just people, primarily by attempting to set in place social institutions and/or discover moral principles that ensure cooperation among people who share no common goods or virtues.” To some extent, Hesburgh’s support of population control measures was of a piece with the “management control systems” approach to problem-solving ­associated with Robert McNamara and the Whiz Kids of the early 1960s, predicated on the conviction that, if the right policies were implemented by the right personnel, personal moral choice became ­irrelevant to social change. On the other hand, Hesburgh, together with many liberal Catholics, had been infected by the sentimentalisms that the “human face” of the sexual revolution ­transmitted through its summer-of-love mawkishness.

For Hesburgh’s fellow academics in the main, the permissibility of contraception had long been accepted, and they had moved on to push for easing constraints on homosexual activity and abortion. Miscamble relates a telling moment during an address at Yale in 1973, when Hesburgh included a few sentences in strong opposition to abortion, and female members of the audience hissed him into silence. Miscamble claims this was a turning point, in the wrong direction, for Hesburgh:

Whatever his response to the hissing Yale feminists, he thereafter failed to make abortion and the right to life one of the great issues that he chose to address ­forcefully. To have pursued it vigorously would have put him at odds with the liberal establishment figures with whom he wanted to associate in tackling global poverty and world peace.

Hesburgh, painful as it is to acknowledge, was not the same man who in 1953 had urged his faculty to consecrate themselves to “the transforming influence of Christ in our times.” Though he occasionally growled at the disappearance of traditional Catholic decorum in matters of courtship and sexuality, fear of being lumped with the defenders of Humanae Vitae—the thick-necked “red meat and rosary” folks who typified working-class Catholicism—robbed him of his voice. We’re told that when Notre Dame’s Student Life Council voted to allow women’s visitation in the male dorms, he “yielded without a murmur.” The prestige he had won for himself was, quite simply, too precious to lose. In all matters, Hesburgh was as idealistic as expedience allowed.

Miscamble provides another glimpse into the character of his subject that merits reflection. He tells us that, while Hesburgh had great affection for Pope John XXIII and deep sympathy for Paul VI, he never warmed to John Paul II, put off by his hardline anti-communism, his dismantling of Vatican Ostpolitik (which Hesburgh strongly favored), and by his robust defense of Catholic teaching on abortion and sexual morality. Still, Hesburgh accepted an invitation by President Jimmy Carter to a reception for the pope on the South Lawn of the White House, at the conclusion of his pastoral visit to the U.S. in October of 1979:

Father Ted, who was seated close to the front of the animated crowd, remembered being struck that everyone was straining and reaching out for the pope when he and the president walked by. He made a point of reaching out to Carter and assuring him: “We love you too, Mr. President.”

Hesburgh may have felt that ­Carter was in need of reassurance, but it’s hard not to see a twinge of regret at the admiration shown John Paul II. No one could call Hesburgh a mere spectator in regard to the problems of the world; he worked assiduously, and at the highest levels, to confront the crises of his time. But his work took place in committee rooms. John Paul II was a man who had experienced danger firsthand, a man who had helped make history by heroic fidelity to his Catholic faith, a man of exceptional and genuine intellectual attainments, a man—most of all—who patently believed in the truths that Hesburgh had himself professed in 1953 but abandoned at the hissing of a New Haven lecture hall. Small wonder if the moment was awkward for him.

Walking around the Notre Dame campus in his retirement, Hesburgh saw his legacy enshrined in two substantial buildings that already bore his name: One is the Hesburgh Center for International Studies, the other is the university library, bearing the famous Word of Life exterior mural depicting Jesus surrounded by ­apostles, saints, and scholars. ­Hesburgh told Miscamble he came to regret the absence of any women in the mural, a remark that dates the change in his sensibilities and those of our own time (according to which exogenous gender assignment is itself iniquitous). What is dismaying is ­Hesburgh’s inability to unwind, his ceaseless need to fine-tune his reputation, here—as in the Wall Street Journal interview—by his genuflection in the direction of feminism. He passed his life in the gaze of the Lidless Eye of his ­obituarist. Perhaps for this reason he fails to humanize himself convincingly, even in the indiscretions confided to his biographer. Like ­Evelyn Waugh’s ­Apthorpe, he “tended to become faceless and tapering the closer he approached.” Were his private correspondence to be published, it would almost certainly reveal nothing he didn’t already make sure that we knew about himself.

There is one delightful exception, an occasion in which Hesburgh cashed in his chips and gratified an impulse for its own sake. Having done some favors for Jimmy Carter, he browbeat the president into muscling him onto a Lockheed SR-71 for a wholly ­gratuitous supersonic flight. Able for once to be a boy as well as a man, the author of The Humane Imperative got himself a ride on the fire truck to end all fire trucks. He had bought much shabbier wares at a much dearer price; one hopes he enjoyed it. 

Paul V. Mankowski, S.J., writes from Chicago.

Photo courtesy of the University of Notre Dame. 


REVEREND WILSON D. (BILL) MISCAMBLE, C.S.C., joined the permanent faculty of the history department at Notre Dame in 1988. He chaired the department from 1993 to 1998. He also served as rector and superior of Moreau Seminary (2000 to 2004), the principal formation site for the Congregation of Holy Cross in North America. Fr. Miscamble’s primary research interests are American foreign policy since World War II and the role of Catholics in twentieth-century American public life. His book entitled George F. Kennan and the Making of American Foreign Policy, 1947-1950 was published in 1992 by Princeton University Press and received the Harry S. Truman Book Award. His 2007 book From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima and the Cold War was published by Cambridge University Press and it received the Harry S. Truman Book Award in 2008. He published The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, the Atomic Bombs and the Defeat of Japan in 2011.



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7 Responses to ““American Priest” by Rev. Wilson Miscamble, C.S.C.”

  1. There is a new story today on moral midget John Jenkins refusing to filter internet porn at Notre Dame on the Church Militant website. Apparently a 12,500 signature petition and papal policy meant little to Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president. Have a happy weekend, Notre Dame priests and brothers!

  2. As I have been thinking more about that 2008 graduation ceremony, where McCarrick got his honorary degree, sharing a stage with Hesburgh’s 10 foot tall portrait behind him, at a time 7 years before Hesburgh died, what are we to make of the fact that Hesburgh at a minimum did not complain, and more likely endorsed or approved the selection of McCarrick to receive the degree?? Reports are that most senior churchmen knew of McCarrick’s bad behavior and weren’t saying anything publicly, like Cardinal Wuerl. The only thing holding Hesburgh back from being a bishop or cardinal was the fact that he was a Holy Cross priest, instead of a diocesan priest, but he certainly had to be privy to what bishops and cardinals were aware of. There is a lot more behind that photo you had in the March 2019 Sycamore bulletin and the delay in stripping McCarrick of his honorary degree.

  3. After reading an account of the Land O’ Lakes event some time ago, realization struck that Fr. Hesburgh was setting the course of liberality for the University. I have since felt like the frog who was immersed in cold water, slowly losing his life as the heat was gradually turned up. I believe the analogy applies to the Notre Dame extant today as it is envisioned today. My “modernly” traditional Catholicism is being challenged even further as Catholic institutions seem to lose their focus.

    Steve Penny ’57

  4. Thank you for this very interesting review, with it’s very telling anecdotes about Fr. Hesburgh.

    In the midst of the current revolution/crisis in the Church, I have been hoping to get more information on the roles of both Fr. Hesburgh and St. John Paul II and their connections to Mr. Ted McCarrick and his allies, particularly with respect to a story that has been presented by some reliable Catholic news outlets, that McCarrick was secreted off to Switzerland early in his career and was enlisted to become a communist infiltrator in the Catholic Church. Before you laugh and waive your hand, remember that St. John Paul was shot and nearly assassinated by a Turkish assassin with close ties to the Bulgarian secret police, who may have been working for the KGB. I am NOT saying Theodore Hesburgh was a foreign agent, but when you compare the similarities between Hesburgh and McCarrick- extensive, nearly non-stop foreign travel, tight political connections on the American left, an effort to change Catholic dogma/beliefs on the sanctity of life, by advancing population control through contraception, abortion and homosexuality and stunting and derailing the careers of priests who dissented with or questioned their policies. I can’t help but wonder about what was going on behind the well-guarded scenes. That picture in the last Sycamore Trust bulletin in mid March 2019, of a ten foot tall, huge picture of Fr. Hesburgh, with his stern face and arms crossed behind scrawny McCarrick, as McCarrick received his honorary degree on stage from Notre Dame in 2008, is reminiscent of a 20th Century book by George Orwell. Rarely have I seen huge pictures of a politician, like that of Fr. Hesburgh, at political rallies, yet on a day when McCarrick was supposedly being honored by Notre Dame, there was Fr. Ted’s picture, twenty years after his retirement, dominating and dwarfing and looking down on McCarrick on stage, saying don’t forget who’s really THE BOSS and ALWAYS HONORED at Notre Dame. McCarrick may have been Hesburgh’s secretary in drafting the Land ‘O Lakes statement, stating that Catholic universities are not committed to following Catholic dogma and rules.

    In a kinder light, I think this excerpt shows that all people tend to have a good side, mixed with a flawed side that can either be controlled, or not controlled, or allowed to run extremely amok, but we all have that negative, flawed side, even the great ones, and often with the great ones, that flaw is a loss of humility and the flaw of an escape from the rules/law applying to all of us, while in the pursuit of greatness. Our greatness will be decided by God and our best hope is to be useful, powerful, effective tools of GOD on Earth, not the Ford Foundation or intellectual elites or political elites. Hopefully, our unflinching commitment to do what is right, as stated by Jesus and the Catholic religion, will make us great in God’s eye, not in popular culture’s eye, and frequently that greatness is accomplished outside the glare of public adulation and as the merciless target of those in charge of public opinion, as Fr. Hesburgh learned from the hissing pro-abortion women at Yale. That was his opportunity to take some criticism and arrows from modern culture in standing for what is right, but in his desire to preserve his popular prestige, he flinched, as many people would have. Now those hissing, pro-abortion supporters are passing laws legalizing infanticide in New York and the New England states and an opportunity to reason with the hissers and state the Truth was lost. How appropriate that they made the sounds of snakes, the symbol of Evil.

    The discussion of Fr. Hesburgh frequently requesting of President Carter the opportunity to ride in a super sonic fighter jet is reminiscent of test pilot Chuck Yeager at the end of the movie “The Right Stuff”. Chuck Yeager was arguably the best test pilot in the US from the 1940’s through the 1960s, but was not allowed in the space program, ironically because he didn’t have a college degree. At the end of “The Right Stuff”, Yeager tries to fly the newest supersonic jet as high as he can into outer space, but the jet engine quits, and the plane eventually crashes into Earth, with Yeager parachuting to safety battered, but relatively unharmed. Hesburgh’s striving to go as far as he can, and experience and accomplish as much as he can, like Chuck Yeager, is to be admired, as long as it is not at the cost of surrendering one’s soul, through a loss of humility and forgetting that GOD is THE BOSS and anything we accomplish is through HIS good graces and blessings and defending GOD’s principles, not those of the Ford Foundation.

  5. Kathleen Mihelich Black SMC'81 April 10, 2019 at 3:55 pm

    Great review. I’m currently reading the book and enjoy how Father Miscamble realistically portrays his subject from a truly orthodox Catholic perspective. Having spent most of my life in the area, I can tell you that there were many a soul negatively affected by Father Hesburgh’s relaxed dorm rules and lowered Catholic standards. Hesburgh’s lust for prestige and wealth were of no help either. His globetrotting earned him the monniker “non-resident president”. The damaging legacy continues to this day.

  6. I think I can sum up the man and his life (as well as Father Mankowski’s brilliant review) in a single word – hubris. His endless quest for “excellence” created the largely secularized Notre Dame of today, an institution of self-aggrandizement and praise-seeking in the image of its longest-serving president. Ah, if only he were to have perceived his mission to be holiness and Notre Dame’s mission to be that of its namesake, that is, to point the way to her Son, who is the Truth.

  7. Thank God for Father Wilson Miscamble.
    Great intellect -humorous like a real Aussie-superior analyst.
    Like to drive out and jump into his class.
    Jack Mcgowan ’66

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