Father Hesburgh Redux

Fr Hesburgh wanted to make @NotreDame a great Catholic university — but "lacked the vision and imagination" to make it anything more than merely a great university. #GoCatholicND. Click To Tweet

In our current bulletin, with the permission of Public Discourse: The Journal of the Witherspoon Institute where it appeared initially, we reproduce an especially valuable review by Professors John M. Breen and Lee J. Strang of Father Wilson D. Miscamble’s biography of Father Theodore Hesburgh (“American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh”).

Reading it is, of course, no substitute for reading the book, but the authors’ informed description of the book’s principal elements provides a strong incentive to examine firsthand Father Miscamble’s illuminating panoramic account of the life and times of Father Hesburgh. The ancillary tribute to the sturdily Catholic Notre Dame Law School by these accomplished law school professors — with Professor Breen holding his undergraduate degree from Notre Dame — is a welcome special contribution.

American Priest is available on Amazon (hardcover $18.17).

An All-American Story, An All-American Priest


Father Theodore Hesburgh was a dedicated priest and a leader who possessed enormous ambition, charm, intelligence, and dedication. But for all his many gifts, Father Hesburgh lacked the vision and imagination necessary to realize the goal of making Notre Dame into a great Catholic university in the modern world.

Father Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C.’s, excellent biography of Father Theodore Hesburgh, American Priest, shows a man of great faith and great ambition whose life’s work was to make Notre Dame a “great Catholic university.” Under his leadership, Notre Dame attained the academic excellence and prestige that Father Hesburgh sought, and in the process changed the face of Catholic higher education. Father Miscamble’s book throws light on the man at the center of this transformation, the price paid, and some of the reasons why Catholic identity is tenuous in Catholic universities today.

Father Hesburgh’s life is an all-American story and a deeply Catholic one. It was a central belief of Father Hesburgh that these two core facets of his character were compatible. And it is the tensions between those facets that later developed that serve as the animating theme of Father Miscamble’s biography of the man he warmly calls Father Ted.

All-American Catholic

The story that Father Miscamble tells is an all-American story—the rise of a Catholic of relatively modest background, close to his immigrant roots, to a place of prominence among the nation’s elite—a man who conferred with presidents and popes. Theodore Hesburgh was born in 1917 into “a vibrant Catholic subculture, rather typical of the period, that centered” on the family’s parish and school in upstate New York. His religious formation was also typical for the era, including a “solid grounding . . . in Scholastic philosophy and orthodox theology.” This background deeply informed the worldview that Father Ted brought to his work as president of Notre Dame and in public service. He carried a deep love of both his country and his Catholic faith. And although he later perceived that the United States had not fully lived up to her own ideals, especially with respect to the treatment of racial minorities, he saw no contradiction between these two loves.

It is unclear whether someone like Father Ted could rise so high in today’s America—in part because the subculture of American Catholicism in which he was raised no longer exists, and in part because of the culture-wars that have gripped the country since the late 1960s. Hesburgh was born and reared in an American Catholic Church that worked hard to show that Catholics not only fit into American society, but that faithful Catholics were actually the best of citizens. He carried this American-Catholic ideal with him throughout his life, a point reflected in the title of his autobiography, God, Country, Notre Dame. This was no mere ideal: Father Miscamble’s story of Father Ted’s life shows the extent to which it was practically realizable.

As Father Miscamble makes clear, it was in part a deliberate avoidance of the most socially divisive issues (where the Church’s message is especially needed to counter the ethos shared by many elites) that enabled Father Ted to stay in the good company of the powerful men with whom he had become friends. For instance, although he served on the Rockefeller Foundation and was close friends with Nelson Rockefeller and his brothers, Father Ted failed to voice objection to their support for population control. “In essence he acquiesced in the substantial continued support that the Rockefeller Foundation gave to groups like the Population Council and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.” He merely “abstain[ed] from voting on issues involving contraception, sterilization, and abortion.” Although Father Ted stood up for civil rights (appearing with Dr. King and serving on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission) and spoke out against the Vietnam War (somewhat late in the game, after the Tet Offensive), he “failed to make abortion and the right to life one of the great issues that he chose to address forcefully.”

Catholic Higher Education

Of greater importance than the issues Father Ted did or did not champion are the changes he brought to Notre Dame and Catholic higher education. He was the driving force behind the 1967 Land O’Lakes Statement, a kind of “declaration of independence” signed by leading Catholic educators that famously declared that a “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.” To realize this autonomy from clerical authority, Father Ted led the way in separating the University from the Holy Cross order that founded Notre Dame by vesting practical ownership and control of the institution in a new lay board of trustees. This served as a model that most Catholic colleges and universities soon replicated. While Land O’Lakes also said that Catholicism must be “perceptibly present and effectively operative” in a Catholic college or university, it offered no explicit, practical means for realizing this presence beyond hosting a theology department and campus ministry program. In addition to theology and campus ministry, which he enthusiastically supported, Father Ted saw the experience of community as an essential feature in the education of students at a Catholic university, and so he “robustly defended” a residential hall system based on single-sex dorms.

Father Miscamble’s biography shows that “[b]uilding Notre Dame into a ‘great Catholic University’ was always [Father Ted’s] central mission,” but that Hesburgh failed to achieve this goal by his own standards. Father Ted’s vision of a “great Catholic university” required the pursuit of “excellence” as defined by the secular academy, and while the details of this vision “were not clear,” he knew it meant “breaking free from . . . [the] complacency and mediocrity” of the past.

In practice this meant abandoning Neo-Thomism as the organizing principle of the university’s intellectual life but with nothing to take its place. Unfortunately, Father Ted “gave little serious attention to fashioning a curriculum appropriate for a modern Catholic university and almost no consideration to the task of recruiting capable and committed faculty to teach it.” To the extent that Notre Dame has retained a more robust sense of Catholic identity than have its fellow Catholic universities, it is not because of Father Ted’s vision of “excellence,” but because Notre Dame followed to some extent the commonsense advice of then-Provost Rev. James Burtchaell, C.S.C.: the project of Catholic higher education cannot be sustained without a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals.

In sum, “[t]he ends were stated, but the means were not well addressed.” As a consequence, many faculty were hired “who primarily possessed academic credentials validated by secular peers.” Because it lacked the requisite personnel, Notre Dame in fact gave up on “any effort to provide students with a truly distinct and coherent Catholic education that would guarantee them some introduction to a Catholic worldview.” Thus, contrary to the popular view of Hesburgh as the great visionary of Catholic higher education, the conclusion to be drawn from Father Miscamble’s book is that Father Ted’s plan for the future of Notre Dame lacked the practical means necessary to realize the goal of a “great Catholic university.”  Father Ted was right to try to take Notre Dame forward into the realm of elite institutions.  But he was wrong to think that a university’s Catholic identity is something that would just take care of itself once the school had in place a theology department, an active campus ministry, and a sense of community in residential life.

Father Miscamble interviewed Hesburgh on numerous occasions in preparation for his book. We too were fortunate to interview Father Ted on a crisp February morning in 2012, in his office overlooking the Notre Dame campus on the top floor of the Hesburgh Library, named in his honor. Somewhat to our surprise, our conversation revealed a man who did not think of himself primarily as the builder of a great institution, but first and foremost as a priest of the Catholic Church. Father Ted spoke lovingly of the chance he had had to exercise his priestly ministry, celebrating the Eucharist in dozens of countries and on every continent on Earth, including Antarctica.

The purpose of our meeting was to gather information for our book on the history of Catholic legal education in the United States, for we knew that Father Ted had played a critical role in that story. Today, Notre Dame’s law school stands out among the nation’s twenty-nine Catholic law schools because it has retained a vibrant Catholic identity that is not merely ornamental, cultural, or liturgical, but one that is intellectual in nature. In our interview, Father Ted told us that he first became directly involved with the Law School when he was vice-president of the University under Rev. John Cavanaugh, C.S.C., who gave him the task of finding a new dean. Cavanaugh told him that Notre Dame had “a first-rate football team and a third-rate law school.” He wanted the Notre Dame Law School to be first-rate, and he wanted it to be Catholic. Father Ted completed his assignment by hiring Joseph O’Meara to serve as dean. Under O’Meara’s tenure, the school set forth on the long path toward national recognition. O’Meara and his successors—William Lawless, Tom Shaffer, David Link, Patti O’Hara, and Nell Newton—hired a majority of faculty who were not only excellent scholars and rigorous teachers, but individuals who sought to contribute to Notre Dame as a center of Catholic intellectual life. Indeed, the law school has succeeded by following a hiring strategy (the strategy recommended by Burtchaell) that most Catholic law schools and universities did not follow—a failure that accounts for the beige brand of Catholic identity that is a hallmark of Catholic higher education today.

Cultivating Catholic Identity

A deep irony runs throughout Father Miscamble’s biography. On the one hand, it is clear that Father Ted was a man of deep faith whose priestly vocation was the center of his being. Even in the aftermath of Vatican II, “Ted Hesburgh drank deeply of the well of this priestly understanding and spirituality.” On the other hand, Father Ted presided over the thinning of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, primarily through his lack of attention to faculty hiring and curriculum. What can account for this puzzling combination of personal fidelity and the loss of a robust sense of Catholic identity in the institution that he oversaw?

Father Miscamble’s biography shows that Father Ted came of age in the thick American Catholic subculture that thrived during the 1920s-1950s. From that perspective, it was plausible to believe that Notre Dame’s faculty and curriculum would remain, not just nominally Catholic, but richly Catholic in its intellectual heart even as the university sought to engage with its secular peers and attain the excellence defined by the wider academy. However, Father Miscamble’s biography also shows that Father Ted’s assumptions were no longer warranted by the early 1970s. Catholics and America had changed. A Catholic university could no longer take for granted the deep Catholic enculturation achieved through the interlocking networks of family, parish, school, and social and charitable organizations that once defined the Catholic “ghetto.” Relocation to the suburbs, the selection of public over parochial schools, and the tragic loss of religious observance that followed in the wake of Vatican II all contributed to a loss of Catholic identity long before any faculty or students ever set foot on campus. This new environment required the university and its leaders to self-consciously cultivate a faculty of Catholic intellectuals and deliberately structure a curriculum with the goal of introducing students to a Catholic worldview. Father Ted did not recognize the loss that had occurred and failed to provide for it sufficiently.

The portrait of Father Theodore Hesburgh that emerges from Father Miscamble’s study is of a man who was a dedicated priest and a leader who possessed enormous ambition, charm, intelligence, and dedication—a man who realized the goal of making Notre Dame a great university, one respected among its secular peers. But for all his many gifts, Father Hesburgh lacked the vision and imagination necessary to realize the goal of making Notre Dame into a great Catholic university in the modern world.

About the Authors

JOHN BREEN is the Georgia Reithal Professor of Law at Loyola University Chicago School of Law where he has taught since 1996. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Harvard Law School. His scholarly interests include statutory interpretation, abortion, law and re… READ MORE

LEE J. STRANG joined the University of Toledo faculty in 2008 and was named John W. Stoepler Professor of Law & Values in 2015. A graduate of the University of Iowa, Professor Strang also holds an LL.M. degree from Harvard Law School. During the fall, 2015, Professor Stran… READ MORE

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2 Responses to “Father Hesburgh Redux”

  1. An article like this is a pleasant read, and I think the general message was true, that Fr. Hesburgh focused on building a great university as measured by the secular world, rather than a great Catholic University for the current era. However, I have a hard time reconciling a man who claims to be a Catholic priest, before all else, with a guy who brought the Rockefeller Foundation and Planned Parenthood together at Notre Dame. I don’t recall Elie Wiesel ever meeting with a wealthy foundation and the Nazi Party and quietly not discussing or abstaining from voting with the Nazis. The idea sounds absolutely silly, but Weisel was driven to eradicate anti- Semitic-type thought and action. Hesburgh was not driven to eliminate anti-Catholic thought and action. He appears to have slowly, cautiously planted the seeds for it, not loudly out in the open, but quietly and incrementally behind the scenes, never discussing the subject, but issuing items like the Land O’Lakes statement and giving anti-Catholic politicians aid or a platform to speak from, whether it be Cuomo, Clinton or Obama. The Nazis and Planned Parenthood are in the same business- killing innocent people that each particular group does not consider human. When you add Hesburgh’s aid and assistance to Barrack Obama (pro-abortion speaker Hesburgh approved for Notre Dame graduation) and co-chairing the Clinton Legal Defense Fund for “Slick Willie” what are we supposed to think? It’s one thing not to cast stones at a woman accused of adultery, as Jesus taught, it’s another to raise millions in attorney fees for a guy and his wife who strongly endorsed abortion and who had a “bimbo eruption squad” overseen by his wife, to cast stones at women accusing “Slick Willie” of being a sexual predator. Then there’s the sexual predator issue and Cardinal McCarrick, whom Ted, as a powerful, well-connected, Catholic priest. must have known about, and still invited to be a graduation speaker at Notre Dame. Fr. Ted was a member of the board of the People for the American Way, founded by t.v. producer Norman Lear to fight against the Moral Majority led by Jerry Falwell, and PFAW advanced causes like abortion. Ted’s fingerprints may not be directly on many bad activities, but he seems to have been standing behind the scenes in more than his fair share of smoke (not incense) filled rooms where Catholic causes and beliefs were being attacked. It seems a little much to think that this intelligent, driven man, simply overlooked or forgot to push Catholicism at Catholic universities. C’mon guys. What does it say when you are in Barrack Obama’s, Theodore McCarrick’s, Bill Clinton’s and Roger Mahoney’s inner circles? Think about it, and yes, it does hurt.

    I suspect many of us wish Fr. Hesburgh was the nice and important man we met for three minutes and who received approval from many powerful sources around the world, and on one level, he was. We REALLY do want him to be the good guy portrayed in these books and articles, but we may be fooling ourselves if we buy into the idea that Ted didn’t know what his associates were up to and that he wasn’t actively involved behind the scenes, just like he was with everything going on at Notre Dame. Slick Willie was reportedly a great guy to have a beer with and, in his own refined and solemn way, Father Hesburgh may have been too, but I think we should be careful about thinking we knew everything either of them was up to and what was in their deepest thoughts, both were masterful at portraying public images. We should carefully look at their actions and see what those actions say, while we are reading these analyses of what Fr. Ted stood for. He definitely accomplished a lot in the secular world, a record many liberal politicians and CEOs would envy,but what about his impact on Catholicism?

  2. Born in 1962 in the watered-down post-Vatican II era of our faith, I have spent every summer of my life in Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin. As a student (ND’84) and a Roman Catholic, I had the good fortune to meet with Fr. Hesburgh, both on campus and “Up North” on several occasions. From my experiences I strongly agree with his description of himself, i.e., that he was a Catholic priest before all else. However, I also agree that he incorrectly PRESUMED that the Catholic identity of Notre Dame would survive the changes he pioneered through the Land O’ Lakes statement. I first read the Land O’ Lakes Statement and noticed the erosion of Notre Dame du Lac’s Catholic identity after Fr. Hesburgh’s book, “God, Country, Notre Dame” debuted. I read the statement with great interest being in Land O’ Lakes at the time as well as being an alumna. I spent a great deal of time reflecting upon my own experiences at Notre Dame and my beliefs as a Catholic. The divide was discernable. As each year since then has passed, the rise of the secular tide at my alma mater has seemingly grown. And, each year the administration appears more and more willing to overlook, and, in some instances, even welcome the erosion of her Catholic identity. I, personally, do not believe that this was Fr. Hesburgh’s intent. Like a sin of omission, however, the fact remains that his legacy will be forever tainted if Notre Dame’s true mission as a Catholic university continues to be overshadowed by her autonomous quest for acclaim in academia and research.

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