The Hesburgh Phenomenon


Fr. Bill Miscamble’s biography of Fr. Ted Hesburgh describes his good works but also his lasting influence in draining “Catholic” from “Catholic university" in #AmericanPriest #GoCatholicND" Click To Tweet
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The Hesburgh Phenomenon

by William Dempsey

(Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing, copyright reserved.)

Saturday, April 27, 2019

In the pantheon of Notre Dame superheroes, these three abide: Father Edward Sorin, the founder; Knute Rockne, the mythmaker; and Father Ted Hesburgh, the builder, but the greatest of these is Hesburgh.

During his thirty-five years (1953 to 1987) as president of Notre Dame, Hesburgh propelled it from the academic minor leagues (as defined by secular academe) to the top echelon of the majors. And along the way, he served in more outside prominent government and private posts, almost surely, than any other churchman ever has or probably ever will.

In consequence, at a pace that quickened as he aged – he died at 97 in 2015 – Hesburgh was repeatedly feted in distinguished (sometimes Presidential) assemblies, and he collected a warehouse full of awards and honorary degrees. The haul at times seemed almost surreal. (“In 1998 he reclaimed the world record for honorary degrees from Thailand’s King Bhumibol.” Who knew?)

It was, then, perhaps not a canny career move for Notre Dame professor Rev. Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C., to publish a Hesburgh biography that departs from the canonical script. But we are much the better for it.

Miscamble was well suited to the task. An award-winning historian and author, he has taught at Notre Dame for over thirty years. He’s a student of the relevant political landscape, and was a friend of Hesburgh – and interviewed him at length in anticipation of writing American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Ted Hesburgh.

In this fine work, Miscamble gives us a capacious and clear-eyed 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.

Besides telling the story of Hesburgh and Notre Dame, he describes in rich detail Hesburgh’s relations with popes and presidents, and his service in the causes of civil rights, poverty, peace, nuclear disarmament, immigration, world hunger, and more.

Miscamble’s description of other players is engaging, e.g., the Kennedys (Hesburgh didn’t warm to Joe), Reagan (nor him), Nixon (nor him), Clinton (he did to him), Carter (him too, inept as he thought him), Pope Paul VI (a friend, then not), Saint John Paul II (worrisome), and of course a full roll call of Notre Dame personalities.

Miscamble gives us a man of limitless confidence no matter the challenge – and one not inclined to underestimate his accomplishments – but also a person of great personal warmth and generosity, gifted with high intelligence and a rare ability to persuade and lead. And a priest devoted to his vocation.

But one defining characteristic became problematical: He was an ardent American assimilationist. He wanted America’s education, government, business, and cultural leaders to count him and his university as one of them. And in that he enjoyed considerable success.

As his reputation in the liberal political and educational establishments grew, Hesburgh became the “go to” Catholic for numerous positions, capped by serving as chairman of the Civil Rights Commission, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Harvard University Board of Overseers.

The Rockefeller episode disclosed the hazards of Hesburgh’s ambition. The Foundation was a major promoter of contraception and abortion.  As Miscamble relates, the scandal of Hesburgh’s chairmanship was not erased by his fatuous protestation that he abstained on these issues.

And this goes hand-in-hand with Hesburgh’s hosting population-control advocates at Notre Dame and the break in his friendship with Pope Paul VI over the latter’s reaffirmation of the Church’s condemnation of artificial birth control.

But it is at Notre Dame and in Catholic higher education generally that Hesburgh’s influence persists – unhappily, in large part not for the good.

Hesburgh’s holy grail was a Notre Dame matching elite secular schools in academic reputation and resources, and to that end he set in motion forces that have drained much of the “Catholic” from the institution even as Notre Dame has become the 11th –richest university in the world.

In 1967, Hesburgh engineered a reorganization of the university that transferred control from the Holy Cross Order to an independent lay/religious body. That same year he chaired the watershed Land O’Lakes Conference, where leading Catholic university educators declared their independence from Church authority. Throughout, he promoted adding prestigious non-Catholics to the faculty.

In sum, Miscamble reports, Hesburgh’s “desire that Notre Dame win the respect of the leading American universities won the day,” and he “never gave sufficient attention to the matters of faculty hiring and curriculum” crucial to Catholic identity.

Today, Catholic higher education is in deep trouble, precisely because Notre Dame and most other schools have followed the course set by Hesburgh and less prominent Catholic educators: institutional separation from the Church; holding bishops at arm’s length; and, most importantly, hiring faculty for prestige rather than Catholic mission.

While Notre Dame still  “feels” Catholic and in many ways is (especially the law school), it no longer meets its own Mission Statement’s test of Catholic identity: a faculty in which Catholics predominate.

The Faculty Senate declares, “The University should not compromise its academic aspirations in its efforts to maintain its Catholic identity” in hiring faculty.  It’s Hesburgh on steroids. As Notre Dame’s Dr. Alfred Freddoso memorably put it, Notre Dame is now “something like a public school in a Catholic neighborhood.”

And outside the classroom, the Notre Dame administration has flaunted its freedom from Church influence by stiff-arming its bishop on “The Vagina Monologues,” among other matters and, more broadly, by brushing off the protests of eighty-three cardinals and bishops against the honoring of President Obama, the Church’s most formidable adversary on abortion and religious liberty,

But the game isn’t over. With a still substantial corps of accomplished Catholic faculty together with a number of vibrant Catholic student and faculty organizations, Notre Dame retains significant Catholic strengths. As Father Miscamble’s illuminating work shows, Notre Dame’s future as a Catholic institution depends on reining in the Hesburgh quest for secular acclaim in favor of bolstering Catholic faculty presence and ordering the curriculum to reflect the rich Catholic intellectual tradition. Oremus!

© 2019 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

William Dempsey is chairman of Sycamore Trust, an organization of Notre Dame alumni and others attentive to the Catholic identity of the university. After graduating from Notre Dame and Yale Law School and serving as chief law clerk to Chief Justice Earl Warren, he practiced law in Washington, D.C. and served as chief labor negotiator for the railroad industry and president of the Association of American Railroads.

Annual Breakfast @ Reunion 2019

We are pleased to announce that Fathe Miscamble will be the principal speaker our Annual Breakfast on Saturday morning, June 1. He will discuss Father Hesburgh’s “Ambitious Life” and “Conflicted Legacy,” in the words his book’s subtitle, and he will be joined by the two recipients of our 2019 student awards for outstanding contributions to the Catholic identity of the University, Mackenzie Kraker and Jim Martinson, both 2019 graduates, who will speak of their experiences as Notre Dame students.



Dr. John L. Lyon (ND ’54, ’55 ) has furnished us copies of his correspondence with Fr. Hesburgh in 1970, when Lyon  was on the Notre Dame faculty, that evidences Hesburgh’s disordered faculty hiring approach. Lyon objected that Hesburgh’s new non-discrimination hiring policy “will have the inevitable effect of turning this University from its present Catholic axis and orientation to an axis and orientation  which will be indistinguishable from that which governs the state universities.”  Father Hesburgh acknowledged he was “walking a razor edge between what seem to be conflicting values ” and said the dilemma was “on his mind,” but did not suggest anything other than muddling through.

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6 Responses to “The Hesburgh Phenomenon


    Pray for Holy Mother Church; Pray for Notre Dame With Thanks and Gratitude for all you do for Christ, and His One, Holy, Catholic, And Apostolic Church, outside of which, there is no Salvation, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, with the Hope that there will be a multitude of persons, including a multitude of prodigal sons and daughters, who, like The Good Thief, who, at the hour of his death, recognized Christ in all His Glory, will come late to The Fold.

  2. “Thirty years ago Catholic educators trusted laypeople enough to welcome them as the faculty, staff, trustees, benefactors and friends who now constitute those schools. The meanings of Land O’Lakes, like the meanings of Vatican II, are properly contested. Their future depends, as it should, on the people who devote themselves to the service of both Church and Catholic universities.“ – The Land O’Lakes Statement” BY DAVID J. O’BRIEN
    From Boston College Magazine, Winter 1998, by permision

    It is not possible, however, first and foremost, for any Catholic to be of service to both The Catholic Church, and Catholic Institutions If one is autonomous from, and thus not in communion with Christ, and His One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, outside of which there is no Salvation, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost. Therein lies the Crux of the matter, for it is “Through Christ, With Christ, and In Christ, In The Unity Of The Holy Ghost” (Filioque), that Holy Mother Church exists.

    “It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion”, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost.

  3. Thank you, Father,Miscamble, for writing this timely book, American Priest, The Ambitious Life And Conflicted Legacy Of Notre Dame’s (Beloved) Father Ted Hesburgh.
    It is my Hope and Prayer that your hard work and dedication to Holy Mother Church, Notre Dame, and Father Hesburgh, will help illuminate and correct the root cause of division among Christians that has led to separation from Christ and His One, Holy, Catholic, And Apostolic Church, outside which, there is no Salvation.
    It is not possible In Heaven, or on earth, to be autonomous from and in communion with Christ And His One, Holy, Catholic, And Apostolic Church, simultaneously, nor is being in Sacramental Communion, a matter of degree.
    “Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed in Him: If you continue in My Word you shall be My disciples.”

    “It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion”, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost; It Is “Through Christ, With Christ, and In Christ, In The Unity Of The Holy Ghost”, that Holy Mother Church exists.

  4. Dear Father Ted: You are ever a super-hero of mine. I saw the movie, and was moved to reverent tears and beyond words; yet, I look forward to Father Miscamble’s more nuanced biography. I also deeply respect and appreciate the words of John McNamara ’86. Father Ted, you were a reverent, faithful, vowed priest with personal, intellectual and moral integrity. You were a Catholic man, both strong and gentle–with grit. Especially in the ’60s, in our post Vat II Church, and in our nation, I might also have mae the error you did with the Land of Lakes policy. I know I would not have made the mistake you did in approving the honor to Obama–but I have come to understand why you felt impelled to do so. Peace be with You, dear man and friend. Eternal rest be granted unto You, and may your soul and the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace. Amen. Steve ’71, ’74

  5. John A. McNamara '86 May 8, 2019 at 11:18 pm

    Dear Sycamore Trust- I think you have not had any comments on this bulletin so far, because the e-mail you sent connected to a blank menu page for Sycamore Trust, and even when you click on the bulletins menus, this bulletin does not show as the most recent bulletin, you have to go to the archived bulletins to find this one. After Bill Dempsey spent all this work writing this fine bulletin, you may want to resend this bulletin again with a better/functioning connection from the e-mail. Hope this sounds helpful, as it’s meant to be, rather than critical.

    It will be interesting to eventually read Fr. Miscamble’s book, which I admit I have not yet done. I read a review from The Detroit News of the “Hesburgh” documentary movie, a different topic than what Bill has written about here, and what Fr. Miscamble wrote about, but I think it summarizes what will be a perrenial problem in writing about Fr. Hesburgh, “The story of a human being it is not. The halo Father Theodore Hesburgh has to carry throughout this documentary completely wipes out any chance of getting to know the actual man behind the image. That image, though, carried a certain piety and power during his 30 years as the head of Notre Dame. . . .The film starts out with a too-quick summary of his childhood then offers little to no reason for his sudden ascension to Notre Dame’s top post at age 35. It chronicles his busy life as a power player while giving no real insight as to how he climbed so far up the ladder.” I think that will be one of the most interesting parts of the Hesburgh story- the early years, beyond being an altar boy and graduating from Rosary High School. I hope that Fr. Miscamble offers insight, and if he has not, that future writers do if that is still possible 100 years after he was born.

    At this point, as a 1986 grad, I don’t know what to think of Hesburgh. I was an altar boy for him once at a dorm Mass, and he left a kind impression but Hesburgh always seemed to be an invisible legendary presence, who none of the students knew as they might have in the 40’s and 50’s. My Father and grandfather were graduates of Rosary High in Syracuse and Fr. Hesburgh was someone local to admire. You can’t deny his successes. I am troubled that he was friends with the Clintons and co-chaired their legal defense fund in the 1990’s. I am troubled that he supported Obama as a graduation speaker and that Obama, a radical abortion supporter who had his HHS Department sue the Little Sisters of the Poor in Denver to force them to pay for abortions, sent a video message to Fr. Hesburgh’s funeral. Only satan would sue the Little Sisters of the Poor, Mother Theresa’s religious order. I am troubled that former cardinal McCarrick and Cardinal Mahony were present, if not speakers, at his funeral. I am troubled that he didn’t like St. John Paul and broke his friendship with St. Pope Paul VI. I am troubled, fairly or possibly unfairly, by Dr. Tom Dooley’s legacy and the statue honoring him at Notre Dame, and that for that statue to be by the Grotto, a decision Fr. Hesburgh had to approve. I am sure Fr. Miscamble’s book will be a great read, but there will still be the persistent public image shielding the real, contradictory bewildering life of Fr. Hesburgh. and why the friends he endorsed and protected at the end, are people that would call into question Fr. Hesburgh’s character.

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