The Hesburgh Phenomenon

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 95 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.

Father Hesburgh with President Kennedy

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.

Father Hesburgh with St. John Paul II

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!

William Dempsey

William Dempsey

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.



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