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American Priest:
The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh

by wilson d. miscamble, c.s.c. 
image, 464 pages, $28

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. 

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