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Given the attention paid to Fr. Theodore Hesburgh these days, interested parties would do well to consult American Priest by Fr. Wilson Miscamble. The book is no hagiography, nor even a historical biography in the usual sense. It is an extended conversation, a running debate, at times a pointed argument about what Fr. Ted Hesburgh cared about most: Notre Dame, Holy Cross, national and international politics, Catholic higher education and how it can best fulfill its mission to the Church and the world. 

I don’t envy Fr. Hesburgh. I know what it’s like to argue with Fr. Miscamble, his bony forefinger pointing at me from across the dining room table at Moreau Seminary or Corby Hall or Bibbler’s Pancake House over such pressing issues as Protestant sectarian tendencies in Catholic moral theology, Truman’s “most controversial decision,” or the deadly dynamics of the Cold War. Miscamble recently sent me a sharply worded email chiding Alasdair MacIntyre and Dorothy Day for being soft on communism. MacIntyre, in my mind, the most important philosopher of the past half century, and Day, in the Church’s mind, a Servant of God, possibly a saint—and yet these two august figures are readily subjected to Miscamble’s historian-as-hangman method. So why shouldn't Fr. Ted be brought before the judge’s bench?

In other words, American Priest should be commended for not withholding judgment of its subject, and for inciting conflict concerning a host of important questions: Was the disengagement of the university from the Congregation of the Holy Cross a good thing? Did the Land O’Lakes Statement properly conceive of the relation between the Church and modern Catholic universities? Was Fr. Ted’s relation with the Rockefeller Foundation morally compromised? Did his cautious approach to abortion politics shirk a great civil rights cause? Did he play as crucial a role in the events in the Church and the world as he seemed to imagine? Was Fr. Ted’s life, as Miscamble’s subtitle bluntly states, an “ambitious life”?

Aquinas, following Aristotle, defines ambition as the sin of desiring honor not deserved, or of resting in honor received without referring it to God or the good of others. I’m not sure that ambition, so defined, adequately captures Fr. Ted’s life and work. He did, of course, rack up plenty of honorary degrees and he wasn’t afraid to talk about them at dinner. His speeches betrayed a certain puffed-up disposition, as when he would say, for example:  “As St. Paul pointed out, and I agree with him on this.” And his agenda for Notre Dame was certainly ambitious; he wanted to make it a “great Catholic university,” the greatest in the world. But Fr. Ted’s agenda and accomplishments did not stem so much from ambition, as I see it, but from a confidence born of innocence. 

The period in which Ted was formed as a religious and priest was marked by an innocence that was exceptional among religious groups in the United States. As historians such as Phil Gleason and William Halsey have noted, this innocence was forged by a deep faith and an unshakeable confidence in faith and reason as understood in the Thomistic tradition, with reason providing the means to articulate and defend a comprehensive Catholic-Thomistic intellectual vision. Virtually all Catholic colleges and universities in the United States of the mid-twentieth century took up this task, and none did so with more confidence than Notre Dame, with Fr. Ted at the helm. It seems not to have occurred to Fr. Ted that this apostolate could falter. How could it, with Mary looking down, guiding and protecting the university dedicated to her name? 

Yet Miscamble tells a measured and somber story of Fr. Ted and Notre Dame—a story of political accommodation, moral compromise, loss of Catholic identity, and decisions made without foresight. In telling the story this way, Miscamble demonstrates his longstanding preference for the “great man “ approach to history. As in his previous books on George Kennan, FDR, and Harry Truman, Miscamble leads the reader to imagine: If only Fr. Hesburgh had adopted a more secure role for the order and the Church in the 1967 agreement; if only he had set aside the lure of secular academic prestige in the years following; if only he had managed to hire Ratzinger as chair of the Theology Department rather than—well, we could go on. But without denying a place for this “great man” approach to history, I argue that we should place the Hesburgh story within the larger story of the transition of modern academia from (in Max Weber’s terms) a traditional society into a bureaucratic society.

In some ways, Fr. Ted ran Notre Dame like the patriarch of a family business with a personal touch. On his first day, he took the keys from his predecessor, Fr. Cavanaugh, and marched off to give a talk to the national gathering of the Catholic Family Movement. He arranged for Ralph and Connie McInerny to be able to put a down payment on a house after their son Michael died. He would meet professors on the airplane and offer them a faculty position before the plane landed. He told the chair of the philosophy department to stop teaching rarified hyper-technical logic in introductory courses or he would start his own philosophy department to do it. These stories convey the assuring feel of a devoted father running the family business.

But at the same time, Fr. Ted presided over the unprecedented growth and consequent bureaucratization of the University. It is difficult to point to a single turning point in this story. The historian Fr. Marvin O’Connell once suggested that it came with the 1958 decision to sever the position of superior of Corby Hall from that of the president of the university, which allowed Fr. Ted the freedom to run Notre Dame without the order's interference. As Fr. Ted said to me one time, he couldn’t buy a lawn mower for Notre Dame without checking with the provincial. This move made bureaucratic sense, with the premium placed on efficiency—getting things done. It paved the way for the 1967 Agreement between the Order and the University and for the Land-O-Lakes statement. And it foreshadowed the bureaucratic culture that has increasingly come to dominate the university ever since, a culture driven by accreditation visits, curriculum reviews, course assessments, rankings reports, and the pursuit of an ill-defined “excellence.” I don’t think any single decision caused the bureaucratization of Notre Dame. Rather, it has been the result of countless decisions made for the sake of effectiveness in the short run without carefully judging the effects in the long run—a history of unintended consequences whereby the Notre Dame family has gradually been replaced by the Notre Dame “brand.” 

Could Fr. Ted have prevented or slowed these developments? Probably. But I do not think he could have stopped it, not without making a decision that few presidents of universities seriously entertain: the decision to remain the same relatively small size and thus to forgo increases in student and faculty population, in number of “units,” and in endowment.  In any case, Fr. Ted did not make that decision because he was from an era of Catholicism that fostered the belief—the innocent and overconfident belief—that just about anything is possible when it comes to God and Notre Dame.

Likewise, Fr. Ted was innocently overconfident when it came to “country,” the middle term in the “trinity” to which he devoted his life (as he calls it in his autobiography). Miscamble’s account of Fr. Ted’s service to “America,” as he and Fr. Ted call it, can also be placed within the larger story of the American Catholic fantasy of managing the modern state-and-market bureaucratic complex.

Take, for example, Fr. Ted’s cause of battling nuclear weapons. After recounting Fr. Ted’s “agitated and even shrill” warnings about imminent nuclear disaster, Miscamble quotes a talk Fr. Ted gave in 1985 in which he confesses, “everything else that I’ve been working on all my life would literally be wiped out by a nuclear attack.” Miscamble notes that this is a strikingly “personal” approach to the crisis, by which I think he means self-absorbed; yet it is also an astonishingly innocent statement, lacking any sense of irony, any sense that we ourselves are responsible for nuclear weapons—including we at Notre Dame, with our furloughed faculty having worked on the Manhattan project, our engineers studying such terrible weapons, our ROTC students training to use them. A few pages later, Fr. Miscamble notes that Fr. Ted’s opposition to abortion did not lead to comparable initiatives in the pro-life field. Fair enough. But trading off the “issue” of nuclear weapons for that of abortion, one moral catastrophe for another, obscures the moral prohibition on intentionally taking innocent life—especially when this is done for the sake of conventional partisan politics, which blinds us to realities that, in light of the natural law, we should be seeing. This blindness is the result of American Catholic innocence about political possibilities in the United States, an innocence that both Fr. Ted and Fr. Miscamble share; and that I (along with Alasdair MacIntyre and Dorothy Day) do not share.

These points represent the latest installment in a running argument that Miscamble and I have had for some thirty-five years.  It is crucial to engage in such arguments, to enter into such conflicts. As I see it, the best way to resist the bureaucratic pressures of modern academic culture is to conduct intellectual disputes in which the ultimate arbiter is not instrumental rationality, not some version of utility without end, but rather, is our first cause and final end: God. Therefore, let there be many arguments over the “conflicted legacy” of Fr. Hesburgh, and let them continue in the spirit in which Fr. Ted signed his letters: “Ever devotedly in Notre Dame.”  

Michael J. Baxter teaches Religious Studies and directs the Catholic Studies Program at Regis University in Denver.

Photo by Matthew Rice via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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