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On September 27, the Sheen Center in Manhattan hosted an event with Father Wilson Miscamble, C.S.C., author of American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh. It’s a book that deserves a wide audience and much more attention than it’s so far received.

A Notre Dame professor of history, Miscamble is an accomplished scholar and a member (as was Father Hesburgh) of the Congregation of Holy Cross. He’s written a biography that’s exceptional on four different levels: It’s very well written, it’s very well researched, it’s fair, and it’s honest. All of those qualities are in short supply in our current mass media and public discourse. And also, frankly, in the Church. 

Like a lot of people my age, I read George Orwell’s novel 1984 in high school. And there’s a slogan of the brutal ruling party in that book that I’ve never forgotten: Ignorance is strength. Ignorance, at its worst, can be powerful because it’s simple and stubborn. When it’s challenged it can also be vindictive, and therefore it’s always dangerous. A quick look at our current politics is all the proof anyone needs. The point of a Catholic education is to lift us out of that animal state, and to provide us with the developed intellect and elevated moral character to live as fully human beings and make the world better by our presence. 

As Miscamble notes in his book, Father Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., president of the University of Notre Dame from 1952–87, contributed tremendously to that task. He did it by building Notre Dame into a world-class institution. Very few persons, clergy or lay, have shaped the American Catholic experience of the last century more powerfully than Father Hesburgh. Throughout a remarkably fruitful career, he dedicated himself to the slogan “God, Country, Notre Dame,” and he never wavered or tired in that commitment. Above all he treasured his priesthood. It was the compass that guided his life.

Educator, visionary, builder, emissary, celebrity—Hesburgh inhabited all these roles with immense passion and skill, and equally impressive ambition. He set his school on the road to the national and global prestige in higher education that it enjoys today. And unlike so many other nominally Catholic institutions, Notre Dame—thanks in part to Father Hesburgh—still has a vibrant Catholic identity for those who seek it out. Notre Dame faculty like Gerard Bradley, Ann Astell, Philip Muñoz, John Cavadini, Nicole Garnett, Rick Garnett, Brad Gregory, Patrick Deneen, Mary Keys, Carter Snead, and many others are first rank scholars by any standard. They're also deeply Catholic in their convictions and witness. Hesburgh helped make that possible. 

Father Hesburgh lived a life that made a difference; a life that mattered well beyond his university’s campus. Miscamble captures this vividly in American Priest, but also notes a problem with Hesburgh’s legacy: He may have mattered more, and wanted to matter more, to the world than to the Church. Hesburgh was very effective, but also very selective, in the issues he chose as his focus. 

Father Hesburgh did extraordinary work in areas like racial justice, the Cambodian refugee crisis, and international dialogue; he was a counselor to presidents, popes, foundations, and corporate leaders. But he aligned closely with the politics and allergies of the Democratic party, and was essentially a no-show on the abortion issue at a time when a forceful voice on behalf of unborn children from a person of his national standing could have had a significant impact. He also helped facilitate a famous—or infamous, depending on one’s perspective—1984 speech at Notre Dame by New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. 

In his Notre Dame remarks (“Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor's Perspective”), Cuomo argued that a Catholic political leader could legitimately separate his personal opposition to abortion from his public policy actions. The Cuomo talk had lasting effect. It gave Catholic public figures a plausible moral alibi that permitted them to isolate Catholic teaching on abortion and related issues from the demands of public service. And the Notre Dame venue baptized, in effect, the Cuomo approach—or so said (and continue to say) the talk’s critics. 

The Cuomo speech has always been a source of frustration for the many Catholic parents I know who have children with special needs; children who are exactly the kind of unborn lives sacrificed to the reasoning Cuomo advanced. Rereading the Cuomo remarks today—remarks Father Hesburgh helped to make happen—is an embarrassment; a competent high school debater could demolish Cuomo’s arguments. And in retrospect, the speech seems largely a fraud. Cuomo's own logic didn’t stop him from imposing his personal beliefs on the political system by vetoing the death penalty as New York's governor multiple times.

Father Hesburgh was also instrumental in developing the 1967 Land O’ Lakes Statement that—as Miscamble notes—effectively declared the independence of Catholic universities from official Church authorities. In doing so, Hesburgh did not seek to “secularize” or downplay Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, but rather to enhance its professional credibility. Nonetheless, the complications caused by that statement for Catholic higher education, and for any kind of unified Catholic intellectual witness in this country, have been massive.

In his book Father Miscamble commits the sin, for some reviewers, of being insufficiently lavish in his praise for the late university president. But telling the truth about anyone involves describing the whole person. Anything less is hagiography, which Hesburgh had little use for . . . unless, perhaps, when it applied to himself. He had many outstanding qualities, but the virtue of humility is not part of his legend. In the end Father Hesburgh was a decent, even an exceptional, man—an exemplar of the American Catholic experience—who achieved some great things while dealing with the same warts, ambitions, and flaws decent men so often have. Canonizing him as a saint is above an honest biographer’s pay grade.

And Father Wilson Miscamble is exactly that: an honest biographer with a respectful, convincing, engaging voice. He captures the complicated genius, and the equally complex times, of Hesburgh the man with exactly the right balance of admiration and criticism. What he delivers in American Priest is a deep, rich, absorbing biography of a force of nature on the postconciliar American Catholic scene. It’s a remarkable achievement. 

Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the archbishop of Philadelphia.

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