Can there be such a thing as a great Catholic university, if greatness is defined as Princeton and Harvard and Yale—and Fr. Hesburgh—would define it? Probably not. Fr. Hesburgh failed to achieve the goal that he set for himself, while succeeding greatly at something that he did not set out to do.

American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh, by Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C. (442 pages, Crown Publishing, 2019)

This is a biography that has been in the works for nearly as long as its subject was president of Notre Dame University. In 1994 Fr. Miscamble, C.S.C. (Congregation of the Holy Cross) was chair of the Notre Dame history department. It was then that he first approached Father Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., about writing his biography. That would be roughly seven years after Fr. Hesburgh’s thirty-five year run as Notre Dame president had finally ended.

A quarter century is a long gestation period, even for a book. No doubt part of the delay can be attributed to Fr. Miscamble’s various scholarly projects and duties. But another part might well be explained by Fr. Hesburgh’s very long life. Born in 1917, he lived to be nearly 98.

Perhaps the subtitle offers a broad hint at the reason for what might have been the author’s reluctance to rush to a published judgment. After all, this story of an American priest/president is very much a story of an “ambitious life,” but one so ambitious that it contributed to what turned out to be a “conflicted legacy.”

In a sense the same might be said of the project and the author. Given the subject’s overly lengthy thirty-five tenure, and his overly committed life beyond Notre Dame, this biographical project is by definition ambitious. And given the story he had to tell and his own association with Notre Dame, Fr. Miscamble could not help but be conflicted himself.

The book is divided into two nearly equal halves. Following an introductory chapter on Hesburgh’s early life and the “preparation of a priest-president,” Miscamble devotes five chapters to Hesburgh’s leadership of Notre Dame and four chapters to his non-Notre Dame work “serving popes and presidents.” Each half covers much of the same chronological territory, but there is very little overlap between the two.

Fr. Hesburgh was always a very busy man, not to mention a very ambitious one as well. At the outset that ambition was directed solely at matters directly related to Notre Dame. Over time the best that can be said is that his focus shifted. Certainly, Fr. Hesburgh (Fr. Ted to Fr. Miscamble and many more) never forgot about Notre Dame or that he was president of it. But increasingly much of his attention was devoted to the larger national, and even larger international, stage.

At the same time, it must be said that Fr. Ted never, ever forgot that he was a Catholic priest. Nor did he ever shirk, ignore, or shy away from his priestly role and duties. He loved both serving as a priest and living as a priest. Never so much as a whiff of scandal, or even so much as a hint of impropriety, could ever be associated with him.

Not that Fr. Miscamble was on a mission to expose or otherwise damage the reputation of a fellow member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. Far from it. In many respects and for many reasons he appreciates and admires the work that Fr. Hesburgh did for Notre Dame.

And yet… and yet he is clearly conflicted. When Fr. Hesburgh assumed the presidency of Notre Dame in 1952, his all-consuming ambition was to make that university into a great Catholic university. What he accomplished instead was to make Notre Dame into nothing more than a great university. That would be a great university by any modern secular standard, or at least a university of which its football team could be proud.

To be sure, Notre Dame is not secular in the same way that Harvard and Yale are secular. Masses in the dorms are plentiful and frequent. The same can be said when it comes to opportunities for Catholic social service projects. And at last report neither Yale nor Harvard had a Sacred Heart Church, a grotto devoted to the Virgin Mary, or a Touchdown Jesus.

But what about the classroom? Here Fr. Hesburgh lost his way. Or, more accurately, here is where he failed to find his way. In his determination to build a great Catholic university Fr. Hesburgh stressed achieving greatness insofar as its endowment, structures, research programs, graduate and professional schools, and institutes are concerned. Left somewhere in the shuffle was undergraduate education, including its theology and philosophy departments. Well, at least there still is a theology (as opposed to a religious studies) department.

Fr. Miscamble skillfully guides us through the jungle of campus politics. We learn the names of the key players. We learn their strengths and weaknesses. We come to know that Fr. Ted knew very well their strengths and weaknesses. We come to appreciate his administrative talents and the sincerity of his intentions. We also come to appreciate the sincerity of Miscamble’s appreciation of Hesburgh’s strengths and sincerity.

But as the length of Hesburgh’s presidential tenure extends, and as the size of the Hesburgh resume expands, and as the list of his appointments, awards, accolades, honors, and interests grows, one begins to wonder what it was all for. Was it really all for Notre Dame, one wonders? At times, Miscamble seems to wonder as well, even as he seems to be trying very hard not to wonder too much.

Two conclusions cannot be avoided. In the end, and probably well before the end, Fr. Ted failed to make Notre Dame into a great and a Catholic university. Secondly, Fr. Hesburgh succeeded in making himself into a member in very good standing of the thoroughly liberal wing of the American establishment. He supported the Vietnam War when it was respectable to support it; and he opposed the very same war when it became respectable to oppose it. To be fair, he was for civil rights for black Americans before that position was fully respectable, even among liberals (think JFK and RFK).

To put both conclusions a bit differently, Fr. Hesburgh failed to achieve the goal that he set for himself, while succeeding greatly at something that he did not set out to do. He gradually let the prevailing academic culture eat away at Notre Dame, and just as gradually he let the larger political culture eat away at him. In the end it was more important to Fr. Ted that he be thought well of by the secular powers that be than that his Notre Dame stand as a permanent challenge to those powers. It also proved to be more important to him that he be thought well of by certain presidents (especially Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Carter, and most especially early in the terms of the last two) than by certain popes (especially Popes Paul VI and John Paul II as each papacy unfolded).

None of this is to suggest that Fr. Ted caved to outside secular pressure across the board. Let’s take two examples, one very serious and one much less so: abortion and football. As to the former, Fr. Hesburgh never abandoned Catholic teaching. As for the latter, Fr. Ted never turned the keys over to the inmates. When it came to abortion, he never wavered on his pro-life position, but he never wanted the issue to be front and center. He wasn’t quite a Mario Cuomo (“I’m personally opposed”) Catholic, but he permitted that Governor Cuomo to use Notre Dame to make what was essentially a pro-choice case.

When it came to the serious, but ultimately seriously frivolous matter of football, Hesburgh waffled, rather than caved or conquered. Not to equate the serious and unserious, but there was a comparison of sorts in Hesburgh’s always cautious mind. He wanted the abortion issue to be important, but not too important; and he wanted football to be important, but not too important. For every Frank Leahy there was a Terry Brennan. And for every Ara Parseghian there was a Gerry Faust.

To stretch an analogy to its breaking point, if not beyond, by the end of Fr. Hesburgh’s tenure Notre Dame football was led by Lou Holtz and on the verge of a national championship, while Fr. Ted was still a member of the Rockefeller Commission, which was still committed to population control in all of its various ways, including abortion.

Along the way, Fr. Hesburgh preferred to challenge Pope Paul VI on Humanae Vitae, rather than see his wisdom or bow to his authority. He also chose to challenge Pope John Paul II on Ex Corde Eccllesiae rather than to applaud his efforts to assure that Catholic colleges were teaching Catholic theology. In a very real sense, all that Pope John Paul II was trying to assure was what Fr. Theodore Hesburgh had sought to accomplish when he became Notre Dame’s president.

Of course, Fr. Hesburgh had set out to accomplish a few other things as well, chief among them the transformation of Notre Dame into a great university across the board, as well as a great university that was also a Catholic university.

Can there be such a thing as a great Catholic university, if greatness is defined as Princeton and Harvard and Yale—and Fr. Hesburgh—would define it? Probably not.

Should anyone serve as president of anything, let alone a major university, for thirty-five years? Probably not.

Had Fr. Hesburgh seen fit to leave that office after a respectable, if exhausting, dozen years, there might not have been the infamous gathering of Catholic academic chieftains at the Notre Dame Land O’Lakes retreat house in the summer of 1967. And there might not have been a 1972 decision of the Holy Cross father to turn control of Notre Dame over to a lay board.

Had Fr. Hesburgh left the Notre Dame presidency in the mid-1960s he then would have had much more time to do what he increasingly desired to do anyway: influencing the world beyond Notre Dame, while mixing, mingling with—and accommodating himself to—the movers and shakers of America and the world.

And Notre Dame? The university might still be what it once was and still should be, namely nothing more—or less—than a good Catholic university. Fr. Miscamble refuses to go this far, but the tale that he has told leads to this sad conclusion.

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from a photograph of Father Theodore Hesburgh at the Civil Rights Committee (2008), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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