Following his ordination in June 1943, Father Theodore Hesburgh stopped by the east door of Sacred Heart Church and read the dedication above it—“God, Country, Notre Dame.” He later recalled that right there he committed his life to serving that “trinity.” Surely the contours of his story speak to the fidelity with which he kept this pledge. His remarkable life and notable contributions made him unquestionably the most significant figure in the modern history of Notre Dame. Yet, when examining Hesburgh’s portrait more closely the glowing picture portrayed in most general commentary about him becomes somewhat more blurred and the exact nature of his accomplishments more debatable.
Hesburgh’s contributions as priest, public servant, and university president overlapped and impacted one another. We must begin with his service as a priest in the Congregation of Holy Cross. He always held his priesthood as the very center of his life. It was “the ground of [his] being,” and inseparable from his identity. He surely did throughout his life what good priests have always done over the centuries: proclaimed the Word of God and preached about it with authenticity, ministered devoutly the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and spoke words of forgiveness, consolation, compassion, and encouragement.
Father Ted’s renown, however, owed much more to his actions in the public sphere and to his leadership of his university than to any particular contributions in the Church. He played no significant role in Vatican II. His relations with the popes he served aside from Paul VI were quite limited. Ironically, his most consequential role was in helping lead the effort of American Catholic universities to distance themselves from ecclesial oversight. Through the combination of the transfer of Notre Dame’s ownership from the Congregation of Holy Cross and the Land O’Lakes Statement, he effectively established his independence from Church authority. This fraying in the formal relationship between Catholic universities like Notre Dame and the Church that provided their raison d’etre reflected no desire on Father Ted’s part to secularize his school. Rather he wanted to make it more consonant with and acceptable to the reigning approach in American higher education.
Father Hesburgh’s influence proved much more noteworthy in his efforts to serve his nation. No other priest served so effectively in the public sphere over such a long period spanning presidential administrations from Eisenhower’s through to Clinton’s. His involvements are all the more extraordinary in that he pursued them while still actively leading his university. His role was not one of spiritual guide or religious counselor to American leaders as in the manner of Billy Graham. Instead, he toiled tirelessly to aid the United States to resolve some of the major issues and challenges it confronted during this tumultuous time. This was the approach he brought to the issue that had bedeviled the United States from its founding—to provide justice for African Americans. His sustained commitment to secure civil and voting rights for African Americans who had suffered long years of shameful discrimination suffices in and of itself to win him a place of honor for his public service.
Hesburgh’s assignments to formal and consequential governmental roles largely ended with the arrival of the Reagan administration in Washington, D.C., but that did not mean he ended his efforts to influence national policies. Hesburgh’s engagement in the public sphere had from early days been pursued through non-governmental agencies and institutions as well as through formal presidential appointments. Yet he became caught in the embrace of an increasingly secular liberal establishment especially through his membership on the board of the Rockefeller Foundation. Sadly, he influenced the establishment much less than the technocratic and utilitarian establishment swayed or manipulated him. He was the accommodating and acceptable priest. The powerful grip of the establishment upon him is evidenced in his ambivalence regarding the extensive population control efforts supported by the Rockefellers. Membership in the establishment exacted a painful price because he tempered his commitment on key moral issues that attracted establishment disapproval—most notably opposition to abortion. He increasingly either reflected the liberal political and social agenda or downplayed the areas where he dissented from it.
Serving as president of Notre Dame was the position that Hesburgh deemed “the biggest thing that I could possibly do in my life.” He was an extraordinary institution builder who dramatically enhanced Notre Dame’s size and reputation. He oversaw the major decisions to transfer ownership from the Congregation of Holy Cross to the board of fellows and to admit undergraduate women to the university. He set Notre Dame on the course to becoming a significant research university in the United States. He had natural strengths for leadership and enlisted the aid of dedicated benefactors to support his mission. He led Notre Dame in a modern direction more in the mode of the reigning Harvard-Berkeley paradigm for American universities.
Over the three decades since Father Hesburgh left the presidency of Notre Dame, discussions and debates have ensued about the Catholic mission and identity of the university. Those who follow Notre Dame and the broader debates about Catholic higher education know that the Hesburgh legacy is a contested one. Was the price paid for enhanced academic prestige worth it? Is Notre Dame an instantiation of the institution that gained much in the world but lost its soul? How the Hesburgh legacy is viewed has clear implications for how the present and future are to be navigated.
Guided by his
conscience Father Hesburgh sought to serve his Church, his nation, and his
university according to his own lights. He contributed much in that endeavor,
but there are sizable limitations in his record. Comprehending the full details
of his life and work can provide valuable lessons for the present and future as
to what to do and, even more importantly, what not to do. Perhaps a new
generation of courageous educators in the faith might draw from the story of Theodore
Martin Hesburgh an even better way to serve God, Country, and Notre Dame.
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