In 1966, the American Council on Education issued a study that failed to uncover a single Catholic university with a “distinguished” or even “strong” graduate department among the three-hundred-plus Catholic universities and colleges in the United States. This prompted Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, then the leading historian of American Catholicism and a tart critic of Catholic intellectual life, to suggest a radical consolidation.
“I don’t think we should have more than three Catholic universities in this country,” he told me in an interview for Newsweek: “one on the Atlantic seaboard, one in the Middle West and one on the West Coast.”
Given the autonomy of each institution, Ellis knew that a reduction in numbers in the service of concentrated excellence would never happen. But that didn’t prevent a public-relations contest among the larger Catholic universities. Should Georgetown or the Catholic University of America represent the East? Which Jesuit university should survive in the West? But in the middle of the country, the winner seemed obvious: it had to be Notre Dame.
Why? The biggest reason was Theodore M. Hesburgh, who in 1952 had begun his remarkable thirty-five-year tenure as the university’s president—or its “second founder,” as one historian at the university has put it. In addition to driving Notre Dame into the front ranks of higher education, Hesburgh distinguished himself in public service, serving six U.S. presidents in sixteen various assignments, including the National Science Board, the Presidential Commission on Civil Rights, and the Select Committee on Immigration and Refugees. He was on Harvard’s Board of Overseers and represented the Vatican to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
On his ninety-sixth birthday in 2013, lawmakers from both political parties threw Hesburgh a gala in Washington during which they unveiled a portrait of him that now hangs in the National Gallery—the only Catholic priest so honored. He had long since been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Medal of Honor. At his death two years later, a great many admirers, myself included, hailed Hesburgh as the most consequential American priest of his era.
Wilson D. Miscamble is having none of it—or at least very little of what he dismisses as “the learned hagiography of [Hesburgh’s] obituaries.” His American Priest is the first biography of Theodore Hesburgh since his death and—more to the point—the first to measure the man and his achievements from a conservative political and theological perspective.
An Australian, a fellow priest of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, and a former chair of Notre Dame’s history department, Miscamble writes well and is an able historian. He obviously cares about Notre Dame and, inevitably, invites reflection on what has been lost as well as gained in Catholic higher education. Notre Dame during the Hesburgh era is as good a place as any to ask what happened.
But American Priest is a biography, after all, and what Miscamble concludes about the character and motives of his subject can be simply put: Theodore M. Hesburgh bartered away the Catholic mind and soul of the university he loved for the pottage of academic prestige, and in the process he himself became the liberal establishment’s “accommodating and acceptable priest.”
As Miscamble makes clear in his preface, he never witnessed Hesburgh in action—never saw him command a room, which he did far better than most politicians, or chair a board, and never enjoyed even so much as an extended conversation with the man until 1998 when Hesburgh, then eighty-one, agreed to a series of interviews at the university’s rural retreat in Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin. The sessions began at 8:30 p.m. in the evening, with Fr. Ted swirling his favorite Scotch toddy, and over six days amounted to about twenty-four hours of questions and answers. To judge by his endnotes, a great many of Miscamble’s questions dealt with issues like what Hesburgh thought of the priests who were contenders to succeed him—gossipy inside baseball of interest to few people outside of the South Bend campus.
Miscamble’s original aim, he says, was to write a “comprehensive biography of the ‘life and times’ sort that would build on” Hesburgh’s own as-told-to memoir, God, Country, Notre Dame, published in 1990. And that is how he sold his proposal to Fr. Ted. But two years later, he tells us, he participated in a formal university-wide conversation about the nature and challenges of a Catholic university at which “a sizable element on the university’s faculty seemed determined to emasculate Catholicism’s role in the academic heart of university.” Stung by that experience, Miscamble jettisoned his original idea in favor of “a more honest and authentic account of his life” than the “always positive persona of ‘Father Hesburgh’” so effectively presented in the best-selling memoir.
“Honest” and “authentic” are not the words that came to mind as I read Miscamble’s book. The chief conflicted figure in this book is the author himself. It is almost painful to watch him try to reconcile his instincts as a sober historian with his compulsive ideological thrusts. Time and again he undercuts his skillful narratives of Hesburgh’s manifest gifts and accomplishments with brief, Brutus-like stabs at his subject’s character and moral integrity. For instance, throughout the book we are told that Hesburgh “basked” in the praise he received from this or that secular audience, that he “did his best imitation of Uriah Heep” when it appeared very likely he would become president of Notre Dame, and so on. Had Miscamble worked like historian Robert Caro, say, to authenticate his otherwise gratuitous assumptions, readers would be less inclined to dismiss them as snarky efforts to portray his subject as vain and status-seeking.
In the same vein: no sooner does Miscamble tell us that Fr. Ted lived in a small room at Notre Dame overlooking a dumpster than he adds that, when in New York on business with the Rockefellers and other members of “the liberal elite,” Hesburgh often stayed in a suite at the Commodore Hotel—the unstated argument being that he lived extravagantly when on the road. In fact, the Commodore was a very ordinary hotel down the street from Newsweek that had seen better days, and the suite was corporate-owned and maintained for use by visiting board members. Lodging there saved Hesburgh from expensing the university.
Again, Miscamble several times tut-tuts Hesburgh for spending his Christmas breaks with the families of two wealthy friends on California’s Baja Peninsula. What he doesn’t tell us is that during those vacations, Fr. Ted celebrated Mass every morning for the peasant workers there, many of them Mexican immigrants, or that with the financial help of his Protestant hosts he built a chapel for them as well.
Miscamble’s chapters on Hesburgh’s service on behalf of U.S. presidents and the Vatican are generally accurate, at times even admiring. But having jettisoned his initial plan for a wide-angle focus on Hesburgh’s life and times, he inevitably skirts important contexts that would have dictated different conclusions.
For instance, Miscamble observes that during the civil-rights era, Hesburgh did not join protest marches (lest the famous photo of Fr. Ted singing “We Shall Overcome” with Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago should make people think otherwise). He does acknowledge the important role Hesburgh played as chairman on the Civil Rights Commission. But for an author who considers Hesburgh’s legacy “conflicted,” he completely ignores how Hesburgh’s highly public support for civil rights brought him into conflict with Notre Dame’s white and mostly conservative alumni and donor base. I know because, as a civil-rights reporter in Omaha in the mid-1960s and later as a journalist in New York, I saw firsthand the Catholic anger he ignited, not only among conservative Nebraskans but also among the very Irish Notre Dame alumni living in liberal New York City.
Decades later in the biography, when Hesburgh is old and cannot see well enough to read, Miscamble is still biting at his subject’s heels. Hesburgh had student volunteers come up to his office on the thirteenth floor of the Hesburgh Library to read to him from a stack of newspapers and magazines. But Miscamble mentions only the New York Times, which, he adds condescendingly, “he still thought contained all the news that’s fit to print.” This slow drip-drip of snide asides and mischaracterizations continues to the end of the book.
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