Fr. Hesburgh with Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Edgar Chandler, and Msgr. Robert Hagarty at the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights, Chicago’s Soldier Field, 1964 (Image Courtesy of the University of Notre Dame Archives)

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.


Hesburgh knew from experience that academic freedom was not a value highly prized by some Vatican education officials.

What is it about Hesburgh that provokes Miscamble to abandon his historian’s cool? It’s partly the company he kept: this American priest ate with sinners. Miscamble’s Exhibit A is Hesburgh’s acceptance of an invitation from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1961 to join its board and, later, its executive committee. At the time, the foundation was deeply concerned about global population growth and ways to combat it. Hesburgh stipulated that he would not vote on issues involving abortion and contraception. Nonetheless, Miscamble believes that his board membership made him complicit in the foundation’s support for both. Miscamble fails to mention that the Vatican itself participated in the global conversation on population through its designated expert, Fr. Arthur McCormack, and that in a twenty-article supplement on the subject published in 1972 in the New York Times and paid for in part by Planned Parenthood International, Hesburgh’s contribution argued against both abortion and state-sponsored population controls: “To redeem the times, and the population problem as well, we must redeem sex—to make it once again the language of love, of generosity, of children responsibly and lovingly begotten.”

Equally pernicious, in Miscamble’s view, was the tradition Hesburgh began of inviting pro-choice politicians to the Notre Dame campus despite their position on abortion (though, to his credit, he cites Hesburgh’s cool deconstruction of Mario Cuomo’s famous but fatuous speech). Sometimes these politicians—such as Presidents Jimmy Carter (who waffled on the issue in 1976) and Barack Obama (who pretended to)—were given honorary degrees. Miscamble tells us that the aged Hesburgh “basked” again during Obama’s visit. But perhaps because he was busy protesting the president’s presence on Notre Dame’s sacred soil, Miscamble failed to notice that the most eloquent speech that day was given by the president of the university, Fr. John Jenkins, who managed to welcome Obama while insisting on the university’s commitment to defend the life of the unborn.

Indeed, it is Hesburgh’s failure to trumpet his pro-life commitment more publicly that impels this nasty assessment of his moral character:

To speak on abortion would have put him at odds with so many of his friends in the American establishment—with the Rockefellers, with Bob McNamara at the World Bank, with Mac Bundy who was then heading the Ford Foundation. It was not simply a concern about putting at risk the personal status and acceptance he had won; he represented Notre Dame, and his university was in the midst of striving to improve and to build its reputation as a modern American university. To speak out on civil rights brought favorable recognition to Notre Dame from the people who mattered in academe, the media, and the foundations. But abortion was quite different. What might they think of Notre Dame if its leader stood to the fore of the pro-life movement?

In a word, Hesburgh was a toady.

The charge is scurrilous and unsubstantiated. It is also craven. To judge by the endnotes, Miscamble used his brief time interviewing Hesburgh to ask him about everything but what really interested him—abortion, contraception, population control, and why he took Notre Dame and, indeed, all of Catholic higher education, in the direction he did. He could also have probed Jimmy Carter, Joseph Califano, and many other political figures who knew Hesburgh well about just how honestly and vigorously he did or did not represent the teachings of the church.

The simple truth is that Hesburgh supported Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s Consistent Life Ethic, which Miscamble obviously doesn’t, and found opportunities to defend the church’s reasoning on abortion that were closed to bishops and cardinals. That’s a major reason why Hesburgh rebuffed several opportunities for an ecclesiastical career—decisions Miscamble finds suspect. But Hesburgh regarded the role as too confining. In any case, David Rockefeller, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, and the other super-wealthy Republicans among the “liberal elite” knew full well that their “American priest” was opposed to abortion and Roe v. Wade, and I’m sure that it simply didn’t matter. Hesburgh served on many boards in his lifetime. Most of them needed him more than he needed them, and in numerous cases—like a Notre Dame graduate’s rural hospital in Ecuador and my cousin’s small not-for-profit that aids Christians in the Holy Land—Hesburgh lent his name to help them attract donations. Miscamble’s book gives us nothing of that side of the man.

Miscamble’s second major complaint against Hesburgh is that he convinced the Congregation of Holy Cross to relinquish control of Notre Dame to a lay board of trustees and then, Pied Piper–like, seduced a core group of Catholic university leaders into backing the so-called Land O’ Lakes statement, which framed the Catholic university as a place free of outside institutional control, and called to create a community of learners and scholars “in which Catholicism is perceptibly present and effectively operative.”

Miscamble recognizes that Hesburgh’s aim was to assure that Notre Dame and other Catholic universities would enjoy academic freedom, not only for their faculty but also for the schools themselves. But he treats this solely as a declaration of independence from ecclesiastical authority. To be sure, Hesburgh knew from experience that academic freedom was not a value highly prized by some Vatican education officials. But had Miscamble provided the relevant historical context, the reader would better understand why these moves came when they did.

One immediate goad behind the push for academic freedom was eighteen months of extraordinary turmoil on Catholic campuses. There was an unprecedented faculty strike at St. John’s University in New York, then the country’s largest Catholic university, over the abrupt firing of thirty-one professors without explanation. Theologians and other faculty at the Catholic University of America went on strike to protest the firing (also without explanation) of moral theologian Fr. Charles Curran. Other campuses erupted, demanding reforms like faculty senates with the power to protect academic freedom and an end to the seminary-like rules that, historically, had governed student life. Clerical control of universities was seen as high-handed and outmoded, especially since three out of four professors were lay. A handful of Catholic colleges went wholly secular. But the long-term threat, as David Riesman and Christopher Jencks saw in their penetrating 1968 study The Academic Revolution, was this: as the nation’s Catholics moved up the economic and social ladder, more of them would do what Joseph P. Kennedy had done with their sons—bypass Catholic universities altogether—unless they upgraded the education they offered.

And then there was the financial incentive, which Miscamble also overlooks. Early on, Hesburgh recognized that those who handed out grants to universities prized academic freedom and were wary, to say the least, of institutions that answered to outside religious authorities. He also recognized that securing wealthy university-trustee board members was essential to raising the kind of money needed to make Notre Dame a “great university.” During his first ten years he increased average faculty pay nearly ten-fold, and over his entire tenure boosted the university’s endowment from $9 million to $30 million. (Today it stands at $13.1 billion.)

Miscamble’s third major charge is that Hesburgh deliberately abandoned the university’s commitment to the tradition of Catholic thought and culture that he inherited from his predecessors. But where’s the evidence? Hesburgh’s writings on higher education fill several of the record 444-and-counting feet of shelf space in the Notre Dame archives, not to mention commencement addresses delivered upon receipt of his 150 honorary degrees (a Guinness world record). Surely a study of these would cast light on the development of his thought on this topic. Instead, Miscamble relies on a two-page article Hesburgh wrote for America in 1962. In it, he explained why he thought Newman’s Idea of a University, written a century earlier when the limits of knowledge and inquiry were vastly narrower, was an insufficient blueprint for the range of knowledge and inquiry a modern university ought to provide. Miscamble cites this as evidence that Hesburgh had turned his back on Catholic philosophy and theology in higher education, a reading that the text does not support. This is gotcha journalism parading as historiography.


Fr. Ted was a romantic about Notre Dame, convinced that the religious atmospherics of the place alone were transformative.

I find Miscamble’s account of Notre Dame under Hesburgh faulty for two basic reasons. First, it ignores (conveniently, it seems to me), too much of Phillip Gleason’s Contending with Modernity, an elegant and authoritative account of Notre Dame and Catholic higher education before and during Hesburgh’s tenure. Second, Miscamble presumes that the undergraduate education at Notre Dame was more grounded in the Catholic intellectual tradition than it was, and that Hesburgh was personally more responsible for the transformations in the university’s Catholic culture than I think he was. I say this because I was an undergraduate there between 1953 and 1957, whereas Miscamble, who was educated in another country and at a later time, has to rely entirely on a few short books for his information about pre-Hesburgh Notre Dame. Moreover, because of my steady interaction since then with Hesburgh and with the university (both of my sons are graduates and one was a university associate vice president), I know or knew almost everyone mentioned in American Priest.

At the time Hesburgh was appointed president, Notre Dame was essentially a college, with only a slender number of graduate and law students. It was a university only in the sense that it had distinct undergraduate colleges of science, engineering, business and architecture, besides the College of Arts and Letters. There was no department of theology until Hesburgh created one, and the required religion courses were barely a step up from high-school apologetics.

To be sure, neo-Thomism was the philosophy that students were taught, but it was hardly the integrative discipline imagined by Miscamble. And when, by the 1960s, neo-Thomism had lost its hegemony in the philosophy department—as it did at Catholic universities across the country—it was not because of Hesburgh, as Miscamble suggests, but because of intellectual divergences and disagreements among neo-Thomists themselves.

A minority of us undergraduates did of course read Newman, Christopher Dawson, Josef Pieper, Jacques Maritain, and Étienne Gilson, plus the novelists and poets associated with the “Catholic Renaissance” that developed during the interwar era. Some of us even went to hear these figures when they lectured on campus. For the most part, though, we were the students of the legendary English professor Frank O’Malley, whose courses “The Philosophy of Literature” and “Modern Catholic Writers” were utterly unique and available to only about sixty students a year. O’Malley was also the advisor to the student literary magazine, the moderator of the Bookmen and the Wranglers, (the two intellectual undergraduate discussion groups), and the faculty advisor for those students—mostly his own—who applied for, and often won, Woodrow Wilson, Danforth, and other graduate scholarships, including a couple of Rhodes.

Miscamble cites O’Malley as if he were paradigmatic of a hearty Christian humanism pervading undergraduate classrooms. But in fact he was virtually a one-man band. Worse, Miscamble deploys an unsourced Hesburgh quote dismissive of O’Malley’s classroom performance (he was an alcoholic and mumbled at first when shucking a hangover) in order to advance his claim that Ted was at best indifferent to the Catholic element in Catholic higher education. This is another instance of gotcha journalism. The truth is that Hesburgh greatly admired O’Malley, and at the two-day conference on his work that opened Notre Dame’s sesquicentennial celebration in 1991, he acknowledged the irony that O’Malley, one of a number of outstanding Notre Dame teachers of that period who hadn’t bothered to get a PhD, would for that reason not be offered a teaching position by the now research-oriented Notre Dame that Hesburgh had himself created.

A deep commitment to undergraduate spiritual and intellectual formation, such as O’Malley’s, is not a virtue nurtured in graduate schools. And the specialization that is fostered there—together with the gradual transfer of authority over faculty hires to department heads—did more to transform Catholic higher education than the inability of Catholic universities to find an ideological replacement for the old Catholic pedagogy based on neo-Thomist manuals.

Did Hesburgh make mistakes? Of course. As Miscamble notes, one was lifting Fr. Richard McBrien out of obscurity and giving him the department of theology to run, which he did for eleven years. As dean, he was often asked to comment on television, where his reductive political approach to the post–Vatican II turmoil in the church did not reflect well on an otherwise distinguished faculty. I also think Hesburgh erred in agreeing to co-chair the Clintons’ Legal Expense Trust in 1994. I’d like to think their money-grubbing since Bill left office gave him second thoughts.

I also agree with Miscamble that Hesburgh’s later emphasis on service to others was a wholly inadequate marker of a Catholic education—especially since even some state schools now require proof of volunteer work on college entrance applications. Jesuit universities, with their pledge to form students into “men for others,” make the same mistake. I think Fr. Ted was a romantic about Notre Dame, convinced that the religious atmospherics of the place alone were transformative. My guess is that by the mid-1970s, he had been away from the university so often that he failed to realize that most Catholics entering Notre Dame had a poor grasp of the basics of the faith—and that most of them also left without much improvement.

Toward the end of American Priest, Miscamble writes that by investing his time and energy, and that of the university, in causes like civil rights, poverty eradication, and world peace, Fr. Ted hoped to create “the Kingdom of God on Earth”—as if he had been a nineteenth-century Protestant post-millennialist. To the contrary, Hesburgh brought to the major ills besetting the twentieth century an optimism rooted in the frank recognition of humankind’s propensity for evil. If it were not already taken as the title of another priest’s biography, the title I would have chosen for a book about Hesburgh is “Witness to Hope.”

American Priest
The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy
of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh

Wilson D. Miscamble, CSC
Image, $28, 464 pp.

Kenneth L. Woodward, author of Getting Religion, was the religion editor of Newsweek for thirty-eight years and is currently writer-in-residence at the Lumen Christi Institute.

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Published in the June 1, 2019 issue: View Contents
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