Fr. Wilson D. Miscamble’s American Priest was intended to be a critical biography of Theodore Hesburgh, the priest who was president of the University of Notre Dame for 50 years. Notre Dame loyalists who hold Hesburgh in reverence and are intolerant of criticism need not worry: Nothing in the book will lead to removal of Hesburgh’s statue from the entrance to the library that bears his name. The sources for Miscamble’s book are almost exclusively from Hesburgh himself — his writings, his speeches, and particularly his reminiscences in hours of taped interviews. Hesburgh had emphasized that it is as a Catholic priest that he wished to be remembered, and it is from this perspective that Miscamble, himself a priest, paints his portrait, using the colors Hesburgh provided. The result is a rendering of an American priest who proudly led a revolution that “modernized” most American Catholic colleges and universities by severing their connection with the Catholic Church. Scholars of all persuasions have written that this move effectively established an alternate “magisterium” for a modernized American Catholic Church, separate from that based in Rome, housed in universities that still call themselves Catholic. Hesburgh justified this revolt — although he did not call it that — as necessary to move Catholic education, and indeed the entire Church, into the modern world. Miscamble seems to have sympathy for that view.
From his early years, Hesburgh sought acceptance by the rich and powerful with such an aggressiveness that Miscamble characterizes it as his “addiction.” Hesburgh loved elite company and lived much of his life in it. Miscamble takes the reader through Hesburgh’s impressive trophy room in mind-numbing detail: His awards and photographs with presidents, popes, and dignitaries are truly a name-dropper’s dream. There is scant evidence that his presence in elite circles had any lingering influence, but in the world of Catholic higher education, his influence was indeed significant.
Hesburgh was a man of enormous talent and charisma, quick to learn, an inspirational speaker, and a persuasive writer. He was handsome and had a commanding presence, a strong will, and an enormous intellect — with a matching degree of pride. He had no doubt in his ability to overcome any obstacle. Miscamble portrays him as a man of contradictions. His heart and mindset were those of an Eastern elitist, yet he centered his life in a small university located in “fly-over country.” He disliked taking orders and disdained servile roles, yet he entered a religious order in which he was subject to obedience. He was proud of his role as a Catholic priest, offering Mass daily and maintaining a disciplined prayer regimen. Yet he described himself as a “modern” Catholic, distinguishing himself from traditional Catholic believers, whom he criticized as “mossbacks,” parochial, narrow-minded, and living in a “ghetto.” He openly dissented from Church teachings, especially regarding contraception. On abortion, one issue on which his popularity and personality could have had some influence, Miscamble accurately reports him as “Missing In Action.” Hesburgh disliked any position in which he was not in command. As Notre Dame’s executive vice president, he resented taking directions from the president. When he was named president of the university, he unilaterally decided that the position entitled him to run the university as he saw fit, free from direction by anyone and anything, including his religious order and his vow of obedience.
Hesburgh’s religious beliefs were not always progressive. In 1952, at the beginning of his first term as president, he considered Notre Dame to be the premier Catholic institution of higher education in the country. As indeed it was. Founded in the mid-19th century with the mission of educating Catholic youth while forming them in the Catholic faith, Notre Dame had gained national respect as a quality, solidly Catholic university. Knute Rockne and football certainly helped, but Notre Dame’s faculty had one mission: to teach young Catholic men — and they did it well. For the country at large, Protestants and Catholics alike, “Notre Dame” and “Catholic” were synonymous terms.
Hesburgh’s early writings on the role and purpose of Catholic education mirror those of St. John Henry Newman. Hesburgh wrote that in a true university, theology and philosophy must be given first place among all branches of knowledge. These disciplines are so crucial to the search for ultimate Truth and Christian wisdom, he wrote, that they must impregnate the entire field of university teaching and learning. Hesburgh took immediate steps to enhance these departments by strengthening the curriculum and quality of teaching. But he was soon to be tempted from that view.
While still in his first five-year term as president, Hesburgh conceived the grand idea that he had the talent and ability to transform little Notre Dame, in the hinterlands of the country, into a “great Catholic university,” the likes of which had not existed since the Middle Ages. Confident of his ability to achieve that dream, he awarded himself the job. From that day on, it was his quest.
Using Eastern secular universities as his model, he determined that a “great university” has two distinguishing characteristics. First, it must be wealthy. Second, it must be accepted as a “great university” by the other “great” universities. Neither of these characteristics was likely to be achieved by Notre Dame as long as it remained Catholic. Not wealth, because the sources of massive funding needed to erect impressive buildings and hire “acceptable” faculty lay in government and large foundations like Rockefeller, Ford, and Carnegie, all of which, for various reasons, refused to fund any “religious” institution. Acceptance, the characteristic Hesburgh most coveted, was even more challenging. There was little chance that elite Eastern universities would ever accept as an equal any Catholic institution, especially one whose mascot is “The Fighting Irish.” So Hesburgh had a choice: God or mammon. Build on Notre Dame’s already solid mission of providing young Catholic men with a quality faith-based education or reduce Notre Dame’s Catholic identity to an unrecognizable level, curry favor with the big boys, and grow wealthy.
Faced with that choice, Hesburgh punted. Declining to choose “either/or,” he chose “both/and.” In his personal life, he would continue to function, look, and act as a Catholic priest, offering Mass, administering the sacraments, and delivering inspirational homilies. But as university president, he would quietly reverse the “Catholic” direction of his university to make it palatable to funding sources and acceptable to the secular academic establishment.
To diminish the “Catholic” label to accommodate fundraising meant throwing Cardinal Newman under the bus. Which he did. In 1962 Hesburgh wrote that Newman’s model of a Catholic university, which he had embraced a few years earlier, “doesn’t cut it” in the modern world. To be “modern,” he wrote, the university must change its focus. Theology and philosophy he now characterized as “ivory tower” disciplines, incapable of preparing students to tackle the real problems of the world, which require action, not philosophies. The university, he said, should focus less on what happens in the classroom and more on what happens outside of it. So he downsized theology and philosophy, reducing them to mere academic courses on par with all others, and no longer taught as Truth. Apologetics was dropped from the curriculum. The first place in education at Notre Dame was now to be given to science and technology.
To qualify for government funding, most of which was for “research,” Notre Dame became a research university. No longer would its primary mission be to teach. To open the spigot of foundation funding, he teamed with the Rockefeller Foundation and Planned Parenthood (both of which were, and still are, promoting “population control”) to sponsor at Notre Dame a series of conferences of liberal theologians for the purpose of creating a document declaring that contraception is morally acceptable for Catholics. Hesburgh used this widely publicized document to lobby Pope St. Paul VI personally. Miscamble reports that Hesburgh became enraged when Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, claiming the Pope had “betrayed” him. Still, that effort had opened a spigot, foundation funds rolled in, and Hesburgh gained a seat on the Board of Directors of the Rockefeller Foundation, assuring that the spigot would remain open.
Meanwhile, Hesburgh, always intolerant of criticism, began summarily to remove from the university those faculty members and administrators who objected to or disagreed with his new vision, as well as those “mossbacks” who held traditional Catholic beliefs or even conservative political opinions. These he replaced with persons of more “moderate” (read progressive) religious and political viewpoints. As Miscamble puts it, you either agreed with Fr. Ted or you were gone. Thus did the man who is widely acclaimed as a champion of “academic freedom” demonstrate that he would have none of it on his campus.
Hesburgh exhibited almost boundless energy. During the time he was reconstituting the mission and faculty of Notre Dame, he also engaged in time-consuming activities needed for Notre Dame officially to separate itself from the authority of the Catholic Church. In 1967, after five years of such effort, Hesburgh convened a large group of Catholic university presidents and others at Notre Dame’s retreat in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin. There all parties signed a document officially titled The Idea of the Catholic University, directed to the question, “What is the nature and role of the contemporary Catholic University?” Commonly referred to as the Land O’Lakes Statement, this document quietly declared that Notre Dame and the other signatory institutions, which included all Jesuit universities, were henceforth independent from the authority of the Catholic Church. No longer would the teachings of the Church be their identity. Yet, paradoxically, all would still brazenly call themselves “Catholic” universities. Miscamble reports in detail how this was accomplished. But for reasons unexplained, Miscamble does not inform the reader of the radical new direction these institutions were taking.
The Land O’Lakes Statement, of which Hesburgh is the reputed author, is not only the declaration of independence of the signatory institutions from the Catholic Church, about which Miscamble reports. It was and is Hesburgh’s vision of what he wanted Notre Dame to become under his leadership: a university Catholic in name but in which Catholic thought is diminished; where relativism is the predominant doctrine; where individual conscience determines right and wrong. Hesburgh’s vision makes no mention of any faith-based or moral purpose of a Catholic university.
Toward the end of American Priest, Miscamble mentions the impulses that drove Hesburgh to do what he did. He notes that Hesburgh departed from the idea of creating a distinctive institution in the Catholic intellectual tradition, settling instead for “making his university more modern and more American, in which pursuit of excellence as defined by the secular academy dominated his actions,” particularly his desire that Notre Dame “fit comfortably into the American academic milieu and win the respect of the leading American universities.”
The name for the philosophy Hesburgh delineated to define the “modern Catholic university” is modernism. In a book called Contending with Modernity, Philip Gleason, a Notre Dame professor and author cited by Miscamble, hailed Hesburgh’s Land O’Lakes Statement as triggering the slide of the American Catholic Church into the modern world, a victory of “modernists” over the rigid, tradition-bound Roman Church. Gleason writes that the Land O’Lakes Statement demonstrated that “the Church’s cold war with modernism is over” and that “modernism has won.” But modernism — which aims to remodel religion according to the Spirit of the Age — is a heresy, so declared in 1907 by Pope St. Pius X in Pascendi Dominici Gregis. Modernism is not just any heresy but the “synthesis of all heresies,” made worse because it is promoted from inside the Church by prominent members of the clergy and laity embedded in universities and seminaries.
Few Catholics seem aware of the heretical change of focus that overtook most established Catholic colleges and universities in the United States as a result of Hesburgh’s work. Miscamble is fully aware of the heresy and its roots in Fr. Ted’s vision of a “modern Catholic university.” But about this heresy and Fr. Ted’s promotion of it, Miscamble makes no mention. His silence on this, the highlight of Hesburgh’s career, compromises his objectivity and contradicts the stated purpose of the book as a “critical” biography, reducing it to a heavily footnoted version of Hesburgh’s memoirs as dictated to, and commented upon, by Fr. Miscamble — about as interesting as home movies, and as pointless. Miscamble’s ponderous tome is not an easy read and is not worth the effort.
- American Priest: The ambitious life and conflicted legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh, by Wilson D. Miscamble
- Pascendi Dominici Gregis, encyclical by Pope St. Pius X
- Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky
Michael V. McIntire is a 1957 graduate of the University of Notre Dame and was later Associate Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School. This book review first appeared in New Oxford Review and is reposted with permission.