The Problematic Legacy of Fr. Hesburgh

Standing in front of a famous 1964 photo of Father Theodore Hesburgh locking arms with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, honored Father Hesburgh at a party on Capitol Hill celebrating the retired president of the University of Notre Dame’s 96th birthday in late May.  During her celebratory remarks, Pelosi praised Father Hesburgh’s courageous record on civil rights and pointed to the photo, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, taken at a rally just days after a vote on the Civil Rights Act.  Pelosi was joined at the party by dozens of congressional well-wishers—as well as Vice President Joe Biden—all paying tribute to the priest that Biden described as “the most powerful unelected official this nation has ever seen.”

Biden is correct.  Father Hesburgh has indeed exerted a powerful influence on our country, on our Church, and especially on our Catholic colleges and universities.  He has received 150 honorary degrees, the most ever awarded to one person, and has held 16 presidential appointments involving most of the major social issues in his time—including civil rights, nuclear disarmament, population, the environment, Third World development, and amnesty and immigration reform. In July 2000, President Clinton awarded Father Hesburgh the Congressional Gold Medal—making him the first person from higher education to be so honored.

Father Hesburgh has always viewed himself as a “citizen of the world” and his secular activities reflect that.  Father Hesburgh was the first priest ever elected to the Board of Directors at Harvard University and served two years as president of the Harvard Board.  He also served as a director of the Chase Manhattan Bank. A longtime champion of nuclear disarmament, Father Hesburgh has served on the board of the United States Institute of Peace and helped organize a meeting of scientists and representative leaders of six faith traditions who called for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

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On many occasions, Father Hesburgh found himself the first Catholic priest to serve in a given leadership position on boards of secular organizations.  Much of his success can be viewed as stemming from his ability to distance himself from the authority of the Church.  Such was the case during the years he served as a trustee, and later, Chairman of the Board of the Rockefeller Foundation, a frequent funder of causes counter to Church teachings—including population control.

Some of Father Hesburgh’s activities are curiously missing from the Notre Dame website’s formal biography of their beloved president emeritus.  For example, in the early 1970s, Father Hesburgh became swept up into the “one world” cause and he gave a speech at Harvard University which called for an international agency to be created to grant people “world citizenship.”  Suggesting that this would help to break down the great dividers of people, Father Hesburgh affiliated with the United World Federalists, and in 1974 became a member of the Advisory Board of an organization called Planetary Citizens.  The mission of the now defunct organization was “to create, expose, and nurture positive change in the world.”  Their first objective was “to help people around the earth to cross the threshold of consciousness from a limited, local perspective to the inclusive and global view required in a planetary era.”  The business offices of Planetary Citizens were located directly across from the delegates’ entrance to the United Nations.  This was convenient for Father Hesburgh when he was appointed to serve as ambassador to the 1979 UN Conference on Science and Technology for Development—the first time a priest had served in a formal diplomatic role for the United States government.

Providing Cover for Catholic Pro-choice Politicians
Pelosi described the party for Father Hesburgh at the Capitol as “bipartisan,” intending to bring politicians and staffers from “both sides of the Capitol, both sides of the aisle and all sides of Pennsylvania Avenue”. The reality remains, however, that Father Hesburgh has always held a special place in the hearts of Catholic Democrats like Pelosi and Biden who want to be able to vote in favor of abortion rights yet still be perceived as being in the good graces of the Church.  Pro-choice Catholic politicians are grateful to Father Hesburgh because for the past 40 years he has been providing them with the kind of Catholic cover they have needed to continue voting to expand abortion. Faithful Catholics have been disappointed that the courage Father Hesburgh showed in advancing the cause of civil rights for African Americans and other underrepresented groups did not seem to extend to protecting the civil rights of the unborn.

This is not to say that Father Hesburgh himself is “pro-choice.”  It is clear from his writings that he abhors abortion; he once wrote that “it is difficult to explain how a moral America, so brilliantly successful in confronting racial injustice in the sixties, has the most permissive abortion laws of any Western country.” But faithful Catholics may well question how Father Hesburgh can object to abortion while at the same time promoting the Catholic politicians who have done everything they can to expand access to abortion.

In fact, Pelosi and Biden’s “personally opposed to abortion but unwilling to deny the right to an abortion to others” position was famously articulated on Father Hesburgh’s watch at Notre Dame on September 13, 1984, in a speech entitled “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective,” given by Mario Cuomo, then the governor of New York.

Father Hesburgh and Father Richard McBrien, a longtime theology professor at Notre Dame, invited Governor Cuomo to the university to give a major speech clarifying his position on abortion.  At one point, Governor Cuomo appeared to be thinking out loud when he mused: “Must I agree with everything in the bishops’ pastoral letter on peace and fight to include it in party platforms? And will I have to do the same for the forthcoming pastoral economics? And, must I, having heard the Pope renew the Church’s ban on birth control devices, veto the funding of contraceptive programs for non-Catholics or dissenting Catholics in my State?  I accept the Church’s teaching on abortion. Must insist you do? By law? By denying you Medicaid funding? By a constitutional amendment?”  Governor Cuomo’s answer to all of these rhetorical questions was “No.”

In his written response to Governor Cuomo’s speech, Father Hesburgh seemed to agree.  Describing the Cuomo speech as “a brilliant talk on religion and politics” Father Hesburgh’s response can be read online today at the Notre Dame website.

Although Father Hesburgh used his response to the governor’s speech to encourage Catholics to support “a more restrictive abortion law,” he also acknowledged what he called the “political reality” and noted that “there is not a consensus in America for the absolute prohibition of abortion.” Saying he longed for the day when politicians would not be “forced” to support abortion, Father Hesburgh decried the need for abortion. Yet, the Notre Dame president seemed unable to see then—or now—that the Catholic pro-choice politicians he has promoted, like Governor Cuomo, and now Pelosi and Biden, are the same ones who are pushing and implementing the greatest expansion of abortion rights in the world.

In a 2001 review of Father Hesburgh’s role in promoting abortion, Msgr. George Kelly, a founder and, until his death, president emeritus of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, criticized Father Hesburgh for providing protection for pro-choice politicians and theologians.  Msgr. Kelly wrote that during his years as Notre Dame’s president, “Father Hesburgh’s ecclesiology became steadily more hostile to the hierarchy …  In 1972, when he was a delegate to the International Congress of Catholic Universities, at a meeting held on Vatican territory—within mere feet of the office of Pope Paul VI—he threatened to walk out and take the American delegation with him if Rome dared to impose norms for the conduct of American colleges.”

Msgr. Kelly acknowledged that “at times there is a sting to Father Hesburgh’s rhetoric,” and provided an example of that attitude in an incident that is well-known on the Notre Dame campus: “A prominent Notre Dame official went to Father Hesburgh as to a mentor, worrying that the implementation of the Vatican document Ex Corde Ecclesiae might bring the American bishops in to the governance of the university.  The retired president consoled his worried friend, ending his counsel with this message: ‘What is the worst thing that can happen to us?  John Paul II will tell the world that Notre Dame is not a Catholic university.  Who will believe him?’”

This story has become almost a legend at Notre Dame and beyond, and Father Hesburgh’s words are often repeated by faculty and administrators on other Catholic campuses in order to reassure themselves and others that compliance with Ex Corde Ecclesiae is not necessary. A decade later, the Notre Dame faculty obviously took Father Hesburgh’s reassurance to heart when the faculty senate voted unanimously to ignore the requirements of Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

Secularizing Catholic Higher Education
Msgr. Kelly acknowledged that Father Hesburgh played an important role in the secularization of Catholic higher education. Father Hesburgh’s 1994 book, The Challenge and Promise of a Catholic University, makes it clear he believes that in order for Catholic colleges and universities to be truly great, these schools must distance themselves from the Church and her teachings.  In his book, Father Hesburgh claimed that “there has not been in recent centuries a truly great Catholic university, recognized universally as such…one would have hoped that history would have been different when one considers the Church’s early role in the founding of the first great universities in the Middle Ages: Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, Bologna, and others.”

In Father Hesburgh’s opinion, the early European universities in the Middle Ages were great because they encouraged a culture of freedom and independence from the state as well as from the authority of the Catholic Church.  Claiming that unlike American Catholic universities, these early colleges provided “an atmosphere of free and often turbulent clashing of conflicting ideas, where a scholar with a new idea, theological, philosophical, legal, or scientific, had to defend it in the company of peers, without interference from the pressures and powers that neither create nor validate intellectual activities.”

Throughout Father Hesburgh’s book, the theme of independence from the “external authority” of the Church is clear.  For Hesburgh, “The best and only traditional authority in the university is intellectual competence… It was great wisdom in the medieval church to have university theologians judged solely by their theological peers in the university… A great Catholic university must begin by being a great university that is also Catholic.”  Few questioned this distancing from the Church because until recently, Father Hesburgh’s proclamations were simply accepted as fact because of his own high status in the academy and beyond.

The most significant event for the Church and the its relationship with Catholic colleges and universities occurred in 1967, when Father Hesburgh assembled a group of Catholic academic leaders at the Notre Dame Retreat Center in Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin, where a crucial statement on the nature of the Catholic University emerged. The opening paragraph of the 1,500-word statement began: “To perform its teaching and research functions effectively the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.”

While liberal academics, such as Holy Cross College historian David O’Brien, nostalgically look back on the Land O’ Lakes gathering as a kind of “Catholic Woodstock” for professors and administrators anticipating independence from the authority of the Church, others disagree. Catholic historian Philip Gleason, in his book Contending with Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century, described the Land O’ Lakes statement as a “symbolic manifesto” which marked a new era in Catholic higher education.  As Father Hesburgh had envisioned, within the next few years most Catholic colleges moved to laicize their boards of trustees. Some colleges went even further.  Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart and Webster College publicly and officially declared themselves “no longer Catholic.” Manhattanville promptly dropped part of their name, deleting the now too-Catholic sounding “Sacred Heart.” Not only did Webster, under the direction of the Sisters of Loretto, become the first Catholic college to announce that it was relinquishing its Catholic identity, but its president, Sister Jacqueline Grennan, SL, renounced her religious vows and withdrew from her order to function as the lay president of the now secular institution.

Indeed, concerns about upward mobility were so high during the 60s and 70s that any hint of obedience to the authority of the Church became an embarrassment for the leaders of Catholic higher education.  And although many of the Jesuit colleges and, of course, Notre Dame, maintained that members of their founding religious orders would continue to hold the office of the president at what became increasingly secular institutions, many of those colleges that had been founded by women from religious congregations were more than eager to turn the leadership over to lay leaders as women’s colleges increasingly merged with men’s institutions and co-education became the norm. Having abandoned their earlier preoccupation with integrating the curriculum around a core of philosophy and theology, Catholic colleges—encouraged by Father Hesburgh’s vision for them—entered the final decades of the 20th century by devoting themselves to the pursuit of academic excellence, often at the cost of their religious identities.

On September 30, 2008, Father Hesburgh rejected more than 2,000 years of Church teachings when he told a Wall Street Journal reporter  that he had “no problem with females” as priests in the Catholic Church. And in 2009, Father Hesburgh defied Bishop John D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend and supported the honoring of President Barack Obama at Notre Dame’s commencement ceremony.  Bishop D’Arcy, who died earlier this year, drew national attention when he protested the honoring of the pro-abortion President Obama; Father Hesburgh rejected his authority and publicly supported Notre Dame’s decision to invite the president.

Sociologist Randall Collins once suggested that “secularization is not a zeitgeist, but, rather a process of conflict.”  From this perspective, the current secularization of our most important institutions—especially many of our Catholic colleges and universities—is more the result of a contested revolutionary struggle than a natural evolutionary progression.   It is the achievement of specific individuals and groups—both within the Church and outside the Church—who intended to marginalize the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.  Even today, as pro-choice politicians both flout Church teachings and are honored by Catholic institutions, Father Hesburgh remains an important part of that process of secularization.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared July 2, 2013 on the Catholic World Report website and is reprinted with permission. The above photo depicts Father Theodore Hesburgh, second from left, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. participate in a June 21, 1964, rally at Chicago’s Soldier Field.  (CNS photo/National Portrait Gallery)


  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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