Father Bill Miscamble uncovers the legacy of Father Ted Hesburgh

What is the impact of Notre Dame’s storied president Father Theodore Hesburgh? In his quest for Notre Dame’s acclaim and excellence, did he elevate the University to tremendous heights or cause it to suffer the loss of its Catholic character?

Professor of History Father Bill Miscamble, C.S.C. undertakes these questions in his newly released biography of Father Hesburgh, American Priest: the Ambition Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh. Unlike other biographers of Father Ted, who often gloss over his faults and paint a picture of absolute success, Father Miscamble delves deep into a nuanced understanding of Hesburgh’s strengths and weaknesses, imprinting on the reader an understanding of his true legacy.

Father Miscamble intends the book to generate wider understanding of Hesburgh’s “decisive impact” on Notre Dame so that readers can be equipped to address the University’s contemporary problems. He told the Rover: “I hope readers will look and see that Father Ted’s leadership of Notre Dame is something that needs to be explored if we’re to understand better the Notre Dame of today and how we got here, and how Notre Dame might develop and truly fulfill his goal of being a great Catholic university.”

American Priest spotlights Hesburgh’s endless pursuit of excellence in making Notre Dame a “great Catholic university.” Fr. Hesburgh’s connections with leaders of top secular universities drove him to elevate Notre Dame’s academics to match that of these institutions. In addition, the 1950s were marked by an overall loss of confidence in Catholic higher education epitomized by Monseigneur John Tracy Ellis’ essay “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life,” which argued Catholic education was anti-intellectual and backward. Hesburgh was motivated to push for excellence to combat this narrative.

In implementing his vision to make Notre Dame a “great Catholic University,” Hesburgh handled the “macro-picture” of the University; he raised the money, built the buildings, and put forth the vision. Fr. Hesburgh prioritized fundraising as crucial, once telling Fr. Miscamble that the universities with the ten largest endowments are also the ten highest ranked universities, and he increased the endowment from $9 million to $350 million. Over the course of Hesburgh’s presidency, 40 new buildings were constructed. Father Miscamble said of these buildings: “I see his accommodation to the modern architecture—all the ugly buildings on campus—to this new view: he wants Notre Dame to be well-regarded by external constituencies, not just focused on being its Catholic self.”

Father Hesburgh sought to separate Notre Dame from the Congregation of Holy Cross, explaining this was necessary for the University to have “an impact on the modern scene.” He orchestrated the transfer of ownership from the congregation to a board of fellows with six Holy Cross priests and six laypeople. Father Miscamble’s history of essential events like the University ownership transfer are the strengths of his book: they reveal how Fr. Hesburgh has defined Notre Dame and shapes it to this day.

Also essential to American Priest is Fr. Miscamble’s history of the Land O’Lakes statement, which called for the formal separation of Church authorities from Catholic universities for the sake of academic freedom. Father Hesburgh recalled his reasoning for the Land O’Lakes statement to Father Miscamble: “If there was any thought at all that a Catholic university would be under the thumb of some monsignor in Rome who wouldn’t know a university from a cemetery, we would lose our credibility and we would have no influence.” Revealing quotes like these from Fr. Miscamble’s interviews with Father Hesburgh illuminate the priest-president in intriguing ways.

Father Miscamble, a vigorous defender of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, told the Rover he believes there are possible defects regarding Notre Dame’s catholicity that result from Fr. Hesburgh’s decisions: “I raise some questions about whether something was lost in Father Ted’s quest: the distinctive Catholic education. So Father Ted is without question a great institution builder. But whether he achieved his goal of building a great Catholic university is in my view up for question.”

Father Miscamble believes American Priest will provide “a better basis of knowing what went on” in order to “address our present challenges.” With the comprehensive information offered on the life of Father Hesburgh in American Priest, one will be challenged to face the full truth of Notre Dame’s past and look forward to a righteous future.

Ellie is a sophomore majoring in political science and philosophy. She is fond of coffee shops and thunderstorms. You can reach her at egardey@nd.edu.