Tocqueville Program hosts a panel to discuss American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh

On Tuesday, April 16, Notre Dame’s Tocqueville Program hosted a panel to discuss Father Wilson Miscamble, C.S.C.’s new book entitled American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh. Featuring panelists Professors Patrick Deneen, Jennifer McAward, and Kathleen Sprows Cummings, the evening was replete with impassioned dialogue regarding Fr. Miscamble’s recent opus.

Published on March 12, Miscamble’s book challenges the perceived sanctification of Notre Dame’s beloved Father Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C. Taking a critical look at Fr. Hesburgh’s politically active life, American Priest indicts the priorities of late Notre Dame president’s life.

“If we are to understand ourselves where we are at Notre Dame today, we have to understand the journey that [Fr. Ted] lead Notre Dame through” during his tenure at Notre Dame, Fr. Miscamble argued. As this quote suggests, understand the life and work of Fr. Ted is vital to comprehending Notre Dame’s role in the world and in the formation of hearts and minds today.

Professor Patrick Deneen, the first panelist to offer his thoughts, focused on the dichotomy between “American” and “Priest,” upon which the book’s title so aptly swivels. Sophomore Jack Lyons explains that “Deneen called attention to the title of Miscamble’s book, suggesting at the heart of Hesburgh’s legacy is the question of which word holds greater significance to him: American or priest?” Deneen went on to argue that without the efforts of Fr. Ted, Notre Dame would not be ranked as high as it is and it would not be regarded with such high levels of prestige.

The cost of this, Deneen concluded, was that perhaps Hesburgh inadvertently sacrificed Notre Dame’s authentically Catholic identity in his pursuit of worldly prestige. Both he and Miscamble, however, leave the question open-ended and prime for debate as was evidenced by the panel. Deneen finished his remarks by expressing his hope that Fr. Hesburgh’s legacy will be one in which “priest” is at the core and “American is secondary.”

Professor McAward followed Deneen, taking a more critical look at American Priest. Arguing that Miscamble’s book overlooked the significance of Hesburgh’s unique role in the civil rights movement as a Catholic clergyman, McAward argued that “Fr. Ted did no kneeling before the world of the powerful.” She maintained that Fr. Ted knelt “only before the weak and disenfranchised, as a servant leader should.”

The range of disagreement with Fr. Miscamble’s thesis seemed to progress from each panelist to the next, culminating in Kathleen Sprows Cummings’s review. Cummings presented a very articulate and convincing dissent. She began by outlining what she liked about the book, but quickly moved into her points of disagreement. Highly critical of Fr. Miscamble’s method of collective material for his biography, Cummings charged that his series of interviews with Fr. Hesburgh might not have “aspire[d] to ideals of Christian charity.”

She went on, arguing that she is confident the interviews do not “hold up very well to the kind of historical scrutiny necessary to give a fair and balanced account of Father Ted’s life.” Cummings proposed that examining archives would have been a more professional way for Fr. Miscamble to gather information from Fr. Ted. She expressed her concern over “the amount of alcohol that Father Bill admits flowed freely throughout their evening conversations,” because “alcohol loosens tongues.” She insinuated that Fr. Miscamble’s strategy of information-gathering was exploitative of Fr. Ted’s old age.

During his rebuttal at the end, Fr. Miscamble responded very strongly to this legitimate bit of criticism. “Let me assure you of this… ” Miscamble responded, “I was not taking advantage of an old man. Far from it.” Everything Fr. Ted said during the on-the-record interviews, Miscamble explained, was consistent with the tone and words in Hesburgh’s own autobiography.

The Tocqueville panel was very refreshing; it was an enlightening discussion of a seminal book on one of the most revered men in Notre Dame history. The panelists were all very respectful and eloquent, displaying how civil discourse among colleagues and friends leads to productive conversation.

John Hale is a sophomore studying Political Science and Italian with a minor in Theology. He loves his family, travelling, and plane spotting at Detroit Metro Airport. You can contact him at