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Panelists discuss new book on Fr. Hesburgh’s life, legacy

| Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The final phrase of University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh’s obituary lauds his contributions to Notre Dame.

“That the Notre Dame of today … stands as one of the world’s great universities is the lasting legacy of Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C.” the obituary said.

For Fr. Wilson Miscamble, that recognition came with a cost.

“Might it be said that Fr. Ted did too much kneeling before the world?” Miscamble asked in the conclusion of his new biography on the former Notre Dame president, “American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh.”

Miscamble, a professor of history at Notre Dame, discussed his book with three other Notre Dame professors Tuesday night in a panel hosted by the Tocqueville Program for Inquiry Into Religion and Public Life.

Professor Patrick Deneen, a panelist and member of the political science department, agreed with Miscamble’s portrait of Hesburgh: a man who sought to elevate his university to an elite institution during his 35 years as president.

“Contained in [Notre Dame’s] success have been the seeds of a certain undoing of the distinctiveness of a Catholic university that might stand not merely in the world, but in some ways apart from the world,” Deneen said. 

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?

Professor Jennifer McAward, a panelist who serves as an associate professor of law and director of the Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights, said she felt the book neglected to portray the profundity of Hesburgh’s role in the civil rights movement.

Miscamble responded to McAward by noting Hesburgh appeared only briefly in the American historian Taylor Branch’s multi-volume work on the civil rights movement, which Miscamble relied on for research on the topic.

Professor Kathleen Sprows Cummings, a panelist from the American Studies and history departments who also directs the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, criticized Miscamble’s book for its sources and emphasis on Hesburgh as the sole catalyst of changes in American Catholic higher education.

Sprows Cummings questioned Miscamble’s strategy to rely on his interviews with Hesburgh 10 years after his exit from the presidency at Notre Dame as a key component of the book.

“I think instead it created the conditions under which one of Fr. Ted’s most obvious flaws — the tendency to self-aggrandizement — could be used against him,” she said.

Sprows Cummings said more archival evidence, plenty of which can be found in the Notre Dame library system, would have been a better source for a look inside the priest’s mind.

Miscamble acknowledged Sprows Cummings’ criticism and said he would leave archival research to younger scholars such as Sprows Cummings.

Sprows Cummings also noted the shift away from the distinct, more European idea of a Catholic university to which Deneen alluded was a greater movement in American culture, and not one propagated by a single university’s president.

“American Catholics, particularly in the postwar period, were too enamored with making money to embrace the life of the mind,” she said.

This focus on accumulating wealth bent higher education to prepare lawyers, doctors and accountants, but not thinkers, Cummings said.

Both Sprows Cummings and Miscamble agreed more hesitation should be exercised in efforts — official or unofficial — to make a Saint out of Hesburgh.

“I want to suggest to you that before we rush straight to the hagiography stage, we examine his life with some care, and that is what I have tried to do in the book,” Miscamble said. 

Deneen said reflection on the life of Hesburgh signifies further thought about the renewal of a Catholic identity at Notre Dame — a change away from the worldliness which Hesburgh courted, enabled ironically by the financial success that worldliness brought Notre Dame.

While Deneen said Miscamble’s book title asks the question “American or priest?” Miscamble does not put the query to rest in his book. Instead, he points to a pivotal moment in Hesburgh’s life, which occurred after stopping by the east door of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the day of priestly ordination.

According to his autobiography, Hesburgh stopped and made a vow to dedicate his life to the three words which Hesburgh called his “trinity.”

“God, Country, Notre Dame,” Miscamble said. “He undoubtedly kept his pledge.”

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