SDG Reviews ‘Hesburgh’

A new documentary explores the colorful life of the late Notre Dame president Father Ted Hesburgh, remembered for his civil-rights activism and his role in a controversial declaration on Catholic universities.

Father Ted Hesburgh
Father Ted Hesburgh (photo: <i>Hesburgh</i> via IMBD)

For many observers of Catholic education the appellation “Land O’Lakes” signifies one thing: the controversial 1967 declaration on Catholic universities in the modern world, popularly known as the “Land O’Lakes Statement,” drafted at University of Notre Dame’s Land O’Lakes retreat center in Wisconsin.

Drafted by Catholic educators led by Notre Dame’s president, Holy Cross Father Ted Hesburgh, the document has been both celebrated for promoting academic freedom and excellence and denounced for facilitating the secularizing of Catholic higher education.

In Patrick Creadon’s documentary Hesburgh, though, long before that 1967 conference, Land O’Lakes appears as the setting for another momentous meeting that produced an important document.

In 1957 President Dwight Eisenhower made Father Hesburgh an inaugural member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Two years later, facing a crucial deadline to complete the commission’s final report and recommendations, Father Hesburgh took matters into his own hands.

The commission was made up of Northerners and Southerners, Republicans and Democrats, blacks and whites. At least one member, John S. Battle of Virginia, was frankly pro-segregation. In first-person voice-over narration read aloud by actor Maurice LaMarche and “inspired by” Father Hesburgh’s writings and recordings, the priest is represented as recalling how he bonded with Battle over a shared love of bourbon.

Commission members had been traveling the South, facing hostility and difficulties of many kinds. In Alabama future Gov. George Wallace, then a county judge, threatened to jail the members and vowed to burn subpoenaed records rather than turn them over. Authorities at Maxwell Air Force Base initially refused them beds, stating that locals would never accept blacks and whites sharing barracks, obliging Eisenhower to issue an executive order demanding that they be taken in.

Now at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, in scorching weather with planes roaring overhead night after night, the commission appeared to be unable to finish the final report.

Then Father Hesburgh called a wealthy Notre Dame donor and arranged for the whole commission to be flown to Wisconsin, to Land O’Lakes, the Notre Dame campgrounds, with its dozens of lakes on thousands of wooded acres.

Whatever else divided them, the commission members all loved to fish. The fishing was excellent, the weather was fine, and, as the narration ascribed to Father Hesburgh puts it, “After a few hours of fishing, even a segregationist and a black civil-rights lawyer can get along.” Of 12 drafted recommendations, the committee voted unanimously to endorse 11, with only a single dissenting vote on the last.

Former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson sums up a recurring theme fundamental to the film’s portrait of its subject: “He loved to watch people who didn’t agree on anything get in a room and bridge all that.”

With a conventional but engaging blend of archival video and images, talking-head interview clips with family, friends and public figures, and voice-over narration, accented with a bright score and period musical selections, Creadon (I.O.U.S.A.) offers a compellingly attractive if one-sided portrait of a figure of exceptional gifts, astonishingly diverse accomplishments and extraordinary influence.

Among his many activities, Father Hesburgh was the permanent Vatican City delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna and served on the Pontifical Council for Culture. He served on the U.S. National Science Board and with the U.S. Institute of Peace. His personal friends included Pope Paul VI, Richard Nixon, Ann Landers and NASA head James Webb.

The anecdotes are as astonishing as the names. Paul VI famously gave Father Hesburgh his own episcopal ring, evidently with a thought of making him a bishop, but Father Hesburgh never wore it. Nixon made him chairman of the Civil Rights Commission but later demanded his resignation when the commission released an unfavorable report just before an election.

The film flirts with the idea that Landers, whose work Father Hesburgh supported as a theological consultant, had an abiding crush on the handsome priest, to whom she closed all her correspondence “L[ove] but no K[isses].” And Webb obligingly lent Father Hesburgh film and photos of the Ranger and Apollo missions to watch with a riveted Paul VI, a space-travel enthusiast.

Ironically, his life story turns on a crucial early decision that was not his to make. Although Father Hesburgh says he had wanted only to be a priest since the age of 6, he did not choose academia. His wish to be a Navy chaplain was overridden by his superiors in the Congregation of the Holy Cross, and he was ordered first to get his doctorate and teach and then, in 1952, to assume the presidency of Notre Dame.

At the time, the film notes, Notre Dame was known for football but not for academics, and Father Hesburgh immediately sought to set a higher standard for academic excellence. It doesn’t delve into the deeper story of the growing challenges facing Catholic thought in the modern era, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, culminating in the Second Vatican Council.

Caught between the dangers of modernism on the one hand and, on the other hand, a defensive “ghetto mentality” and excessive reliance on neo-scholastic and manualist traditions, Catholic thinkers were seeking new ways forward. The best of these — theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger — sought not to reject the positive aspects of modernity along with the errors of modernism. Drawing that line correctly, though, wasn’t always easy, and some were more conscientious than others in undertaking the challenge.

The film’s one-sidedness is nowhere more evident than in its celebration of the approach to Catholic academic life Father Hesburgh pioneered, from the Land O’Lakes Statement to the university’s decision to award President Barack Obama an honorary doctorate in 2009.

The lineup of talking heads is largely left of center, and, while the film acknowledges (via the National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters) that Land O’Lakes was and is “controversial,” only one side of the “controversy” is heard.

Well-known critics of Land O’Lakes include John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America (of which, ironically, Father Hesburgh was a graduate), and Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer, former president of Gonzaga University. Hesburgh could have sought balancing perspectives from such voices, but didn’t.

Just as significantly, there’s no mention of Pope St. John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (On Catholic Universities), in part a corrective to Land O’Lakes.

The film’s silence on other topics is also notable. While paying fleeting lip service to the idea that Father Hesburgh couldn’t be pinned down to “liberal” or “conservative” categories, there’s no mention of his complicated record on abortion.

On the one hand, Father Hesburgh opened the door to Mario Cuomo making the case at Notre Dame that Catholic politicians can be “personally opposed” to abortion while supporting pro-abortion laws. Yet in his response to Cuomo, “The Overlooked Consensus on Restricting Abortion,” Father Hesburgh invoked the fights against segregation and apartheid as precedents for resistance to permissive abortion laws and appealed to widespread public support for more restrictive abortion laws in defense of incremental pro-life action.

To an extent Hesburgh resembles last year’s documentary Pope Francis: A Man of His Word by Wim Wenders in filtering its subject through an uncritically positive, left-wing lens. Only when it comes to Father Hesburgh’s early support for Vietnam and his crackdown on disruptive student protests does there seem to be any mixed feelings about Father Hesburgh’s actions.

Despite these issues, what stands out to me from the film is Father Hesburgh’s gift for reaching out to people divided by ideological lines and helping to bring them together.

Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, current Notre Dame president, recalls that Father Hesburgh was fond of pointing out that one of the Latin words for “priest” (pontifex) means “bridge-builder.” In our times of increasingly polarized partisanship, more and more people on all sides are rushing to burn bridges rather than build them. I’m a deacon, not a priest, but all my life I have sought to be a bridge-builder, so this side of Father Hesburgh’s persona is powerful to me.

At the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Father Hesburgh befriended the American and Russian delegates, but had to split his time between them since they wouldn’t talk to one another and didn’t attend one another’s social functions.

Since the Vatican didn’t host cocktail parties, Father Hesburgh invited them to Mass. Neither was Catholic, but they both came, and Father Hesburgh sat them side by side.

“I sat them next to each other, and for one hour a week they were in the same room — talking,” the film’s narrative Father Hesburgh says. “It may seem small … but it was a start.”

Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and the creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.


Caveat Spectator: Brief disturbing archival images; fleeting archival audio cursing. Teens and up.