Father Hesburgh Was the Father of Notre Dame’s Honoring of Obama

COMMENTARY: Under Father Hesburgh, and continued by his successors, Notre Dame was clearly pro-life but chose not to use its prestige to that end in the public square.

President Barack Obama receives an honorary doctor of laws degree May 17, 2009, during the commencement ceremony at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.
President Barack Obama receives an honorary doctor of laws degree May 17, 2009, during the commencement ceremony at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. (photo: Jeff Haynes- Pool/Getty Images)

Ten years after the University of Notre Dame — in the face of withering opposition from more than 80 U.S. bishops— awarded President Barack Obama an honorary doctorate of laws, the titanic figure of the late Father Theodore Hesburgh is back in the news. 

“Father Ted” as he was known to all, served as president of Notre Dame from 1952-1987, and in those 35 years the Holy Cross priest became the university’s “second founder.” 

Under Father Hesburgh, and continued by his successors, Notre Dame was clearly pro-life, but chose not to use its prestige to that end. To the contrary, Father Hesburgh declined to use his enormous profile in the early 1970s on behalf of the pro-life cause in the same way that he had done so on behalf of civil rights. 

Indeed, in 1984, Father Ted employed Notre Dame’s influence to support the argument of Mario Cuomo, then governor of New York, thatCatholic politicians could be “personally opposed” to abortion but promote it in law and public policy. 

I detailed that sad history here, in light of the 2009 commencement controversy, which led professor Mary Ann Glendon to decline Notre Dame’sLaetare Medal

Now a documentary film enjoying limited theatrical release and a comprehensive biography examine Father Hesburgh’s record. The eponymous film, Hesburgh, is hagiographical, finding no fault with the great man’s leadership. Testimonies from the leading voices of liberal Catholicism are plentiful and fulsome, including that of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The biography is the work of noted Notre Dame historian and fellow Holy Cross Father Wilson Miscamble, who based his work on a lengthy series of interviews with Father Hesburgh in 1998, done for the purpose of this biography: American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh. Notre Dame is not all “conflicted” about that legacy, but thoughtful U.S. Catholics should be. A comparison of the film and the book can be found here.

Father Miscamble’s biography makes a convincing case that Father Ted understood himself first, last and always as a Catholic priest of rather traditional devotion. However, his fervent desire for the laudations of the American establishment compromised that witness. 

On the 10th anniversary of the Obama doctorate — Father Miscamble was a leader in protests on campus that day — a limited observation can be made. The current polarization on abortion politics — with Republican Alabamaattempting something like a total ban and Democratic New York establishing abortion-on-demand as a human right — has its roots in the decision of the Democratic Party to become increasingly extreme, even dogmatic, on abortion. It has produced a reaction in Republican politics, though not equal in intensity or as monolithic. 
American Priest persuasively argues that Father Ted could have done something significant to ensure space for pro-life views in the liberal political establishment. Father Hesburgh devoted considerable time to service on boards and commissions, the most high-profile of which was the Civil Rights Commission, to which he was appointed by Eisenhower, and served through the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations, concluding with four years as its chairman. 

After Nixon’s landslide re-election in 1972, Father Hesburgh was fired, having being a credible critic of Nixon’s first term policies on civil rights. His firing by Nixon in November 1972 raised the already esteemed Father Ted to a stratospheric position in the liberal political establishment on the eve of Roe v. Wade, issued two months later. 

While Catholic political figures like Ted Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Mario Cuomo and Joe Biden bear principal responsibility for not insisting on space in the Democratic Party for pro-life views, there is no priest more responsible than Father Ted. None — not even cardinals and bishops — had the equivalent esteem of the liberal political establishment. None had the credibility of his long years of work on civil rights. None had the freedom and autonomy that came with being president of the nation’s most prominent Catholic university.

Father Ted was uniquely positioned to argue that the Democratic Party’s proud record on civil rights mandated protection for the unborn in law and public policy. It was a position that he himself held, but that he chose to make only in a relatively muted way. Given the impact that he could have made had he devoted his prodigious talents and energy to the pro-life cause, Father Miscamble’s biography is right to conclude that on life issues, Father Hesburgh chose to be the liberal establishment’s “acceptable and accommodating priest.”

Father Miscamble’s most worthy biography ably demonstrates that Father Ted’s sins of omission were more grave than that. Father Hesburgh was a longtime director of the Rockefeller Foundation, which was a leading campaigner for population control policies at odds with Catholic teaching. He publicly maintained that he would recuse himself from all such decisions. 

Father Miscamble shows how such policies were not quarantined off to secondary status, but were front and center at the Rockefeller Foundation. Father Ted did not do much to oppose that, but rather stood by silently, a posture he would have denounced on the issue of civil rights and racial equality.

Father Miscamble includes a telling anecdote about Father Ted’s 50th anniversary as a priest, on June 24, 1993. Having marked his jubilee with his Holy Cross confreres earlier at Notre Dame, Father Ted was in Washington for one of his board meetings — he was by then on Harvard’s Board of Overseers. President Bill Clinton heard he was in town and invited him to the White House, where he welcomed him, remarking that it was suitable that Father Ted be feted at the White House on his golden jubilee, as his service to country was as generous as his service to the Church. Father Ted would return the favor by lending his name to fundraising efforts for Clinton’s legal defense.

For his 70th anniversary in 2013, another celebration was arranged for Washington, this time at the Capitol. He was feted on that occasion by Speaker Pelosi and then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. “Uncle Ted” and Father Ted had been allies in the liberalizing of Catholic higher education since the 1960s.

The Notre Dame publicity machine, forged in football but skilled beyond that, will keep Father Hesburgh’s legend alive. Just two years ago, Digger Phelps, basketball coach at Notre Dame from 1971-1991, published a tribute book, Father Ted Hesburgh: He Coached Me.

There is more to the Hesburgh story than that, above all on abortion. Miscamble’s book completes the tale.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chiefof Convivium magazine.