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Father Hesburgh’s flawed legacy

Fr Theodore Hesburgh (CNS)

A picture is worth a lifetime of words. So it is with the famous photograph from 1964 taken at a civil rights rally at Soldier Field in Chicago, featuring Fr Theodore Hesburgh, the long-serving president of the University of Notre Dame, and Martin Luther King, arms locked in solidarity while singing “We Shall Overcome”.

Notre Dame loves the Soldier Field photograph, and never tires of using it in its promotion of Hesburgh. The picture brought together various elements of the phenomenon that was Fr Hesburgh: priestly service in the public square, ecumenical relationships, passionate commitment to civil rights, and proximity to the liberal establishment. After Hesburgh died in 2015, a statue of the scene was erected in South Bend, Indiana, the civic home of Notre Dame.

Father Ted – as he was universally known – was president of Notre Dame for 35 years, from 1952 to 1987, during which period he devoted a great deal of time and energy to serving on various boards and commissions. Pride of place in that service was the federal Civil Rights Commission, to which he was appointed in 1957 by Dwight Eisenhower. He served for 15 years, the last four as chairman, until he was fired by Richard Nixon in 1972.

The legacy of Father Ted is currently begin celebrated by an eponymous hagiographical documentary film, now in limited theatrical release. The great voices of American liberal Catholicism, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are in full-throated agreement on the greatness of Father Ted, especially in regard to civil rights.

That view is contested – not contradicted, but made more complicated – by a comprehensive biography by Fr Wilson Miscamble, a historian who has taught at Notre Dame since 1988. Hesburgh granted Miscamble a week’s worth of interviews in 1998 for the purposes of the biography, entitled American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh (Image, 2019). Notre Dame is not “conflicted” about that legacy, but thoughtful American Catholics should be. The biography makes a convincing case that Father Ted understood himself first, last and always as a Catholic priest of rather traditional devotion. However, when that priestly identity clashed with the American establishment, American Priest makes clear that the adjective powerfully modified the noun.

On no issue was that more evident than abortion. Father Ted was certainly pro-life, and declared himself as such. But when the American liberal establishment moved towards an extreme abortion licence, Hesburgh declined to use his immense prestige in effective protest. No Catholic cleric in the 1970s could have more powerfully made the argument that the pro-life movement was the proper successor to the civil rights movement for progressives and liberals.

There is another photo, not so eagerly promoted by Notre Dame, from 1984 that captures this aspect of the Hesburgh legacy.

That year, John O’Connor, the new archbishop of New York, had made it clear that the pro-choice position of Geraldine Ferraro, a vice-presidential candidate, was incompatible with her professed Catholic faith. But Mario Cuomo, the Catholic governor of New York, was invited to Notre Dame a few months later to declare that O’Connor was wrong. Cuomo advanced the “personally opposed” but publicly supportive line on abortion invoked by Catholic politicians from Ted Kennedy to Joe Biden.

On the dais, besides a beaming Cuomo, delighted at having secured the benediction of the nation’s most prominent Catholic university for his position, was a clearly pleased Father Ted. Later, he would write that Cuomo’s position was at odds with the philosophy of the civil rights movement, but the picture at Notre Dame – like the
one at Soldier Field – told the story far more powerfully.

Making the argument that the pro-life movement was the proper successor to the civil rights movement fell instead to another prominent priest, Richard John Neuhaus, my late friend and mentor. As a Lutheran minister in the 1960s, Neuhaus was a prominent clergyman in the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movement. There are photos too of him marching with Martin Luther King.

In the 1970s, when the anti-war and civil rights movement embraced abortion, Neuhaus protested with all his strength. He broke with the movement over abortion and, over time, the liberal radical became a political conservative. The pro-life issue was the driving force. In 1991, after converting the previous year, Neuhaus was ordained a Catholic priest by John Cardinal O’Connor.

Ten years ago, the two priests were in the news. Father Richard died in early 2009, distressed that America’s first black president – a possibility for which he worked in the 1960s – would be even more radical on abortion that the Kennedys or the Clintons.

In May 2009, President Barack Obama was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws by Notre Dame, an honour protested against by 83 American bishops. Father Ted basked in the praise of Obama on campus; no discouraging words about abortion were heard.

What if Father Ted had followed Father Richard on abortion? Actually, given their relative prominence in the 1970s, Father Ted would have been the leader. Had he chosen a different path, America’s abortion politics would today be far different: less polarised and less extreme.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of