American Priest

The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame's Father Ted Hesburgh

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Wilson D. Miscamble
  • New York, NY: 
    Penguin Press
    , March
     464 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


When reflecting upon the passing of Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C, Anthony DePalma of The New York Times wrote in the February 27, 2015 edition that “[a]s an adviser to presidents, special envoy to popes, theologian, author, educator and activist, Father Hesburgh was for decades considered the most influential priest in America.” While Hesburgh’s achievements deserve considerable praise, one can begin to lose sight of his human qualities amidst such descriptions bordering on the mythological. 

Some may view what Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C. offers in American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh as sacrilege. In contrast, Miscamble’s work reminds us that Hesburgh was human yet managed to achieve what would rightfully exhaust most mortals. Once removed from the realm of the mythological, Hesburgh’s achievements appear magnanimous and worthy of further historical attention.

Like Hesburgh, Miscamble is a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross and serves at the University of Notre Dame. An historian, Miscamble’s expertise is in American foreign policy, particularly that of the Cold War. Such a background makes him an apt person to wrestle with Hesburgh’s legacy as it relates to Notre Dame, and his commitment to public service. 

In addition to an exhaustive review of both primary and secondary sources, Miscamble’s portrait of Hesburgh draws upon a battery of interviews he conducted with Hesburgh at Notre Dame’s retreat and research center at Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin in June 1998. Originally, Miscamble planned to write a “massive ʻlife and timesʼ biography” (xviii) for which such interviews would prove beneficial. However, as time passed, Miscamble “began to conceive of a more accessible biographical portrait” (xviii) which came to fruition in American Priest.

The biographical portrait is chronological in nature but divided into roughly two halves—Hesburgh’s service to Notre Dame, and then to the wider public. Chapter 1 begins with Hesburgh’s birth in Syracuse, New York in 1917, and concludes just shy of his appointment as president of Notre Dame in 1952. Part 1, “Leading Notre Dame,” then includes four chapters covering Hesburgh’s presidency, ending with his retirement in 1987. 

Part 2, “Serving Popes and Presidents,” also consists of four chapters, beginning with Hesburgh’s appointment to the National Science Board in 1954, but continuing later into his life, as Hesburgh’s efforts as a public servant went well into the 2000s. Drawing from the title Hesburgh selected for his autobiography—God, Country, Notre Dame, (University of Notre Dame Press, 2000)—Miscamble’s conclusion includes his attempt to come to terms with Hesburgh’s legacy. 

As previously noted, Miscamble’s work is less prone to portraying Hesburgh as a mythological figure than other attempts. Hesburgh’s autobiography, while an honest appraisal of his life’s efforts, leaves readers with the impression that most, if not all, of those efforts came with little strain. The most comprehensive record of Hesburgh’s life, Michael O’Brien’s Hesburgh: A Biography (Catholic University of America, 1998), is an impressive catalog of details but also leaves readers with little understanding of the struggles Hesburgh endured or the theological convictions that compelled him to persist during those difficult times.

In contrast, the Hesburgh we encounter in Miscamble’s work is someone whose achievements are heroic and therefore, arguably more impressive. In essence, they were achieved by someone who did so despite both failings and frailties. For example, neither Hesburgh nor O’Brien provides readers with the sense of the strain that the student unrest of the 1960s and early 1970s left on Notre Dame’s president. However, Miscamble’s portrait of Hesburgh not only includes details concerning Hesburgh’s efforts to hold the line with students on one side and President Nixon on the other, but also the physical and emotional strain exacted by such efforts.

As seen, Hesburgh’s impressive record of achievement is not above criticism and Miscamble issues at least two. First, in relation to Hesburgh’s leadership of Notre Dame, Miscamble raises questions as to whether Hesburgh’s pursuit of the university’s status as a premier research university came at the expense of a coherent theological framework. Prior to such efforts, Neo-Thomism provided Catholic universities with such a framework. Miscamble then argues that Hesburgh “failed to keep the challenge of combining natural and eternal truths clearly before him, and without making a major and formal decision he began to allow what might be called the pursuit of excellence approach to supplant the pursuit of the truth” (97). 

Second, Miscamble contends that Hesburgh remained largely silent in relation to the issue of abortion. Hesburgh’s opposition to abortion was clear, stemming back to when he delivered the Terry Lectures at Yale University in the early 1970s. However, Miscamble contends that Hesburgh remained “largely silent” in relation to his views of abortion, especially when working with Democratic politicians such as Jimmy Carter and groups such as the Rockefeller Foundation (353) and for the sake of maintaining amicable relations.

Miscamble’s criticisms may challenge mythological perceptions of Hesburgh. However, allowing those mythological perceptions to linger would preclude Hesburgh’s leadership of Notre Dame, and his efforts as a public servant from receiving their full due. The truth of the matter is a human being with failings and frailties served as Notre Dame’s president for 35 years while also serving popes and presidents in countless ways. Such efforts are common for mythological figures. However, they are rare for humans and thus, Miscamble’s impressive study now offers fertile ground for a “massive ʻlife and timesʼ biography” of Hesburgh. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Todd C. Ream is Professor of Higher Education at Taylor University and Senior Fellow with the Lumen Research Institute.

Date of Review: 
March 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C., joined the Permanent Faculty in the History Department at Notre Dame in 1988. He Chaired the History Department from 1993 to 1998.


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