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  • American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh by Wilson D. Miscamble
  • James L. Heft SM
American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh. By Wilson D. Miscamble, CSC. New York: Image Books, 2019. 464 pp. $28.00.

The dramatic changes in Catholic higher education in the United States since the early 1960s generate fascinating case studies for researchers interested in understanding how Catholic tradition has been understood, changed, and debated within a particular institutional setting—the Catholic university. Except for Norman Francis, the president from 1967 to 2014 of Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically black and Catholic university, no Catholic university president had to navigate these turbulent waters of change for as long as Father Theodore M. Hesburgh did, the president of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana from 1952 to 1987. Father Wilson D. Miscamble, a historian and also, like Hesburgh, a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, assumed the formidable task of chronicling and evaluating Hesburgh’s leadership during those thirty-five years and beyond, until Hesburgh died on February 26, 2015, at the age of 96.

Miscamble divides his book into two parts, one ad intra and the other ad extra: the first part focusing on the impact of Hesburgh’s leadership at Notre Dame, and the second on Hesburgh’s relationship with U.S. presidents and popes. As a historian of American foreign policy since World War II and of the role of American Catholics in twentieth-century public life, Miscamble is especially well-positioned to explore Hesburgh’s interactions with U.S. presidents. For those of us who have lived through these decades, this section of Miscamble’s book evokes vivid memories; for those who are younger, they will be highly informative. Miscamble is most at home writing about corridors of political power in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century.

Miscamble recognizes that Hesburgh was a dynamic and influential leader, committed to raising the academic quality of Notre Dame and to serving the country he loved. Yet, he describes Hesburgh’s legacy as [End Page 85] conflicted. Joining the liberal forces in the church when he dissented publicly over Humanae Vitae published in 1968, Hesburgh argued for greater reform in the church. His service on presidential task forces to end poverty and racism, and to promote nuclear disarmament and scientific research, further cemented his reputation as a liberal. Miscamble believes that Hesburgh became so enmeshed in the liberal elite establishment that he was unable to interpret the “signs of the times” correctly. Miscamble concludes:

[Hesburgh] never sufficiently grasped, as did Pope John Paul II, how the individualism, utilitarianism, and secularism of later modernity represented such a threat to his religion. Nor did he grasp how some of the very liberal elites who lionized him bore a deep-seated hostility to the faithful living out of religious principles”


For Miscamble, the 1967 Land O’Lakes Statement was a “declaration of independence” of the Catholic university away from “formal ecclesiastical control” (92). Miscamble never explains what “formal ecclesiastical control” should look like. He believes that its authors, Hesburgh leading them, defended an ill-conceived demand for academic freedom which functioned “without any restraints” (102).

Institutional autonomy and academic freedom, however, are complex issues that require more careful analysis than Miscamble gives them. Miscamble never acknowledges that three years after Hesburgh stepped down as Notre Dame’s president, Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, actually affirmed as essential for a Catholic university both institutional autonomy and academic freedom (with appropriate qualifications). Except for the expectation that theologians request a mandatum from the local bishop to indicate that they are authentic Catholic theologians, Ex Corde did not in fact require any formal ecclesiastical control.

Miscamble’s critique of Hesburgh gets personal. He thinks Hesburgh craved the approval of “liberal elites,” both in the secular academy and in government. Beyond just listing Hesburgh’s numerous prestigious awards from prestigious universities and his service to many presidents of the United States, Miscamble judges that Hesburgh “relished...


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