The Problematic Legacy of Fr. Hesburgh | Anne Hendershott | CWR
A beloved leader in Catholic higher education, he also accelerated the move toward secularization of Catholic institutions.
Standing in front of a famous 1964 photo of Father Theodore Hesburgh locking arms with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, honored Father Hesburgh at a party on Capitol Hill celebrating the retired president of the University of Notre Dame’s 96th birthday in late May. During her celebratory remarks, Pelosi praised Father Hesburgh’s courageous record on civil rights and pointed to the photo, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, taken at a rally just days after a vote on the Civil Rights Act. Pelosi was joined at the party by dozens of congressional well-wishers—as well as Vice President Joe Biden—all paying tribute to the priest that Biden described as “the most powerful unelected official this nation has ever seen.”
Biden is correct. Father Hesburgh has indeed exerted a powerful influence on our country, on our Church, and especially on our Catholic colleges and universities. He has received 150 honorary degrees, the most ever awarded to one person, and has held 16 presidential appointments involving most of the major social issues in his time—including civil rights, nuclear disarmament, population, the environment, Third World development, and amnesty and immigration reform. In July 2000, President Clinton awarded Father Hesburgh the Congressional Gold Medal—making him the first person from higher education to be so honored.
Father Hesburgh has always viewed himself as a “citizen of the world” and his secular activities reflect that. Father Hesburgh was the first priest ever elected to the Board of Directors at Harvard University and served two years as president of the Harvard Board. He also served as a director of the Chase Manhattan Bank. A longtime champion of nuclear disarmament, Father Hesburgh has served on the board of the United States Institute of Peace and helped organize a meeting of scientists and representative leaders of six faith traditions who called for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
On many occasions, Father Hesburgh found himself the first Catholic priest to serve in a given leadership position on boards of secular organizations. Much of his success can be viewed as stemming from his ability to distance himself from the authority of the Church. Such was the case during the years he served as a trustee, and later, Chairman of the Board of the Rockefeller Foundation, a frequent funder of causes counter to Church teachings—including population control.
Some of Father Hesburgh’s activities are curiously missing from the Notre Dame website’s formal biography of their beloved president emeritus.