University of Notre Dame

The Story of Notre Dame
My Fifty Years at Notre Dame / by Leo R. Ward, C.S.C.

CHAPTER XIII: Father Hesburgh and a Catholic University

Few people if any ever made my pallid "Blueprint" a Bible. Several professors at De Paul University in Chicago paid tribute to it by discussing it in half a dozen sessions, and in 1954 Theodore M. Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame, told a group of the Arts and Letters faculty that his initial sermon for the school year to the entire faculty was planned to go down the center of "Blueprint."

That no doubt could well be the expectancy since there was no other work available on the problem of a "Catholic university in idea." The most impressive part of his summary was contained in a few lines written by our Professor John T. Frederick to say what Frederick understood Jacques Maritain to have said in Education at the Crossroads -- that "education is the process by which human beings grow as persons and by which we become richer and stronger, broader in appreciation and sympathy." In that way, so Frederick and Hesburgh concluded with Maritain, we may hope to gain some measure of wisdom, a vision of truth, some understanding of God's will.

Throughout all his busyness these many years and in all his cosmic travels, his encounters with students, faculty, alumni and a wide and ecumenical academic public, Father Hesburgh has, so it has seemed to me, held to his early statement. He could not keep repeating it day by day in theory and as a profession of faith. He has had to say it in action and in the given circumstances (and how faithfully he has been to it would require study). But I am sure that besides faith in the meaning of any university as a seeker and dispenser of knowledge and wisdom, his work as surely as those words in his sermon shows a deep, abiding faith in a wisdom that is higher than science and philosophy can, unaided, reach. He lives and acts by a vision of "one river of truth, but many streams falling into it." This, said Clement of Alexandria (150?-2150?), is perennially the vision of the Christian scholar, man's mind, with its multiple ways of reaching truth, fulfilled by a river of truth proceeding directly from God.

I am sure such a view, difficult as it is to carry into action, is not merely possessed by Theodore Hesburgh, but possesses him. He need not carry it on his cuff. But he could. For he could readily adopt for himself and Notre Dame students and faculty the words spoken by Gregory of Neocaesarea regarding Origen's school: "We went into and examined with entire freedom all sorts of ideas, in order to enjoy to the full these goods of the mind."

I am not writing a life of Father Hesburgh or a history of Notre Dame, but in telling my own story I may be permitted to say how I have seen and reacted to at least a few of Father Hesburgh's ventures in his capacity as President. To do that, although I am a semi-insider, I shall now proceed much in the manner of an outsider and consider him as a phenomenon. The central question is why his notable success.

I did not choose him, was not consulted, did not predict his success; at most, I was a wait-and-see voter. I have asked several lay professors and several priest professors why did Hesburgh go over: (a) with students and on the whole with the faculty, (b) generally with alumni and Notre Dame friends, (c) with a wider and national academic fraternity, and (d) with the public?

The reply most commonly given by local priests and men and women professors is in terms of the man. "I think it is constitutional." "His character, the kind of person he is, the man himself." "I think it is personal, a touch of charism." "Confidence without cockiness -- insist on both." "He is interested in people, all kinds of people; is open to their views and their needs."

At the outset, there could well be and there was hesitation and doubt in many minds because of his youth. But his youth proved to be an asset. He was young and fortunately was the rare type that remains young. This quality -- youthfulness, hope, faith in young people and in the future -- is deep in him. Things need to be done, and can be done; difficult things such as boosting the level and the spirit of the faculty, academic freedom for faculty and students, public relations, alumni good will, teaching and learning that are (to use big words) integrated, pluralist and ecumenical. One river of truth from many streams.

The main thing to be done was to create and keep creating a university and a Catholic university. I could dimly see from the outset that Father Hesburgh, too, from the outset saw this as his work. Because he was young and daring, he was not frightened by a work so prodigious. He could go at it in faith for yet another reason; as Father John J. Cavanaugh, his immediate predecessor, said, Father Hesburgh has always taken the presidency or any other assignment as a great good work and has never needed to go looking for an "apostolate." Whatever he is doing is a work on which to lavish himself. Phenomenal memory, a tremendous worker, tremendous energy, seemingly never tiring.

The youth qualities including faith and hope and the sense of an almost assured future for the work in hand -- let us illustrate. A well-known instance was his stand for minorities and civil rights, notably the rights of blacks, a stand as he at first thought with President Nixon and then, as events proved, necessarily against Nixon: a work to attempt as youthful people would attempt to do it and in Hesburgh's person to attempt with a terrible persistence. The same sort of persistence, on the phone for several hours one night, brought George Shuster to the University as Assistant to the President, an event which I then said was a scoop, and it was really greater than I guessed.

Daring of another kind was evident in his saying "Nay" to a request made in 1952 in the name of Christian charity by Cardinal Spellman, then a sort of czar in American Catholic life. This man phoned to a youthful Notre Dame president scarcely inducted into office, and said Notre Dame could advisedly play a post-season game on the West Coast for charity. It took courage and almost bravado to refuse.

In 1969, with the student world already on fire over the Vietnam fiasco, it was learned that Cambodia had been secretly invaded by American power. Students all over America stepped up their revolt, Notre Dame students no exception. Father Hesburgh also was deeply disturbed over the very safety of Notre Dame property, of course, but most of all because of students' hopes and fears and their rights. At the peak of the explosive situation, student feeling being stepped up, their revolt reaching an all-time high, and the lid likely to blow off -- and incidentally, the notorious Vice President Spiro Agnew then castigating college people, Father Hesburgh had the courage and good sense to take a simple although decisive step. He met in Sacred Heart Church and at the altar with hundreds of suffering students, suffering, cursing, desperate, half-believing, half-hoping students, to worship God with them, to suffer and half-hope with them.

There was no easy way. But his faith was strong not only in God, but in the students, the put-upon young people. Their suffering and searching were not for an Athenian unGod, but for some meaning and "sense" in young people's immediate situation. Throughout the student rebellions of the late 1960's, it was my self-assigned, situationÄassigned task to share the local events and, even more, the world events by reading every good thing published on student struggles. I had hated a lot of wars, Vietnam and Cambodia climaxing them. The best brief statement toward understanding students' revolts was a page in Joseph Califanos The Student Revolution (1970): students were revolting not against faith but for faith, for purposes and goals worth believing in and dying for.

In their immediate stance, students locally and worldwide needed a leader, a grandfather figure, to bring their emotions to some kind of sense-making focus; as Anatole Broyard said later in the New York Times, they needed "a repository for feelings these young people couldn't structure." This they needed at many American universities, Columbia, Chicago, Harvard as well as at Notre Dame; and the usually wise Margaret Mead spoke naively when at the outbreak at Columbia she said the answer was student participation in running universities.

Worshipping together and as if co-consecrating, Father Hesburgh's and the students' action did more, in this greybeard's opinion, toward making sense out of their wild emotions than did any other ongoing event.

As a youthful and continually youthful person, Father Hesburgh has also been capable of youth's mistakes. It is easy to cite instances. In the autumn of 1952, his first round with the faculty was unfortunate; he scolded those faculty people who in a public statement in the New York Times supported Adlai Stevenson; it took him some time to learn that men's opinions are their own. He has always been fond of name-throwing, making us commoners aware of what remote places he visits and the great people whom he knows on familiar terms. The late G.K. Chalmers, president of Kenyon College, remarked that it is unfair to bring boys and girls out of believing Jewish and Christian homes and expose them summarily to courses in advanced scepticism. The same must be said of exposure to shock sex treatment. The "presence" value of priests living in student halls is thereby considerably reduced. Opening Notre Dame to women students was, of course, a different matter, and most of us were happy to see this done. The campus had far too long been male chauvinist, and it will take time and attention to get over the condition. I may mention that, long before we had women professors, I was happy to be chaplain for the Ladies of Notre Dame, a busy and creative organization of professors' wives.

The man, Hesburgh, I say with others, is the main reason for his phenomenal success, for his bringing Notre Dame at least relatively up to the level of a university, not a minor achievement when we consider that there had for over fifty years been a struggle at Notre Dame between priest leaders who believed in intellectual life and priest leaders who didn't, and when we consider that the historical custom of churchÄrelated schools and colleges in America had been to aim to be primarily piety centers and savers of various faiths. Nevertheless, the man Hesburgh is not, though the public may think he is, the whole story. Other factors have counted.

The first is a positive one, the great running start given any Notre Dame president by the phenomenon "Notre Dame." It is assumed by most American Catholics and a few other people that Notre Dame University is great, that it has real merit as a university and that it is above all a great spiritual center. Its president is seen as a kind of auxiliary pope, automatically big and authoritative. From the outset a man in that position has a strong base and of course not only in people's minds and in "the Notre Dame profile," but in the fact that for well over a century, the University has done good work for persons and society. When Father Hesburgh and the students declared their faith in the face of the Cambodian affair, they stood on a much greater ground than Hesburgh and a few hundred students -- they stood on the spiritual tradition of Notre Dame and its thousands of alumni and their families and also within the spiritual walls and meaning of the Catholic Church.

Likewise, Father Hesburgh was the beneficiary of a financially viable institution, and of a strong and progressively strong faculty. I could name a score of professors in philosophy, political studies, history, literature, mathematics, and chemistry in whom and around whom a "university" and a "Catholic university" were not only possible, but were at all times being built. Others will not be offended if I illustrate from the work of the late Professor Frank O'Malley, who along with his many students, was for forty years building a Catholic university. Leaders of this quality continue to appear at Notre Dame and elsewhere, and around these, clusters of scholars and students will always form, each cluster a sort of "mini Christian university"; at the height of the student revolt in France in 1968 Maritain revised part of his chief work on education to say that such clusters "of deeply Christian inspiration" were his hope for French university life; these groups would be Christian universities within more or less secular universities.

Any Notre Dame president would profit by the immense blessings of these deeply Christian clusters. Father Hesburgh, himself gifted, courageous and personable, has also profited by at least two negative circumstances. One of these was the paucity of understanding and competent leaders in American Catholic universities. Any strong, freedom-loving head of a Catholic university in America will naturally look big and be acclaimed.

Father Hesburgh's second negative advantage must have surprised him as indeed it has surprised and delighted Notre Dame people and a considerable public. Long before Hesburgh appeared, the American university public had been suffering for, and deep in its heart wanted, a spiritxal spokesman. There was a gap, a vacuum to be filled. The smaller academic centers, many of them church-founded and retaining central spiritual convictions, could and consistently did, and now do, speak to their people, on and off campus, from the level of spiritual and Christian meanings. The big and famous universities can scarcely do this. Not that all their presidents and great professors are sceptics, secularists, disbelievers, but that religion, if considered at all, is thought to be private, a matter simply of faith or no faith, and as having no place or say in university policies or teachings. An individual professor has to be an acknowledged scholar, and if, on top of that, he is a strong and leading character, he may have a religious influence in and beyond any overt official statement of his university; this was the case with Professor William Hocking of Harvard and Professor Wilbur Urban of Dartmouth and Yale. The president may also be a religious man, but in addressing the faculty and benefactors and in shaping policy, American university presidents are now advisedly mum on the religious factor.

This used not to be the case. In 1851, Henry Tappan, then president of Michigan University and up to now one of our top-ranking educational leaders, said that Milton had "nobly" declared: "The end of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents, by regaining to know God aright." Some presidents of universities may today believe with Milton and Tappan. But they would rarely feel free to say so, whatever their desires.

That is where, it seems to me, Theodore M. Hesburgh has had an opportunity which accounts in part for his splendid reception with high academic people. He fills a gap that many wanted filled. He is free and welcome to speak in terms of faith and not only in terms of reason and science, thus suggesting to open minds that his academic world is larger and fuller than the national average; two or three rivers of truth are one river for him, and not only for him, but for his friends and associates.

He is merely, and yet very well, saying what many of the more tongue-tied academic fraternity really believe. The result is that, almost as if by chance, he became a national figure and something considerably more than a president of a university. He proceeds with lightning speed, but with decor, for he is a charming person -- "personable," a friend keeps repeating, and he has had the good sense to feel assured that the proper home of Notre Dame or any church-related university is with all universities, all speaking one language and fundamentally doing one work. This has not historically been the conviction or the followed-up practice of administrators in American Catholic universities; on the contrary, they -- including some Notre Dame presidents I have known -- have remained aloof and skittish when faced with educational leaders and scholarly men. As I emphasized on other occasions, they have felt more at home with journalists, athletes and bishops. Thus, it was as if daring, not to say rash, for Theodore N. Hesburgh to go hobnobbing with great academic people "of this world," and it surely must have at first surprised them; the story of their earliest reactions would be interesting.

Always a university president is surrounded by fires. Students are hot after him for privileges; post-Vietnam, Notre Dame and other university students ceased making new demands because they were fed up with privileges and could not imagine any more demands to make. A president often has to kowtow to alumni and benefactors, each of these powerful bodies ready to prove that in fact the university is politically and economically determined. A Catholic university is, in addition to sores sustained from these sources of criticism, likely to be told off by bishops and priests who in some cases know little about academic problems, including academic freedom, and yet feel called upon to police campus thought and action. In fact, the International Federation of Catholic Universities, a formidable and heterogeneous body a few years old, has made one thing clear; sponsored and led particularly by Father Hesburgh, this august body soon showed in its discussions that few of the many Catholic universities, in Africa and the Orient as well as in the West, had much sense of academic freedom and/or of what a university is and does. American Catholic universities were among the most "university aware" in this spectrum. Few indeed out of the grand total of over seventy had ever, to use a phrase from Newman, considered the "university in idea."

I tried in "Blueprint" to consider the "Catholic university in idea," and whether "my idea" is valid or not, a university president, above all in activist and pragmatic America, must be up and doing things; he cannot sit all day contemplating an idea and essence; idea or essence gets knocked around a good deal in practice. A Catholic university president has to move on, with perhaps only a sketchy notion of what he hopes his university will be able to say over-all in God's and man's world. Speaking in our day to the beauty and glamor and terror, as well as the truth of these, may require some notable variations on old and respected tunes.

For one thing, any university must always be pluralist and ecumenical, and now more than at any earlier day. It must be open to all knowledge of all sorts and from all sources. If on principle it closes its doors to Catholic or Protestant or Moslem theology, it is, so far, inadequate and is lapsing from the "university in idea." For a putatively secular university at last to establish a "chair of Roman Catholic thought" is to declare its own present as well as its past narrowness. Father Hesburgh's attempt to set up a religion and theology department on the basis of world religions and all the great theologies, and in close relation to studies in philosophy and anthropology, although a bold, difficult and costly step, is a move in the direction demanded of universities in these times and sure to be demanded by future times. It is a step toward that adequacy of knowledge which is to be expected of universities. "Adequacy of knowledge" is the best brief phrase to say what is the aim and ideal of Catholic universities, and happily Father Hesburgh also has used this phrase. Adequacy, of course, is an ideal and a hope.

On the idea of adequacy and the fact of pluralism as well as the need of ecumenism -- religious, theological, philosophical, and political -- students need to have access to all the truth established or establishable now or in the future. To mature, they need to have access to all truth, to be comparing, sifting, criticizing with the help of professors whose preparation and resources are beyond those of students.

I keep repeating that this free and open view of a Catholic university, the view taken by Father Hesburgh, is necessary to the life of any university. Of course, for university students to have freedom to invite popularizers and fourthÄrate minds to harangue and indoctrinate them -- this sort of freedom is worth little to minds and souls committed to growth. On the other hand, students should have uninhibited exposure to ideas, so that they can see all sides of questions -Ä Questiones Disputatae. Priests and even some bishops have had the custom of closing questions with a word or a tidy syllogism, and students in many of the world's some eighty Catholic universities will yet a while have to suffer from dogmatic and authoritarian personalities.

A few students, notably from among those with a deeply committed political or a deeply committed religious background, want a university to repeat their catechism. Fortunately, during my long and happy life on the campus, and most of all in Father Hesburgh's years, Notre Dame has progressively had more and more professors who automatically believe in the freedom to learn.

Here are some paragraphs written by Father Hesburgh:

"There are relatively few people in the university world today who have both the desire and the competence to think seriously, plan, discuss, articulate and engage in this highly complicated work of educating for a new future in a new kind of world. Fewer still have the kind of vision that results from imaginative, creative intelligence and deep moral commitment. It is only this kind of person that can make our future dreams come true.

"We are open to all the great questions of our times. We are confident enough, of ourselves and our students, to look at a wide variety of possible answers and to be assured that new light will be brought to bear upon these problems as we discuss them in a Christian context. We have no problem with other universities choosing to do their discussing in what might well be a more restrictive context, more secular, less religious, more purely or exclusively scientific and technological. So be it. But we need not be defensive in placing the same discussion in a different context, more universal (which is the meaning of Catholic), more Christian, more moral, more spiritual, but no less open and intellectual. We do what we do freely, and in the conviction that the times, and especially the future, will need such an approach.

"It is my deep conviction that because of the relative scarcity of persons such an approach requires, if it is not to be mediocre or banal or naive, we will probably have to develop more such persons ourselves, in conjunction with other great universities similarly concerned, committed and engaged."

Copyright ©2000 by the Indiana Province of the Priests of Holy Cross. All rights reserved.

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