At Notre Dame, a door closes, but many more are opening across Catholic higher ed

Father Theodore Hesburgh transformed American Catholic higher education institutions U.S. Institute of Peace/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

In November of 1989, I was in the middle of my second year of full-time teaching theology at Barry University in Miami, Florida. One stormy evening, two of my faculty colleagues and I were waiting at the airport to greet an important speaker: Father Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame.

We three had been asked to meet him because all of us had earned our doctorates at Notre Dame; I don’t think any of us had ever met him in person. Despite the vivid lightning, his flight landed safely and “Father Ted” (as he was affectionately known), unruffled by the turbulence, reassured us that he had indeed flown through much worse (and in many smaller aircraft, including the DC-3).

He had never had a fear of flying, he stated calmly; he just “put himself in the hands of God” (rumor had it that on occasion, while flying, Hesburgh used the tray table at his seat to celebrate his daily Mass). As we walked toward the car, he took me aside to make sure he had all of our names; later, I found out that he had explicitly mentioned us in his thank you note to the Barry administration. This was typical of Father Ted; throughout his life, he was known for his “graciousness” and kindness to others on a one-on-one level.

Hesburgh’s keen awareness of others marked his pastoral and professional life, and that awareness served as one element of his vision of what Catholic higher education could and should be. As a priest and an academic leader, he knew that the role of the American Catholic university had to face the future fully engaged with the strengths and weaknesses, the gifts and the needs, of the human society that surrounded it.

A Catholic university needs to serve the world

Hesburgh gave an address the next day at Barry’s School of Education, part of a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the University (he would receive an honorary degree from Barry in 1998). In it, he said “Catholic is an adjective. A Catholic university that’s worth its salt has to serve its students but also the world in which we live.”

His talk at Barry reinforced the message about the task of Catholic higher education that he had already been advocating for some twenty years.

In 1967, two years after the close of the Second Vatican Council , leaders in Catholic education, led by Hesburgh, met at the Land O’ Lakes Conference to discuss the future of Catholic higher education in America.

The statement issued from that meeting sought to clarify the role of the Catholic college/university in the US and the world. Four points in particular, in my opinion, formed the thinking of the next generation of Catholic theologians and educators to this day:

  • The Catholic university strives for excellence in every academic discipline, and must fulfill the mission of all universities in human society.

  • Theologians in every theological specialization must strive for academic excellence, and to do so, must engage with all other academic disciplines and their own surrounding societies and cultures.

  • The Catholic university is “where the Church does its thinking”; it serves as the “critical reflective intelligence for its society” and for the Church itself.

    A Catholic University needs to serve the world in which it lives. Ken Lund/Flickr, CC BY-SA

  • In order to achieve these goals, a Catholic university must have “true autonomy and academic freedom” on both secular and ecclesiastical levels.

Next generation carries Father Hesburgh’s vision forward

These principles shaped the development of Catholic colleges and universities as both “public” and “Catholic” entities for the rest of the twentieth century. Catholic institutions rose to the first ranks of American higher education in both research and social involvement, breaking the earlier second-rate backwater stereotype.

Like Saint Francis of Assisi, Father Hesburgh was a vir catholicus, a Catholic man, and a man of the Church. Yet he saw clearly that the Catholic university had to take seriously its engagement with the world, just as the Church itself did at Vatican II.

For me, the living, dynamic vision of the role of the Catholic university in conversation with contemporary intellectual life and culture is one of the most vital parts of Hesburgh’s legacy.

Clearly, this legacy includes his public visibility, especially his decades-long commitment to advancing the cause of civil rights in America.

His efforts are vividly expressed in an image of Hesburgh singing “We Shall Overcome,” hand-in-hand with Dr Martin Luther King Jr at an Indiana rally in 1964, just after the Civil Rights Bill was approved by the US Senate.

He served several US presidents, and it was common for journalists (even for advice columnists like Pauline Phillips, who penned “Dear Abby”) to consult him on questions about Catholic life and theology.

Perhaps, as the National Catholic Reporter put it, Father Hesburgh’s death “closes an era…of a public Catholic America now all but receded into history .” But his death should not be viewed as a door closing on a “room” that will never be revisited.

The successive generations of those shaped by Catholic higher education carry his vision forward.

Maybe a better image would be that of a rocket launch. The first stage has to be bigger and more powerful because the initial resistance is so great. When it is spent, the first stage drops away, its purpose fulfilled, and the second and third stages take over. They build on the massive initial impact of the first stage. And so will American Catholics.

With the passing of Father Hesburgh, one stage of public American Catholicism does recede into the past, but, led by scholars and alumni inspired by his ideals and example, other stages have already begun.