For the greater part of the past century, Father Theodore M. Hesburgh was known for his work on many of the biggest issues of the day: equal rights, the ethical application of scientific advances, justice and academic freedom. He was a household name in the U.S., at least in Catholic households, as his expertise was sought by a wide variety of authorities, from Ann Landers to nearly every president of his time, beginning with Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Although he stepped down as president of the University of Notre Dame more than 20 years ago, Father Hesburgh, president emeritus, still drops in on classes. He did 30 such “one-night stands, or one-afternoon stands,” as he jokingly calls them, over the past academic year.
The students surprised him, he says. “When I bring up problems like human rights or the question of minorities in America,” he explains, “for these young people it’s a nonproblem.”
He doesn’t know if they’re right, he adds, “but they’re in the right corner.”
He says he makes just one demand of them all: “That they are people of their age, that they are involved and connected with the problems of our times, that they don’t get up a cocoon and enjoy their own good life, but think what about the good life for all Americans and, beyond that, the good life for all human beings. To be fully involved in human development in our times.”
Father Hesburgh has a resume of involvement that would be hard for any of those students to repeat in today’s culture of specialization and competition.
Now 91 years old, Father Hesburgh is in his 65th year as a priest. He was president of Notre Dame for 35 years, from 1952 to 1987, radically transforming the university from an all-male student body to one that is today half female. His first presidential appointment was to the National Science Board in 1954, and his 16th was to the Commission on Presidential Scholars in 2001. In between, he was a founding member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, from 1957 until he clashed with President Nixon in 1972, and a member of President Ford’s Clemency Board, which decided the fate of thousands of Vietnam War-era soldiers. And he led President Jimmy Carter’s Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy.
His autobiography, “God, Country, Notre Dame,” details these and many more of his public and private-sector appointments. He served four popes, including as Vatican representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, from 1956 to 1970. He also writes of his more leisurely adventures: including celebrating Mass in the Antarctic, in a temperature of minus 34 degrees, and breaking the sound barrier, twice, as a passenger on the SR-71.
He was the first priest to serve in many of his posts, including director of Chase Manhattan bank and trustee, then chairman, of the Rockefeller Foundation. He has received the Medal of Freedom and was the first person in higher education to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. He also holds the record for the most honorary degrees: 150 to date.
Today, Father Hesburgh is retired from all boards. He spoke in a recent interview in his office on the 13th floor of at the university’s library, which bears his name and is adorned outside with a statue of him. His responses have been edited.
WSJ: In your day, the Church produced figures such as Bishop Sheen and Father Drinan and Pope John XXIII. Who are the Catholic leaders today of their caliber? Are there any?
Father Hesburgh: That’s a fair question. I’m not in a position to come up with an answer, but I have my ideas about it. I think somehow, either in the educational system for clergy or in the kind of people we attract to the clergy, we are going to have to take a very close look at that, because whatever we’re doing, let’s say it’s not working. The number of Catholic clergymen is going down, and the same is probably true of many other churches. It’s one of the key problems that exists in our country, and we ought to find a way of getting at that problem.
The Catholic Church, like any other human organization, depends on leadership, and leadership depends on performance. If you look for leaders in a given group and you don’t find them, something is wrong. When you had leaders, such as you just mentioned, a few decades ago, I have to say the Church seemed more vital to most people, even to people outside the church.
Is the lack of leadership why the Church ended up in the priests’ scandal?
Father Hesburgh: Everything is part of an organic whole, and the scandal is one aspect. I wouldn’t want to be personally buffaloed about whether there was a scandal, because there is no question there was. The answer is to find a different caliber of training and of selection and of inspiration of young men going into priesthood. And I think, more and more, women have to be involved in this, and I suspect that in the long run, married people are going to be a lot more involved in this whole problem than we have today.
It has to evolve over time. I have no problem with females or married people as priests, but I realize that the majority of the leadership in the Church would. But what’s important is that people get the sacraments. You have to remember, there were married priests, even married popes, in the first 1,000 years of the church.
Why were you, a priest, selected for all those appointments in the 1950s and 1960s?
I have no idea.It happened that in 1954 I got a call from President Eisenhower at the White House asking if I would go on the commission being set up. He said they were going to set up a special board and would I be on it. The board would run the fledgling National Science Foundation. I said, “I’ve been interested in science all my life, although I have a doctorate in theology.”
I come from a philosophical and theological, intellectual background. The fellow who was calling, the president’s assistant, said, “Well, President Eisenhower would like to have a philosophical and theological presence on the National Science Board.”
I said, “Well, in that case, I’d be very happy to try, and I’ll probably learn a great deal,” which is what happened.
You wrote that you and the popes you represented at the IAEA had deep appreciation of the sciences. Now, a movement, supported by some Catholics, is fighting the teaching of evolution.
I have no problem at all with evolution. The Bible gives a familiar account of creation, which is not a historical account about six days, but a way of ordering the story, which fits perfectly with the scientific belief in evolution. It didn’t take place in six days, but took place over millions and millions of years.
I think God can create in any way he wants. If he wants to create through an evolutionary process, it wouldn’t happen without him, because he has to put beings there in the first place. But it could be a very simple kind of life, and it could evolve, as I think it did, through various, different, more-complicated organisms until eventually you get to a point where there is a human being. That requires at least one act of God, to create an immortal soul. Evolution can’t create a spiritual and immortal moral soul. So God had to do that. He did it at the appropriate time. And man continued to evolve until we got to where we are today.
I’m not afraid of science, because the more I learn from science, the more I learn about God and His creation.
You started your work at Notre Dame just as the campus was being integrated. Do you remember the first African-American student?
Very well. After I got ordained at Notre Dame in 1943, they sent me right back to Catholic University to get a doctorate in theology. … When I came back in 1945 to teach, there was only one black on campus. We had thousands of Navy ensigns educated and sworn in here during the war. We had 3,000 to 5,000 midshipmen here, and I found out only one was a black man. They made a mistake. They thought he was white when they invited him to the program, and when they swore him in, they found out he was black —which didn’t take a genius; he looked black to me. He was getting commissioned. … We said when the war is over, come back and finish here, and he did. He was from Philadelphia.
Yes, Frazier Thompson. He became the first black graduate from Notre Dame. That was a breakthrough where I was involved in getting the first black man back here to graduate.
Today, I think we spend more effort getting black kids here than we do white kids. We have more Latin Americans than there are proportionately in the population, but that’s easier, because most of them are Catholic, whereas a rather small percentage of blacks are Catholics. And African-Americans also tend to be city kids. They probably think we’re kind of countrified here in South Bend. There are a number of things, but we work on it very hard. And we’re not going to stop our efforts until we have the same proportion of blacks at Notre Dame as we have in the population of the United States. We’re closing in on it, but we’re still below it.
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University of Notre Dame
This photo, by an unknown photographer, shows Rev. Theodore Hesburgh and Martin Luther King Jr. during a 1964 civil rights rally in Chicago. It was added to the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in a tribute to Father Hesburgh in October 2007.
Is there a problem today you’d love to get your hands on?
I think we ought to solve the problem of immigration. It’s one of the key problems today. I think I had the answer because, remember, I was chairman of the Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy. I had two wonderful guys on the commission: Sen. Teddy Kennedy and Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming. We became very good friends, and they were with me, and we had the solution.
I proposed a simple process: We say to everyone illegal here in America, if you’ve been here five years or more and you’ve had no problem with the law, you’re working steady on a job, and you don’t get any benefits because you have a false Social Security number and you’ll never get the benefits you’re contributing to, all you have to do is show up to the local authorities wherever you live and say, “I would like to be an American citizen.” Then we will immediately put you on the track for citizenship. You’ll have to take the courses required, and you’ll have pass the exams.
I would say that if you put that program in, you can even cut back on the number coming in for a while until you get that problem solved. Once that problem is solved, I think I’d be a little more liberal on the number coming in. But you solve that problem first.
What would you tell the next president to do?
I think we ought to take a good look, a deep look, at all of our elementary and secondary education procedures, and figure out a way that all can agree on to make sure that once youngsters enter the system, no matter how poor or what nationality or what color — it’s irrelevant because they’re American citizens — that they ought to be put on a track to give them at least a good high-school degree. Also, to get an increasing number of them going on to college and getting a good college degree. That would make our nation stronger and better. If we keep not doing something about the education of our children, we’re putting failure at the heart of America, rather than success.
You’ve known a lot of leaders. What qualities do the best ones possess?
First they have to have intelligence, because leadership has to do with ideas, to be able to see the problems and see solutions to problems, and to see new opportunities to create a better nation, better schools, better business, better everything. Better civic life. Then, the kind of dedication to not just live your own narrow little life with its narrow interests, but to be willing to contribute something to the commonweal.
The Catholic Church was always a church of immigrants. Now it is being Latinized. Has that changed it?
It’s bound to change. If you look at the Catholic Church in America, it was very Irish in the beginning, and that didn’t make the Germans and the Italians and the French happy that the Irish seemed to have most of the leadership positions.
I think it’s a great strength. The Latinos who come to America mostly become very good citizens. They have to be recognized for their leadership, and they have to be given positions where they can have a greater effect.
You retired in 1987 after 35 years as president. By then, this campus and the church had changed. Did you begin to feel you were too liberal for the parents or students or church hierarchy?
No. I have to say I never had a serious problem with parents or with alumni or with my fellow priests here at Notre Dame, or with all our lay professors, who are increasing in number. I never had a problem that we should not become more liberal, if you will, more concerned with things like human development and human rights, more open to problems of racial justice and religious justice, more concerned about every person’s problems — including Protestants, Jews, of course, not just our own. I must say, I never felt any internal pressure to do any differently than I did.
And I found that as we developed as a university, we developed in our consciousness. A university is by its very name concerned with everything there is, and with the reasons that are involved in everything there is. And philosophy and theology, which are neglected in many parts of the world today, are still very important because they talk about problems, not just up-close problems, not what you had for breakfast, but how your whole physical social and spiritual life is getting along.
You seem to like best the classes that gave you the most trouble, like the student radicals.
Well, you learn. You don’t learn from people who tell you you’re a wonderful guy. You learn from people who say you know you have a long way to go, say, on the place of women in the world. It’s true. I think we have a long way to go on the place of women in the world, and we have to keep working on it.
One thing I’m very proud of is the fact that from one of the biggest male conclaves in the world, I was able to create a university that today is 50% women as far as its student body goes, and getting very close to that as far as our faculty and administrative group goes. So, that’s a good thing. That was a very positive forward move.
What is your daily routine?
My life has been greatly restricted by the fact that, like many Americans, I have macular degeneration. I’m blind in one eye and only half-seeing in the other. I spend an awful lot of time listening to books, so that keeps your intelligence sharp.
I had a friend named Father Charlie Sheedy, and he used to say life is mainly showing up. So I figure as long as I show up every day and the door is open and people pop in, I have the feeling that at least I’m still alive, and I still have something to do and I enjoy doing it.
People are tough on people, but I love people, and the great, great, great majority of people are very good. We have our share of sinners, even in all the great religions of the world, but I think the fact that people keep trying is the most important thing of all, and I’d like to be one of those who keep trying.
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