Father Hesburgh Deserves Our Prayers … Not Praise
Tributes poured in after the death of Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C, who led Notre Dame University as its president for 35 years before retiring in 1986.
President Barack Obama, who received an honorary degree from Notre Dame despite his adamant stand in favor of abortion, praised Father Hesburgh in a statement at his death, part of which reads:
His belief that what unites us is greater than what divides us made him a champion of academic freedom and open debate.
There is much to admire in Father Hesburgh’s legacy, which includes 150 honorary degrees and 16 presidential appointments. He stood with Martin Luther King Jr. to secure equal rights for all Americans, advised the United States Commission on Civil Rights, and influenced immigration reform. Due in part to his efforts, the Nixon Administration stopped using federal troops to quell college campus protests in the 1960s.
Yet much of Father Hesburgh’s career, namely his consistently progressive stand on ecclesial and political matters, remains controversial. Though he served in various roles under both Democrat and Republican presidents, Father Hesburgh was a staunch Democrat who consistently supported a long line of liberal political leaders, including Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and Governor Mario Cuomo of New York. In fact, he chaired the fund that helped President Bill Clinton pay for legal defense fees associated with the Whitewater land deal investigation in the mid-1990s.
Father Hesburgh’s style of broadly permissive leadership as president of Notre Dame spoke volumes. Most notably, he supported Notre Dame faculty members who dissented from Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae, which repeated the constant Church teaching opposing contraception, sterilization and abortion.
Charles E. Rice was a Professor of Law at Notre Dame, a father of ten children and a tireless advocate on behalf of the unborn. In God’s Providence Professor Rice died on February 25, 2015, the day before Fr. Hesburgh passed. In his book What Happened to Notre Dame? Professor Rice recounts the sad story of Notre Dame’s gradual descent into moral relativism, which led to Notre Dame granting an honorary degree to President Obama whom many have aptly named the “Abortion President.”
The single greatest cause of the decline of Notre Dame as a truly Catholic university was the Land O’Lakes Statement of 1967, widely believed to have been formulated primarily by Father Hesburgh himself. The statement was, in effect, a declaration of independence of American Catholic colleges from the Catholic hierarchy. When Father Hesburgh instituted a lay board of directors to oversee the university, it left little or no shepherding authority for faithful bishop to keep the university from straying from its Catholic tradition — except to insist that institutions no longer identify themselves as Catholic institutions. This is true today as the vast majority of Catholic institutions of higher learning are a mere shadow of their former glory.
For Father Hesburgh, academic excellence and fidelity to the Catholic faith were independent, if not mutually exclusive. Even his 1994 book, “The Challenge and Promise of a Catholic University,” restates the conviction that truly great Catholic colleges and universities must distance themselves from the teachings of the Catholic Church. In associations in various capacities with the Rockefeller Foundation, Chase Manhattan Bank, Harvard fUniversity, World Policy Institute, and the now defunct Planetary Citizens, Father Hesburgh considered himself a “citizen of the world” in his speech at Harvard University in 1970, entitled “A New Vision For Spaceship Earth.”
As a delegate to the International Congress of Catholic Universities held at the Vatican in 1972, Fr. Hesburgh threatened to walk out with the whole American delegation if Rome dared to impose norms for the conduct of American colleges.
Father Hesburgh personally opposed abortion. He said that “it is difficult to explain how a moral America, so brilliantly successful in confronting racial injustice in the sixties, has the most permissive abortion laws of any Western country.” But his opposition to abortion didn’t stop him from working with the Rockefeller Foundation and Planned Parenthood to promote population control.
Planned Parenthood’s policy on abortion changed dramatically in the mid-1960’s. As strange as this may sound today, there was a time when Planned Parenthood publicly opposed abortion. A Planned Parenthood pamphlet,”Plan Your Children,” in 1963 reads:
An abortion kills the life of a baby after it has begun. It is dangerous to your life and health. It may make you sterile, so that when you want a child you cannot have it . . . Birth control merely postpones the beginning of life.
Because overpopulation was a top concern of Father Hesburgh, he hosted annual meetings at Notre Dame, sponsored by Notre Dame endowment contributors — the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. Representatives from Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Population Council, and liberal clergy attended with the goal to “create an oppositional voice within the Catholic Church on family planning.” Father Hesburgh and John D. Rockefeller also unsuccessfully lobbied Pope Paul VI to change the Church’s teaching against contraception.
Another controversial move by Father Hesburgh and Notre Dame University came about in 1969 when they were listed in a New York Times advertisement saluting the work of Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), an organization that promoted a view of human sexuality totally at odds with Catholic teaching. Concerned parents who protested that graphic materials were being forced on their children were dismissed by this prominent Catholic clergyman and prestigious Catholic university.
His staunch support of the Democratic Party led Father Hesburgh to excuse the pro-abortion stance of many politicians he supported, including then-Governor Mario Cuomo of New York, who once defended himself, when his own pro-abortion credentials were threatened by fellow pro-abortion Democrats, with the claim that no one had done more than him to expand Medicaid funding of abortion in New York.
When Cuomo was invited to give a speech in 1984 at Notre Dame by Father Hesburgh and Father Richard McBrien, the dissenting theologian he hired to lead the university’s theology department, Cuomo clarified his position on abortion in Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective with the argument that Catholic politicians can claim to be “personally opposed” to abortion but are unwilling to “impose their values” on others. Father Hesburgh hailed Cuomo’s speech as “a brilliant talk on religion and politics,” although he did encourage Catholics to support a more restrictive law.
According to Monsignor George Kelly, the late Founder and President of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, a prominent Notre Dame official shared his concern with Father Hesburgh that the Vatican’s attempt to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae might bring pressure by the American bishops to influence the university. The then-retired Father Hesburgh by saying “What is the worst thing that can happen to us? John Paul II will tell the world that Notre Dame is not a Catholic university. Who will believe him?’”
A decade later, the faculty senate of Notre Dame voted unanimously to ignore the requirements of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. While there still remains a few good, faithful Catholic professors and a vibrant Catholic subculture, much of the faculty remains resistant to the idea of oversight from bishops or the intrusion of orthodoxy. Notre Dame continues to play the game begun by Father Hesburgh, keeping the Catholic trappings, as well as a few good Catholic professors, but continuing to court the approval of the world.
From a worldly perspective, Father Hesburgh’s actions to distance Notre Dame from Catholic orthodoxy have paid off handsomely. Notre Dame’s endowment grew from $9 million under the helm of Father in 1952 to $350 million after his retirement in 1986. It could be said that Father Hesburgh was truly loved by the world.
Father Hesburgh’s legacy is particularly problematic and complex for Catholics. In contrast to Professor Charles E. Rice’s tenure at the university, he generously wrote that despite his “explicit and strong disagreements with Father Hesburgh…I very highly respect [him]. In the four decades I have been at Notre Dame, I have seen numerous examples of his integrity and kindness…please do not interpret criticisms of…actions or policies as personal disparagements of him.”
Professor Rice’s benevolent commentary provides for us an example of Jesus’ teaching against judging and condemning others. At the same time, we must admonish and condemn the actions of those, like Father Hesburgh, who lead others into sin.
The Catechism of Catholic Church defines scandal as an attitude or behavior, which leads another to do evil. (CCC #2284) Paragraph #2286 reads:
Scandal can be provoked by laws or institutions, by fashion or opinion.
Therefore, they are guilty of scandal who establish laws or social structures leading to the decline of morals and the corruption of religious practice, or to “social conditions that, intentionally or not, make Christian conduct and obedience to the Commandments difficult and practically impossible.”88 This is also true of business leaders who make rules encouraging fraud, teachers who provoke their children to anger,89 or manipulators of public opinion who turn it away from moral values.
In retrospect, how many souls were led astray through a faulty education after the Land O’Lakes statement, or by the cover he gave to pro-abortion politicians? How many lives were lost that could have otherwise been saved because of his tacit support for the Culture of Death?
For this reason, though we pray for the salvation of Father Hesburgh’s soul, we cannot join the chorus of universal praise for his behavior.
With the recent passing of Father Hesburgh, Professor Charles E. Rice, Governor Mario Cuomo, and Father Richard McBrien, we have a chance to reflect on the fact that all four men have heard their sentences pronounced before God’s throne of judgment.
It is possible for a person with a poorly formed conscience to be impervious to the truth due to invincible ignorance, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches in paragraphs 1792-1793:
1792 Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.
1793 If – on the contrary – the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him. It remains no less an evil, a privation, a disorder. One must therefore work to correct the errors of moral conscience.
Therefore, it is possible that invincible ignorance prevented Father Hesburgh, Governor Cuomo, and Father McBrien from fully seeing the damage by actions that undermine morality on the sanctity of life, family, and faith. Only God knows for sure and can judge them with both mercy and justice.
In any event, we should pray for the souls of all of these men, and we should desire that their souls be purified of sin and one day share in the eternal happiness of Heaven.
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Fr. West earned an MA in theology from Holy Apostles Seminary and was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Newark in 1991. He is the founder and director of the Catholic young adult group Amicus. After almost seven years in pastoral ministry, he served with Priests for Life from 1998 until becoming HLI's Vice President for Missions from 2011 to 2015.
In over 25 years of pro-life activism, Fr. West has spoken to both priests and laity at over 500 events, including presentations in all 50 states and in several nations worldwide. He has also appeared on radio and TV, including “EWTN Live with Fr. Mitch Pacwa,” and has published articles in ZENIT, The American Thinker, LifeSiteNews.com, and LifeNews.com.