God, Country, Notre Dame

My rocky relationship with the Catholic Church started when I was a kid and had to attend catechism classes on Tuesday nights, which caused me to miss Happy Days. The sex abuse scandal really had me questioning things and now I find myself a askew with the prioritization on matters of sex and relationships (same-sex marriage, contraception, abortion).

Things were most amicable in college, probably because of Fr. Hesburgh. People who dislike or disrespect him are probably either hard line, far right Catholics, or anti-religious as a matter of course. Rick Santorum displays a general disgust with the job Catholic universities have been doing and probably blames Fr. Hesburgh for pushing an agenda that contributed to an overall cultural corrosion. This would be bad, when you consider all the good Fr. Hesburgh accomplished in his life.

Gail gave me this book back in 1990. In fact, she got it autographed (pictured). I’ve been hauling it around between apartments and houses for 22 years now without cracking it open, but was prompted to read it when a high school buddy asked me a few weeks ago, “Why did Catholics vote for Obama?”

If you believe the stats, most polls peg the percent of Catholics who voted for Obama in 2008 at around 54%. My buddy’s theory, I think, was that it should have been much lower.

There’s a continuum of Catholic values that you can slap on the political spectrum. On the left you have things like helping the poor, expanding human rights, and world peace. On the right you have things like protecting the unborn, outlawing same-sex marriage, and controlling embryonic stem cell research. In general, it appears that Catholics weight the things on the left a little more than the things on the right, barely.

Enough of the politics for now, let’s get to Fr. Ted.

Early on you start getting a sense for his feelings on charity, race relations, and world peace, his big three hot buttons. Here’s a telling comment:

Father Bill, who was in his late forties at the time, told me something that has stayed with me, and I pass it on now. He never worried about being conned, he told me. If a panhandler asked for a dollar or something to eat, he always gave it to him because it was better to give the buck or the sandwich to someone who didn’t need it than withhold something from someone who did. (pg 41)

This folksy charm belies a high-achiever; a person who spoke five languages and eventually gathered 150 honorary degrees; a person who had the ear of presidents, world leaders, and corporate moguls and who used these connections to advance his view of Catholic values.

Here’s him talking to JFK:

On occasion I took him to task for what I considered at the time his reluctance to commit the federal government to an all-out fight against racial discrimination, particularly in the Deep South. I thought he was too cautious in leading the country on civil rights because of the perceived political liabilities inherent in such a battle. (pg 104)

Here’s him relating conversations with Ike:

… On another occasion, I heard him say, “Every dollar spent for armaments comes out of the hide of some hungry child or some underdeveloped nation.” I used to quote that line in my own speeches and most people thought that statement came from a pope or a peace activist, but I had it straight from Dwight D. Eisenhower. (pg 105)

Fr. Hesburgh practiced what he preached on these things. He was on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from it’s inception in 1957 through 1972. Those were important years for civil rights. In fact, to hear Fr. Hesburgh tell it, one of the most important Civil Rights documents was inked on Notre Dame soil. In 1959, the final report for the commission’s first two years was due and the team was overworked and frustrated with the American judiciary system. They ended up working on the report (and fishing, and drinking) at Notre Dame’s northern Wisconsin summer camp. Here are the results:

When we met with President Eisenhower in September, he said he could not understand how a commission with three Democrats who were all southerners, and two Republicans and an independent who were all Northerners, could possibly vote six-to-zero on eleven recommendations and five-to-one on the other. I told Ike that he had not appointed just Republicans and Democrats or Northerners and Southerners, he had appointed six fishermen.

Fr. Hesburgh was also the Vatican’s delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1956 through 1970. Wow, consider all the things that happened during these years and how influential a Catholic priest was. It’s kind of startling when you think about it.

He made Notre Dame co-educational in 1972. Shortly after that, Roe vs Wade passed, disallowing restrictions on abortion. This goes without mention in the book really, except for a short discussion he had about abortion with Jimmy Carter in 1976.

I think his agenda would falter today, it was a different time. I’m not saying it would be unpopular, but I think there would be more of a push from the right on religious values, which didn’t seem to have much momentum in his day.

The sex abuse scandal diminished the standing of almost all Catholic leaders. In retrospect, all of the good Fr. Hesburgh did had the backdrop of a rampantly corrupt church hierarchy that didn’t do enough to stop priests from abusing young people. A church hierarchy, by the way, that he was constantly at odds with. What if he’d been born 25 years later and these issues of world peace and racism had not tugged at him? Would he have focused his efforts on stopping the abuse? Or would it have not mattered?

I don’t know.

He retired when I was a sophomore in 1987. He is Notre Dame, the primary architect of the university we have today. Here’s an official summary of his life by the university.

He’s 94 years old now and understandably not involved in the day-to-day at the university. I think he would have been out in front of the President Obama graduation speech. I bet it would have gone off without all of the hullabaloo. At times the university and its community, especially the athletic department, seem to forget about the values he instilled. Fr. Ted had to rein in one of our most famous coaches, Frank Leahy (87–11–9, five national championships), because “he was running what amounted to an autonomous fiefdom.” I wonder what he would say about our sports program today.