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Premature Canonization

The documentary Hesburgh is educational and instructive; it is also a one-sided work of sophisticated hagiography.

An image from the new documentary "Hesburgh," about Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh, the priest who led the University of Notre Dame for 35 years. (CNS photo/courtesy OCP Media)

MPAA Rating: NR at the time of this review
USCCB Rating: A-II
Reel Rating: 2 out of 5 reels

Although I am a lifelong Catholic, my only connections whatsoever to the University of Notre Dame are a rejected college application (my only such rejection) and seeing Rudy many years ago. Thus, I knew almost nothing about its illustrious former president Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, which allowed me to approach this documentary on his life with a blank slate. During my two hours with the OCP-produced film, I learned a great deal about this giant of the past century, who was a short of real-life Forrest Gump who seemed to be a key figure in many of the key cultural moments of the last seventy years of American history.

The film especially relishes in Hesburgh’s many accolades and accomplishments in politics and society at large; this was a man who by the end of his life held the Guinness Book record for most honorary degrees, including both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. He clearly possessed enormous talent and wielded wide influence, and yet I could not help thinking of a warning uttered by Peter Kreeft in a speech on public life when he mentioned “those academics who care more for the plaudits of their peers than the praise of their God.” It’s not so much what was said about the man, but what was absent, and I hope a man of Hesburgh’s stature would be willing to accept a review not only of his great deeds but his great failures as well.

Hesburgh begins with an examination of its subject’s childhood. Born in 1917, Hesburgh grew up during a period of American history when Catholic priests were well respected within mainstream society. He made a firm decision to enter the Holy Cross Society at age 18 and became President of Notre Dame in 1952 while still only in his 30s. His single largest asset was his close friend and confidant Fr. Edmund P. Joyce, who ran the day-to-day affairs of the University, leaving Hesburgh to pursue other interests.

Starting in 1955, the always ambitious Hesburgh was appointed to several advisory positions in the Eisenhower administration, but the documentary focuses on his work with the Civil Rights Commission. In that capacity, he protected civil liberties for minority groups under four presidents and played a key role in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He continued to serve as an advisor in other organizations, including the National Science Board and Rockefeller Foundation. He also cultivated friendships with cultural figures such as Ann Landers, who often sought his wisdom when readers had spiritual questions.

In 1967, Hesburgh became one of the chief architects of the infamous and influential Land O’Lakes statement, which asserted that “the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.” This event is ground zero for the gradual decline of orthodox practice on Catholic campuses. It is here where the documentary begins to show its true colors as Hesburgh is universally praised for his role in that statement. Defenders of the statement claim that just as Jesus ate and talked with tax collectors, Roman occupiers, and prostitutes, so too universities should be open to multiple points of view. Conveniently overlooked is the distinction that Jesus met with these people to proclaim the gospel and to call them to conversion, not to relish in their differing lifestyles and assorted viewpoints. One talking head in the documentary bemoans that “sadly, some [universities] today don’t follow [this model].” I was reminded of a nameless administrator at a former Catholic school who once told me she wouldn’t consider applications from Steubenville alums because they were “too extreme.”

Throughout the documentary, the filmmakers insist that one of Hesburgh’s greatest strengths was his ability to reach both sides of the political divide. Yet the crack that first appeared at Land O’Lakes only continued to widen, like a sort of Pandora’s box. Hesburgh’s opinions on the Vietnam War focused solely on its destruction and the toll on young Americans; there is no criticism of the Communists or their virile persecution of the Church, even when a close friend of Hesburgh is taken prisoner. Hesburgh then had a fall from grace with President Nixon, leading to his resignation from the Civil Rights Commission; decades later, he enthusiastically rejoices at Obama’s election, even supporting the honorary degree given to Obama by Notre Dame against the directives of the bishop of the diocese. What is even more conspicuous is the talking heads that are absent. Nothing from Paul Ryan, John Boehner, or Newt Gingrich, but Nancy Polesi shows up to pay tribute. There no journalists from National Catholic Register, but the National Catholic Reporter makes several appearances.

The most troubling absence, however, is that of Hesburgh himself. A former student shares a joke that made the rounds during his presidency: “What’s the difference between God and Father Hesburgh? God is everywhere, and Hesburgh is everywhere except Notre Dame.”

Hesburgh justifies these constant extracurricular activities as necessary to bringing visibility to his beloved university. But visibility to whom? And for what ultimate purpose? He may have put Notre Dame on the map—but if that is the map of this age, is that real progress? There’s little doubt that Hesburgh was a talented leader and mentor. When he was present, his door was always open and more than one alum recounts how much he loved talking with students long into the night. Yet children need both quality time and quantity time, and I was left wondering if Notre Dame’s success was due more to Fr. Joyce rather than its President.

For all of his flaws and problematic choices, Hesburgh frequently demonstrated heroic virtue and bravery. He marched at Martin Luther King’s side when many told him to steer clear of the civil rights movement. He insisted that people of faith engage directly and passionately in politics and society. When challenged by secular journalists, he defended the necessity of celibacy, Marian devotion, and the priesthood. Most importantly, he never lost sight of his priestly vocation: the only day he did not celebrate Mass was the day he died.

In the end, the life of Fr. Theodore Hesburgh was the life of many Catholics of his generation. A life lived with moments of courage and holiness, but also a life caught up in and deeply marked by the spirit of the age. Hesburgh provides much important information about its subject, and does so in a compelling and sophisticated manner. But it was also so incredibly one-sided that it becomes monotonous and predictable, an exercise in premature canonization. My hope is that Hesburgh will continue to be a source of inspiration in the future but with a more measured and clear-eyed examination of his faults rather. If I’ve learned anything about the man affectionately know as “Fr. Ted,” that’s what he would want.   

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About Nick Olszyk 209 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online and listen to his podcast at "Catholic Cinema Crusade".


  1. Hesburgh, life-long enemy of John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger and other confessing Catholic leaders, is the “founding father” of the MCCARRICK ESTABLISHMENT.

    He gained the whole world, and helped create a counterfeit-Catholic identity, now marketed by 90% of formerly-Catholic universities in the US.

    A hero to men like McCarrick and Wuerl and Cupich…a failed Catholic to men following Jesus.

    Hesburgh’s legacy to Jesus was truly stated by the faithful Professor Rice of ND, who reluctantly told the Newman Society: “Unless your child has very strong Catholic faith, do not send him to ND, because he will sink like a stone.”

    • If there had been a minimum of discipline and order in the Church in the 60s and 70s he and others such as Fuchs, Haring and Curran would have been fired and immense damage to the Church and the faithful would have been avoided. What would St. Pius X have done with the likes of them?

  2. Is it just a rumor that Pope Francis will visit Fr. Ted’s gravesite this Fall in conjunction with attending his first Notre Dame football game?

  3. This brings to mind my time in monastic formation years back. Father Hesburgh’s memoirs were chosen to be read in the refectory during the midday meal. No “rad/trad” community, even we were repelled by the display of hubris on every page. It was, unfortunately, the only time I saw the Abbot [known in the order as a “left-wing” brat] face near rebellion.
    That reality on his plate our “left-wing brat” canned Hesburgh and we took up a profitable book with something to say about reality over and above the author’s “self-esteem.”
    Notre Dame and the Land O’Lakes crew could have, should have, seen through him decades before. He sits preeminent in the pantheon of sixties katholic demented with the best of them. Scandalous, to say the least. Are we not supposed to be about the promotion of virtue over and above self? The saints of late twentieth century Catholicism are yet to be acknowledged, and in all likelihood will not be for quite some time. Ecclesial hubris runs deep and presently it is in full flower holding pride of place while pretending turning sow’s ears into silk purses with the turn of a phrase.

  4. Hesburgh is one of the men, along with Charles Curran and Cardinals McCarrick, Dearden and Bernardin, responsible for almost wrecking the Catholic Church in the United States with heterodoxy and pursuit of worldliness (power, money and influence) at a cost of the Church’s mission of salvation. He is no hero or role model.

  5. FYI – I went to Notre Dame in the 60s but did not graduate.

    George Weigel once referred to ND as “the flagship of American Catholic universities.” That may have been true once but it is no longer true, and has not been for a long time.

    In the late 90s the play ‘Vagina Monologues’ was very popular among all the right people, and the fact that it was an annual fixture at Notre Dame during the winter semester – after football season – was considered a considerable feather in their cap. This particular year opening night – at Washington Hall on Campus – was scheduled for Ash Wednesday, arguably the most solemn day of the Christian year. A few of us went to Mass at the Basilica that morning and tried to put out small fliers in the pews decrying this blasphemy, but we were told – quietly and gently but firmly – that we could not do this. After Mass we went and spoke to a few Priests about it and they agreed with us but said that they were powerless to do anything about it. I came away from each of these conversations with the distinct impression that they had been told NOT to comment about it.

    We then went to the campus radio – WNDU – and asked to go on the air to express our unhappiness but were refused
    and – IMO – the students at the station didn’t seem to believe that it was anything worth getting excited about.

    Notre Dame does a lot of things extremely well, but humble is not one of them, and for a university that likes to call itself ‘Catholic’, that’s not good.

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