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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