The 50th reunion of my Notre Dame graduating class brought into focus our longtime (1952-87) larger-than-life university president, the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., and regrets by myself and other Vietnam-era student dissenters that we had been so rough on him. Hesburgh had anticipated our laments, with the urbane observation: “If you give student dissenters enough time, they redeem themselves.”
A reunion book of memories featured a 1964 photo of “Fr. Ted” linking arms with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., singing a civil rights anthem. Hesburgh was named to and later became the activist chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission until newly elected President Nixon decided to rid himself of this troublesome priest and summarily fired Hesburgh.
Independence was a watchword of our university, which was wary of any intrusions by orthodox, ideologically-driven Catholic prelates. Under Hesburgh’s definition, a great Catholic university should serve not only as a beacon of faith, but a bridge to those of other beliefs and a crossroads of ideas. Notre Dame welcomed speakers of all stripes, and hired faculty made unwelcome elsewhere for their beliefs, notably Ole Miss historian (Mississippi: The Closed Society) Dr. James Silver.
The contrast of leadership models, then and now, is unsettling. Our current president, the Rev. John Jenkins, C.S.C., put in place COVID-19 restrictions on campus, then flew to the White House in October of 2020 for the unveiling of Trump’s selection of former ND law professor Amy Coney Barrett to take Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat on the Supreme Court. That ceremony turned out to be a super-spreader event. Pictured hobnobbing mask-less, Jenkins brought home the coronavirus.
It’s not all he brought home. Long kept at arm’s length, the Catholic right is using its money to establish a beachhead at Our Lady’s University in ways unthinkable during the Hesburgh years. Last fall, the university’s new Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government invited Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to deliver its inaugural Tocqueville Lecture. Thomas was a curious choice, given conflicts of interest and such opinions as Thomas’ dissent when the Supremes ruled against the death penalty for teenage defendants.
The justice decried “our race-obsessed world” and morphed into the sexual-harassment allegations that threatened his Senate confirmation. Of “the craziness during my confirmation,” said Thomas: “It was absolutely about abortion, a matter I had not thought deeply about.” Out of the audience came several shouts, “We still believe Anita Hill.”
Justice Thomas’s appearance was the first of a “Napa Institute Forum” underwritten by Napa and the Charles Koch Foundation. The institute has been described by National Catholic Reporter as “a network that brings together wealthy donors, conservative Catholic bishops, and Republican politicians.” Its high-end conferences feature critics of Pope Francis as well as such prelates as San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who has put the communion rail off limits to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The institute’s co-founder, Catholic philanthropist Timothy Busch, has decried Black Lives Matter as a “neo-Marxist movement” that is “promoting racism, critical race theory, and destroying the nuclear family.”
More than two dozen Notre Dame faculty wrote an internal letter questioning the university’s arrangement with Napa Institute. They didn’t challenge having Thomas on campus. Still, English professor John Duffy warned in a talk to the Arts & Letters College Council, that taking money from Napa and Koch could make it look like Notre Dame was “throwing in our lot with the conspiracy theorists, the race baiters, and the climate deniers.”
Notre Dame was a crossroads under Hesburgh and his successor Rev. Edward “Monk” Malloy, C.S.C. A landmark episode came in a 1984 speech, entitled “Religious Beliefs and Public Morality – A Catholic Governor’s Perspective,” in which New York Gov. Mario Cuomo spoke of his personal opposition to abortion but unwillingness to impose it as public policy. Soon thereafter, the university heard from anti-abortion Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill.
Those crossroads came with constructive bumps. Alabama Gov. George Wallace received a raucous reception on a campus visit as nuns bearing “Christ made us all one race” signs tried to take over the stage. When four-star Marine Gen. Lew Walt visited campus for the annual ROTC parade, I and a fellow activist were invited to break bread and argue with him. We had an intense, revealing, but respectful evening.
Nor did the university imposed any abortion litmus test. Hesburgh welcomed as graduation speaker a Catholic politician, Canada’s then-Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who had liberalized his country’s laws on abortion and homosexuality. President Obama received a standing ovation from graduates in 2009, despite arrests of anti-abortion protesters outside the ceremony and a boycott by South Bend-Ft. Wayne Bishop John D’Arcy.
Lately, however, the lineup of visitors has caused Politico to label Notre Dame “a conservative Catholic university.” The label particularly applies to its law school, home to former Clarence Thomas and Nino Scalia law clerks. Then-Attorney General William Barr came through in 2019 to talk on “religious liberty” under auspices of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture. O. Carter Snead, the center’s director, was a Napa Institute board member.
Weeks after Thomas’ speech, with little advance notice, Supreme Court colleague Samuel Alito spoke on “The Emergency Docket” under auspices of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies. Months later, Alito penned the opinion overturning Roe v. Wade. A Notre Dame anthropology professor, Catherine Bolton, quit as a faculty fellow at Kellogg. Noting her unease at Napa and Kellogg money, and conservative speakers, she told the National Catholic Reporter of a fear that “the loudest voices are heard even though they are not representative of the majority of the Notre Dame community.”
A university, whatever its reputation, is forever needy. Its administration must exercise great caution when it comes to ideologically driven donors or foundations, not to hand over control or excessive influence in how money is spent. Gulf Oil donated $100,000 to Notre Dame, recognizing Hesburgh for drawing the line and threatening to expel students who blocked buildings. He turned around and spent the money to establish a center for study of nonviolent resolution of conflict.
The challenge goes deeper at Notre Dame. In establishing its chops as a first-rate university, my alma mater embraced civil and human rights, social justice, and a Catholic Church that engages the world. Notre Dame worked to become a more diverse place. Should it make common endeavor with those who condemn “woke-ism,” affirm corporate power, and champion the economic stratification of a New Gilded Age? Or with those who argue that its “Catholic mission” dictates hiring and defines discourse? A warning came when the Catholic right protested when Pete Buttigieg, a former South Bend mayor, was named a visiting fellow after the end of his 2020 presidential bid.
Hesburgh was a traditionalist: He celebrated traditions of great medieval universities, which nurtured “an atmosphere of free and often turbulent clashing of conflicting ideas, where a scholar with a new idea, theological, philosophical, legal, or scientific, had to defend it in the company of peers, without interference from the pressures and power that neither create nor validate intellectual activities.”
Hesburgh described himself as a “citizen of the world.” That would scarcely be true of the current regime at my alma mater.