Fr. Theodore Hesburgh’s status as an icon of Catholic education is set. The longtime president of the University of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987 is one of the most well-known figures in Catholic education, having appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.
But Anne Hendershott, a professor of sociology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, calls into question the legacy of Fr. Hesburgh, because of his role in the secularization of Catholic colleges over the latter half of the twentieth century.
In a piece for Catholic World Report, she points to a number of problematic issues such as his 1984 invitation to then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who used the Notre Dame lecture to promulgate his “personally opposed” stance on abortion which has become a standard trope of pro-abortion rights politicians; Father’s work as chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation, which has funded population control efforts; as well as his leadership of the 1967 Land O’ Lakes conference, at which several Catholic college leaders (including the future Cardinal Theodore McCarrick) declared independence from the Church.
In Father Hesburgh’s opinion, the early European universities in the Middle Ages were great because they encouraged a culture of freedom and independence from the state as well as from the authority of the Catholic Church. Claiming that unlike American Catholic universities, these early colleges provided “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 powers that neither create nor validate intellectual activities.”
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