The first five recipients were named in April, and several have already begun work. Today's blog post features a conversation with one of them, Edward Hahnenberg of John Carroll University. Hahnenberg, a systematic theologian, knew Fr. Hesburgh personally and became interested in his life and thought while a student at Notre Dame.]
Cushwa: What's your project about? What intrigues you about Hesburgh?
I'm working on a project about Hesburgh the theologian. In 1945 Fr. Ted submitted his doctoral dissertation at the Catholic University of America—a theological treatment of the role of the laity in the church. He then started teaching theology at Notre Dame, became department chair, and was quickly swept up into administration, assuming the presidency in 1952. I’m interested in how Fr. Ted’s early theological commitments influenced his leadership in Catholic higher education. In particular, I’m looking at the period between 1945 and 1967—a year the saw both the famous Land O’Lakes statement on academic freedom and the transfer of governance of Notre Dame to a predominately lay board.
2) What's made the research different from your normal work?
Fr. Ted wasn't a professional theologian in the sense of spending his career writing articles and presenting academic papers, so there's not the kind of paper trail I’m used to as a theologian. Instead I’ve had to get at the operative theology behind his speeches, correspondence, and activities. This is my first time doing archival research of this kind, not being a historian. Fortunately Notre Dame’s archives are very well organized and the staff is incredibly helpful. I’ve come across some very early notes for talks he gave to married students in “Vetville,” conference lectures for clergy, and a loose translation he produced in 1942 of a French text on the church as the “Mystical Body.”
3) What kinds of evidence are you looking for -- and finding? Another way to ask this is, what arguments do you see emerging from your research?
One question I have is: How does Hesburgh fit into the growing literature on the Catholic laity mid-century? In 1945 he’s way ahead of the curve in terms of the American theological conversation. Fr. Ted used to joke that the Second Vatican Council—which dedicated significant attention to the laity—stole all his ideas! In fact, he was very much a student of those authors and ideas that would shape the council. It was his time in Rome, where he started graduate work before World War II sent him home, that exposed Fr. Ted to the theological ferment bubbling up around Catholic Action, the worker priest movement, and the nouvelle theologie.
So, for starters, Fr. Ted provides an interesting case study in the way in which Catholic theologians negotiated intellectual and institutional change prior to Vatican II. The original title of his dissertation was “The Relation of the Sacramental Characters of Baptism and Confirmation to the Lay Apostolate.” That in itself speaks volumes. In their search for theological justification for promoting lay activity and engagement, Catholic authors at the time did not cite the Bible (as Luther did). Instead they cited Thomas Aquinas! For Aquinas, the sacramental “character” (the sort of “permanent feature” of baptism, confirmation, and holy orders) allows the believer to participate in the priesthood of Christ. If that’s the case, Fr. Ted argued, then lay people, as baptized and confirmed Christians, are truly priests and thus have their own active role to play in the church.
A second question is: How does all of this impact the way in which Fr. Ted moves forward on autonomy of Catholic Universities. Here the Land O’Lakes statement and the transfer of governance to a lay board—both of which he spear-headed—feature prominently. This is a question of both substance and rhetoric. Take for example the lay board. Clearly this was not a theologically or ideologically driven decision. A number of factors came together. In the lead-up, it's never Fr. Ted saying, "Well, according to my dissertation. . . ." It's practical. The university is getting too large and too complex for a purely clerical board. As president, Fr. Ted had positive experiences working with a lay advisory group. He's frustrated at the inefficiency of having to go to the provincial to ask permission for everything. He’s seen different models at other great universities. Still, on the list there's always the idea of greater collaboration with the laity. It’s almost as though Vatican II provides a kind of confirmation of the direction he wants to take the university. His theology gives him even more confidence in encouraging lay engagement. He's got Thomas Aquinas and Vatican II both on his side, so why not?
4) What are some interesting documents you've found so far?
His early, pre-president talks and essays are very interesting. So are some of his talks where, pretty soon after he gets his degree, he’s quite critical of the whole discipline. He complains about a theology that's stuck commenting on ancient controversies. Yes, theology has to be about tradition, but it also has to be about modern times.
But the best are the marginal notes! In his papers from a 1968 General Congregation—where his religious order (like many others) is rethinking their whole life in response to the renewal of Vatican II—we see pretty clearly that Fr. Ted is bored. As the meetings drag on, you find little handwritten notes, usually limerics. "Weasel words/ are like turds..." and it goes on from there.
5) What's an open question for you right now?
I'd like to get a better sense of how he saw the role of the theology department in a Catholic university at different points in his career. He’s very clear that theology must have a place. In fact, at times he seems to place the entire Catholic identity of the university on the shoulders of the theology and philosophy departments. Which of course is not a great long-term strategy. Early on, he simply assumes a theology department is made up entirely of priests . . . because they were. That changes over the course of his tenure as more and more lay theologians—including, importantly, women—fill departments. And the ground shifts dramatically after 1968. I’m wondering if there are any lessons to be learned today in light of the way in which Fr. Ted dealt with these changes.