No one could have been better suited than Fr. Theodore Hesburgh to be the drum major to lead Catholic America into the top ranks of society. His career spanned the period after World War II to a period of unprecedented prosperity when Catholics were emerging from relatively immigrant struggle to the front ranks of leadership and economic gain.
He had a natural command and a sensitivity to the issues that mattered to an increasingly independent majority of Catholics who were distressed by the church's sexual morality and its climate of restraint. Catholics wanted their kids to make it in America as never before and Hesburgh became the symbol of that potential. He upgraded Notre Dame and made it the launching pad for corporate and professional achievement. He responded to the growing aspirations for full participation in America by personifying it and creating a university that promoted itself, sometimes coyly, as the laboratory for blending material and spiritual elements into a new kind of Catholicism
Consciously or not, Notre Dame became an alternative to the Vatican's prescription for Catholicism. Hesburgh's shrewdness allowed him to walk that fine line of challenging barriers that traditional Catholicism posed to climbing the economic and social ladders while avoiding any conflict over the Vatican's hot-button sexual and women-related issues. He was perhaps more responsible than anyone else for creating the conditions for immense Catholic affluence.
He was in the Rushmore mold of ruggedly handsome men of the post-World War period when men ruled everything and made their bones in feats of public assertiveness and deft gesture. It was the age of three-piece-name captains of industry and politics who belonged more or less to a privileged, closed society. Hesburgh wasn't an elitist by nature, and was an outsider, but fit. In a culture that was just opening itself to further pluralism, he was the right "Catholic" candidate to gain entrance. He was a Catholic priest, to be sure, but looked every inch a pillar of the establishment who spoke with sophistication and authority and seemed "modern" enough in the limited ways in which it was conceived by insiders. It is no discredit to say he loved rubbing elbows with the ruling class even as it welcomed him as the token exception. He was an inveterate name-dropper but in his defense he actually knew the people behind the names. Again, the matter of coincidence arises: could a lesser self have pulled it off?
But access to the inner sanctums of big money and big politics served not to insulate him but emboldened his involvement in those wider causes that were becoming nearer and dearer to middle class Catholics. Achievement and dignity. Long past the time when the Notre Dame logo of a leprechaun with its fists poised might have been considered too crude or embarrassing, the university clung to it dearly as the symbol of an underdog status that was quickly fading into the past. Hesburgh knew both church and civic politics. Civil rights was not only a conviction; it was recognition that Catholics emerging from their own discrimination would sympathize and join the cause, as they did. No group contributed more to that cause than Catholics. It is worth noting, however, that the same enthusiasm didn't extend to women's rights or to the welfare of others who protested within the church.
He would doubtless have been distinguished whatever he'd chosen to do and regardless of the period in which he'd lived, but his talents certainly lent themselves to his own time when the country was on the rise. He manifested its pride and moral certainty when those factors melded supremely into the image America had of itself.
Hesburgh was that special key to the lock of his age. His alertness to the wider world and where Catholics existed within that world helped re-define class, status and politics, sometimes startlingly. At the start of his Notre Dame presidency, the Catholic vote was solidly Democratic. It became increasingly Republican as Catholics got richer, through no direct influence or favor of his own.
The GI Bill, a flourishing economy and the enlivening spirit of Vatican II provided strong momentum for developments that would have taken place to some degree without Hesburgh. But he was the right man at the right time to add a grand and enduring character to it.