Creating a Catholic university for the 21st century World

“[T]he Catholic university must be a crossroads where all the intellectual and moral currents of our times meet and are thoughtfully considered….In the modern Catholic university all sincere and thoughtful persons should be welcomed, listened to, and respected...” —Father Hesburgh, in The Challenge and Promise of a Catholic University

Throughout his 35 years as President, Father Hesburgh sought to create at Notre Dame an institution of higher learning that was a fully modern university and truly Catholic. In his books, talks and various papers he articulated his vision of a place exploring — with the freedom of intellectual inquiry and lively exchange of ideas — all the pressing questions of the day as well as an educational enterprise with a faith tradition and steeped in the moral, ethical and spiritual considerations that widen and deepen the context for that conversation.

Given Notre Dame’s vital Catholic character and its tradition of excellent undergraduate education, one of Father Hesburgh’s chief challenges was improving Notre Dame’s level of scholarship and strengthening graduate studies and research programs. During his tenure Notre Dame made great strides in academic advancement, joining the front rank of America’s colleges and universities.

From 1963 to 1970, Father Hesburgh, as president of the International Federation of Catholic Universities, led a movement to redefine the nature and mission of the contemporary Catholic university. That initiative incorporated the thinking of Vatican II, especially its emphasis on the role of the laity in the modern Catholic Church.

Beginning in 1965, a series of conferences on Catholic higher education was convened at Notre Dame’s Land O’Lakes property on the Michigan-Wisconsin border. Those meetings culminated in the signing of the Land O'Lakes Statement in 1967 which articulated the nature of the modern Catholic university and its relationship with the institutional church.

In a related development in 1967, the University transferred its governance, which had been in the hands of the Congregation of Holy Cross since Notre Dame’s founding in 1842, to a two-tiered, mixed board of lay and religious trustees and fellows.

In January of that year the superior general of the Congregation, who had participated in the conferences and supported the plan, gave his final approval, and Father Hesburgh submitted to the Vatican the request to transfer University property and governance to a board of lay people. The pope’s written permission was granted two days later.

The lay board of trustees’ first chairman was Notre Dame alumnus and lawyer Edmund Stephan who directed the development of a new administrative structure as well as the duties of a board of trustees and a group of University Fellows. The Fellows, comprised of six lay persons and six Holy Cross priests, have ultimate authority for University affairs and ensuring the perpetuation of Notre Dame’s Catholic character.

Since that major transferral of governance and authority Notre Dame — guided by the vision of Father Hesburgh — has been animated by that creative tension between its intellectual and academic ambitions and its aspirations to become the world’s foremost Catholic university, staying true to its robust Catholic heritage and nature. 

For more information on Father Hesburgh's role in shaping the Catholic university, please see the following sources:

Hesburgh, Theodore Martin, and Jerry Reedy. "Leading." God, Country, Notre Dame. New York: Doubleday, 1990. Print. Hesburgh, Theodore Martin, and Jerry Reedy. "The Catholic Laity." God, Country, Notre Dame. New York: Doubleday, 1990. Print. O'Brien, Michael. "Growth and Change, 1959–1967." Hesburgh: a Biography. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1998. Print.

Selected Photos