A Tale of Two Witnesses at Notre Dame

Who shaped Notre Dame?

The Church lost two prominent figures at the University of Notre Dame late last month. The first was Charles Rice, 83, a beloved husband and father of 10, author, and a long-time law school professor who was loved and revered by his students, colleagues and ardent Catholics, though not as well-known beyond those groups. I was blessed to know him for more than 25 years, and even if our contact was not frequent, I kept in touch otherwise by reading his writings and keeping up with his comments in the Catholic media.

The other was Father Theodore Hesburgh, 97, who served as Notre Dame’s president from 1952 to 1987 and was known the world over, traveling in the circles of Popes and presidents and receiving 150 honorary degrees, which earned him further recognition from the Guinness Book of World Records.

Given his many activities and journeys, I remember the common joke among the ND faithful while Father Hesburgh was still president, and which has been recalled upon his death: “What’s the difference between God and Father Hesburgh? God is everywhere. Father Hesburgh is everywhere but Notre Dame.”

As a teacher and family man, Rice traveled less and typically could be found at Notre Dame and his home.  Although he was a Marine and a professor, if you got to know him it was “Charlie,” not “sir,” or “Professor” or “Dr. Rice.” And while he was tough and candid, particularly in defending the Church and her teachings, Rice was a humble, patient and charitable man. And he personified serenity. You knew this man walked with God. I witnessed all of that when I first spoke to him in an interview on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion-on-demand.

It was January 1989, and there was anticipation that the high court would restrict abortion somewhat that year. I was a young journalist at The Catholic Observer, which served the Diocese of Springfield, Mass., and which has since been succeeded by an online publication.

Rice was an authority on natural and constitutional law and an outspoken Catholic defender of the unborn, so he understood that even if Roe were overturned and abortion issues returned to each state, more fundamental cultural reformation had to take place.

“When you practice contraception, you set yourself up as the arbiter of when life begins ... or when it ends,” Rice said. At the time, the RU-486 abortion pill had just been unveiled.

“That’s the abortion of the future,” Rice presciently observed of such non-surgical, early-abortion methods, which also include the abortifacient pill that debuted in the 1950s and more recently the Plan B pill, the protests of those who say pregnancy only begins upon embryonic implantation notwithstanding.

“Unless you establish very clearly the sanctity of life by establishing the personhood of all human beings (from conception onward),” Rice said, you’re never going to restrict that kind of thing.”

For his part, Father Hesburgh all too often had a different take on faith and morals. He either didn’t get or simply ignored the connection between contraception and abortion, not to mention contraception’s havoc on marriage in general. As E. Michael Jones first reported in the mid-1990s in Fidelity magazine and John Cardinal Krol and the Cultural Revolution, and then later by others,

Father Hesburgh quietly organized pro-contraception population conferences at Notre Dame beginning in the early 1960s and also arranged a meeting in 1965 between John D. Rockefeller III and Pope Paul VI, in the hope of modifying the Church’s teaching in the encyclical that would become known as Humanae Vitae three years later.

Father Hesburgh negatively affected the Church in other ways, including engineering the infamous 1967 Land O’ Lakes conference, in which many prominent academic leaders of higher education declared autonomy from “authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical,” which meant rejecting the God-ordained oversight of the Church’s Magisterium (1).

Thus began a significant decline in Catholic identity among many Catholic colleges and universities, and which had deleterious reverberations on lower levels of Catholic education as well. A more recent example was Father Hesburgh’s defense of Notre Dame’s having President Barack Obama serve as commencement speaker in 2009 and awarding him an honorary doctorate as well, despite the President’s robust support of abortion and other intrinsic moral evils.

Father Hesburgh earned many accolades and greatly boosted Notre Dame’s profile and endowment by cultivating favor with the government, foundations and the world at large, and the university’s temporal zenith has risen further since his retirement.

But it all came at a great, great price.

In his funeral homily, Father John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s current president, echoed a Father Hesburgh maxim,

saying that the priest didn't make decisions because they were easy or popular, but because they were right.

“That shaped everything Father Ted did in the public realm,” Father Jenkins said.             

Unfortunately, in crucial ways, his predecessor’s actual record demonstrated otherwise. From the unambiguously clear perspective of his particular judgment, Father Hesburgh would agree.

Let us pray for the repose of both men’s souls, and that Notre Dame and the Church in general draw authentic lessons from their respective lives.