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Notre Dame has lost two contrasting giants

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 27, 2015

On successive days, death has claimed two giant figures in the history of America’s most iconic Catholic university: two revered men, with very different ideas about that university’s proper role.

The death of Father Theodore Hesburgh on February 26 will claim headline coverage, and rightly so. He was one of the most influential Americans of the late 20th century, with a set of public accolades to match his influence.

Charles Rice was not nearly so widely known. But to those who knew him—as a law professor and a Catholic activist—he was a model of integrity, unselfishness, and unswerving dedication to the faith. For years Notre Dame law students knew him as a tough but lively teacher; pro-life activists recognized him as a tough but valuable counselor; critics of Catholicism feared him as a tough and relentless debater.

The word “tough” keeps coming up, doesn’t it? When I first met Charlie Rice, it took me about 3 seconds to identify him as an ex-Marine. As warm and friendly as he was, one could not miss the steel in his character. I would rather wrestle alligators than try to move him off a stand that he had taken on principle. And he took stands on principle often.

“Father Ted,” as he was universally known, played to a wider audience. He moved comfortably on the international stage, collecting honorary degrees and tokens of public recognition. When Father Hesburgh became president of Notre Dame in 1952, the university’s annual budget was $9 million, and its endowment was the same. When he stepped down in 1987, the budget stood at nearly $180 million, and the endowment doubled that figure. He served on 16 presidential commissions; he chaired the boards of both the Rockefeller Foundation and Harvard University; he was awarded the Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

To say that Father Ted earned the world’s respect would be an understatement. Under his leadership, Notre Dame earned the world’s respect as well. If that success came at a price, it was a price that, it seems, he willingly paid. Father Hesburgh was the leading figure in the Land O’ Lakes conference, at which the leaders of America’s most prominent Catholic universities effectively declared their independence from the Church magisterium.

Charles Rice never declared his independence from Catholicism, nor did he accept the notion that a Catholic university should be judged by secular standards. He swam against the current of intellectual fashion, doubtless realizing that, as a consequence, he would never be fully accepted by the elite of academe. On campus he fought a valiant rear-guard action to preserve Notre Dame as it was, to pass along a vision of Catholic education that has flickered, but not died out.

Two obituaries tell the story: For Father Hesburgh, a slick, professional production, listing his many honors and accomplishments. For Charles Rice, the personal recollections of a faculty colleague on the life of a fighter and a family man.

May they both rest in peace.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: aclune9083 - Feb. 28, 2015 4:58 PM ET USA

    Charles Rice was a beacon of Catholic authenticity; when he stands before our Risen Lord, pray that Jesus will say something like: "well done, true and faithful son, enter into thy inheritance." Fr. Hesburg, for whatever reason, chose the path of popular acclaim, not consistent with an understanding of the message of the Gospel. Notre Dame became what Bishop Sheen warned about: "Parents, if you want your children to lose their faith, send them to a Catholic university."

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Feb. 27, 2015 9:28 PM ET USA

    I am disappointed that you spent so many words on Fr. Hesburgh and so few words on Prof. Rice, the true son of the Church.

  • Posted by: Joseph Paul - Feb. 27, 2015 8:58 PM ET USA

    Oh, how we miss Diogenes. It was a treat to read his article which is linked to above from 2008 about Fr Hesburgh. Venerable fraud indeed! Come back Diogenes - we miss you.

  • Posted by: filioque - Feb. 27, 2015 7:45 PM ET USA

    Fr.Ted and Notre Dame earned the world's respect. Charlie Rice stood on principle. That says it all.