Notre Dame’s former president Theodore Hesburgh and law professor Emeritus Charles Rice, who died within days of each other earlier this year, were often at odds. Rice wrote about his “strong disagreements” with Fr. Hesburgh, but also about how highly he respected him, noting that he had “seen numerous examples of his integrity, his kindness, and his practical concern for others as persons.” Yet their disagreement over the definition of a Catholic university was significant. Fr. Hesburgh’s view was highlighted by two pivotal events—the Land O’Lakes Statement and Mario Cuomo’s 1984 speech at Notre Dame—both of which Fr. Hesburgh helped to facilitate. These two events planted the seeds for the severance of Catholic universities from the orthodoxy and authority of the Catholic Church, as well as for the separation of Catholic morality from the public forum.
As Dr. Rice noted in his book, What Happened to Notre Dame?, a pivotal gathering took place in 1967 under the auspices of the North American region of the International Federation of Catholic Universities at a Notre Dame-owned conference center in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin. Fr. Hesburgh was then the Federation’s president. That meeting resulted in what came to be known as the Land O’ Lakes Statement, which proclaimed that “the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.” Although intended as a positive development to enable Catholic colleges to receive state money, Rice concluded that “the assertion of autonomy from the Church was a mistake with predictably negative and potentially terminal consequences” to Catholic universities. “Notre Dame and other ‘Catholic’ universities have lost coherence by claiming to be Catholic while rejecting the Magisterium of the Church.”
Dr. Rice also related that, in September 1984, New York Governor Mario Cuomo delivered a speech at Notre Dame after Cardinal O’Connor of New York had publicly rebutted the assertion of Democratic vice-presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro that her pro-abortion position was not incompatible with Catholic teaching. Cuomo, in his speech, reduced opposition to abortion to a mere religious value which a Catholic politician need not impose on society in the absence of consensus, by way of Constitutional Amendment or preclusion of Medicaid funds. He contended that a prohibition of Medicaid funds for abortion would be discriminatory against the poor. He specifically did not suggest that a Catholic office holder had any obligation to try to change that consensus. Rice, in his book, citing Pope Benedict XVI, countered that the need to protect all human life from conception to natural death is innate to human nature and confirmed by faith: “The Church’s action in promoting them is therefore not confessional in character, but is addressed to all people, prescinding from any religious affiliation they may have.” Thus, Professor Rice asserted that a Catholic politician has an obligation to work to prohibit abortion and never to advocate for payment of abortions.
Fr. Hesburgh, in an October 1984 article syndicated by the United Press Syndicate, termed Governor Cuomo’s speech “brilliant.” He differed from Governor Cuomo, however, in suggesting that there existed a national consensus against abortion except in the cases of incest and rape—and where the mother’s life was seriously at stake—which had been overlooked by the Supreme Court. He was convinced that “[i]f Catholics would help articulate this consensus, favoring a more restrictive abortion law short of an absolute ban, Catholic politicians would no longer be able (or feel compelled) to say, ‘I'm against abortion, but ...’” Professor Rice was of the opinion that to admit of these exceptions “frames the issue in terms, not of whether, but of which innocent human beings may be legally executed.” Writing in 2009, he postulated that the failure of the incremental approach was demonstrated by the fact that the opposition to partial birth abortion had reduced the pro-life argument from which human beings could be destroyed to merely the manner in which they are disposed.
Rice further noted that Governor Cuomo’s talk took place in the spacious Washington Hall, while pro-life Congressman Henry Hyde’s rebuttal eleven days later was relegated to the basement student lounge of the law school. Echoing a conclusion of Fr. Raymond de Souza, Professor Rice contended that Notre Dame was implicitly accepting the supplanting of the bishops in declaring what was authoritative Church teaching with respect to Catholic politicians’ obligation to protect pre-born human life. Despite Fr. Hesburgh’s seeming modification of Governor Cuomo’s thesis, the damage had already been done. This “personally opposed, but” argument has since been the moniker of many a Democratic Catholic politician. Not coincidental is the fact that despite being inhabited by a significant number of Catholics, the Democratic Party has become the bastion of abortion proponents. Notre Dame too, more than twenty years after Fr. Hesburgh left office, bore the fruit of Cuomo’s analysis when, in the face of opposition from eighty-three bishops and three cardinals, and in violation of the Bishops’ prescription not to honor or give a platform to abortion proponents, the University offered the most tenacious pro-abortion President, Barack Obama, an honorary degree in law—and the privilege of giving the commencement address to the 2009 graduating class. Dr. Rice was among those who strongly condemned the invitation, urging that the Rosary be recited at the Grotto during the commencement proceedings.
The Land O’Lakes statement set the stage for the secularization which has occurred in leading Catholic universities. Governor Cuomo’s speech articulated the separation of faith-supported truths from the public square. Dr. Rice became the conscience of Notre Dame pleading for resistance to this secularization which was evidenced by the separation advocated by Governor Cuomo. He urged a repudiation of the Land O’ Lakes Statement and full reception of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. He was the initial faculty advisor to the Notre DameSt. Mary's Right to Life student organization. He fully supported the independent alumni group, the Sycamore Trust, which monitors the University’s actions and seeks to remedy breaches of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity and was its chief speaker at its annual 2010 breakfast. Writing from the perch of an occasional column and then a regular column from 1992 through 2010 in the student newspaper, The Observer, he confronted manifestations of Catholic university secularization, often directly prodding Notre Dame’s administration to fulfill its primary mission.
Prompted by the 1986 Vatican advice to Fr. Curran that a dissenting theologian cannot instruct in Catholic theology, Rice urged a reassessment by universities which promote themselves as Catholic to determine whether they are, in fact, providing their paying students an education steeped in orthodox Catholic faith. He criticized the 1989 decision to permit the showing of the blasphemous “The Last Temptation of Christ.” In 1994, when Notre Dame’s health services director provided to its employees a brochure describing the proper use of a condom, while concurrently the University was objecting to the Bishops’ proposed regulations for implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Professor Rice was quick to point out the hypocrisy in Notre Dame’s willingness to seemingly exceed the demands of an Indiana law while, at the same time, rejecting the authority of the Magisterium.
In a 1997 column, Rice addressed the fact that Campus Ministry was dissuading attendance at talks sponsored by Notre Dame’s Maritain Institute to be given by two speakers who would indicate that the homosexual impulse was a remediable disorder. He challenged the university to recognize the fact that homosexual tendencies were disordered so that homosexual students could obtain “’the care they need and deserve.’”
He lamented, in 2009, the significant decrease in the number of Catholic faculty and the fact that the University’s increased focus on research to maintain its status among elite universities was weakening the quality of undergraduate education. Moreover, he questioned the growing tendency to hire non-Catholics on the basis of academic excellence rather than appointing competent Catholics who understand that faith expands the perception of reality.
He was a relentless advocate for the proposition that truth can be known and binding, that faith and reason are compatible, that the Magisterium is arbiter of Catholic moral and dogmatic truths, and that Magisterial teaching should be taught in a Catholic university as integral to its mission.
Professor Rice always ended his appeals by entreating his listeners to prayer—“The most effective, practical thing we can do for Notre Dame is to pray, especially through the intercession of Mary, the Mother of God. It is her University.” Anyone who knew him knows that he practiced what he preached. Not only Notre Dame, but also the Church and the community at large, have lost a powerful and prayerful voice for these precepts.
Richard Maggi is a writer in New Jersey.