Following Charles Rice

Six years ago this week, longtime Notre Dame law professor Charles Rice entered his eternal reward. Rereading his obituary now, and reflecting upon his enormous influence on me, I want to say to my friends: We need to follow his example better!  In particular, we need to mentor young people, just as he did for me and so many others.

Professor Rice began teaching at Notre Dame Law School in 1969, instructing students in torts, constitutional law, and jurisprudence for over 40 years. His lifetime achievements were varied and innumerable. He served in the Marine Corps, coached the Notre Dame Boxing Club, rescued countless collies, served as a consultant to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and wrote 13 books. He prayed all 20 decades of the Rosary daily. With his wife, Mary, he raised ten accomplished children. An old school Irishman, he had a tough exterior and an affectionate heart. Here’s another old touch: I always knew he was in his office (on the third floor of the law school) when, upon entering the law school on the first floor, I could smell his pipe.

Bill Dempsey, chairman of the Sycamore Trust, a group of alumni concerned about the Catholic character of Notre Dame, described the legacy of Professor Rice in this way: He was “a treasured mentor to countless students, a gifted natural law proponent, a pioneer in the pro-life movement at the University, and a courageous and relentless critic of the forces of secularization at work at Notre Dame and in Catholic higher education in general.” Notre Dame history professor Fr. Bill Miscamble, CSC said simply, “Professor Charles Rice epitomized all that is best about Notre Dame.” 

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The modern era has seen the breakdown in many associations and institutions that form and strengthen civil society. The decline of professional mentorship is one such example. Experienced and wise mentors not only guide the young and inexperienced through professional career choices, they also shape character and foster the flourishing of the whole person. As a law student and as a young lawyer, I encountered only a few such formative mentors, and Professor Rice was the first. He was like St. Thomas More—someone who demonstrated a unity of life across personal and professional boundaries and for whom service to God, Country, and Notre Dame were one and the same. And he blessed his students with the example of what such a life looked like. Like More, he was generous, joyful, and long-suffering.

Professor Rice was abundantly generous to his students. As a senior in college, in the midst of the law school application process, my grandfather and I traveled to visit Notre Dame. My grandfather, a retired lawyer and serious intellectual, had told me about the professors at Notre Dame whom he admired most: notably Ralph McInerny (co-founder of Crisis Magazine), Edward Murphy, and Charles Rice. (As a student at Notre Dame, I would be blessed to study under all three.) I, too, was familiar with Professor Rice from his book No Exception: A Pro-Life Imperative, which had helped me to articulate my own vocation to advocate for vulnerable mothers and their unborn children.

Professor Rice had left already for the day when we arrived. But his secretary called him at his home, and he made the 30-minute trip back to campus to meet with us for nearly an hour. Now note that Professor Rice, with his brusque Marine Corps bearing and his capacity to recite the Rosary in about eight minutes, was the sort of person who believed that if you had something important to say, it should be said concisely. For him to spend such a long time with a young woman and her elderly grandfather whom he had never met was an extraordinarily generous, gracious gesture. 

In that meeting, he emphasized first that it was only at Notre Dame Law School that I could receive a legal education grounded in the natural law and thus have a sure foundation for my professional and personal life. Second, he said, I would receive this education under the protection of Our Lady. Although I was considering a higher-ranked law school, then and there I decided to attend Notre Dame. How providential for me, then, that during my law school years two of Pope John Paul’s great encyclicals were released: Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae! Who better with whom to study these magnificent defenses of the natural law and the dignity and inviolability of human life than Professor Rice? 

Professor Rice embodied, too, an authentic spirit of joy rooted in Christian hope. When I entered law school, my family had been attending a traditionalist church that was not in formal communion with Rome. I had internalized their hermeneutic of suspicion about the Church’s response to the myriad problems in the world and especially a distrust of the Holy Father. Professor Rice, deeply committed to the truth, always a devotee of the reverent, traditional liturgy, and faithful to the teachings of the Church, was as concerned about the abuses and heresies as I was. But he showed me that one could (and should) remain joyful. And he saw reasons for hope: the springtime of faith proclaimed by Pope John Paul II; the new “monasteries” rising up in homeschools and small Catholic colleges and universities to revitalize Christian culture; and most of all—the enduring protection of the Blessed Mother.  

Anyone who knew him, even if they disagreed with him, knew him as a cheerful warrior. Even today, whenever I find myself indulging in melancholy, I hear his voice saying with his characteristic Irish warmth, “Don’t worry, Beth! We’re on the winning side!”

Finally, he showed tremendous perseverance as he viewed the decline of our culture. For decades, Professor Rice warned of the harms of the “contraceptive mentality,” and his last book, Contraception and Persecution, made the prescient argument that the widespread acceptance of contraception is an “unacknowledged cause” of the persecution of Christians. He described the Obamacare contraceptive mandate as a “readily foreseeable” assault on religious freedom. Yet despite the overwhelming legal and cultural embrace of contraception, which weighed upon him constantly and heavily, he never gave up, and he encouraged his students, too, to persevere. One of the last communications I had from Professor Rice was through his daughter, Mary. Passing along his greetings, he said, “Please tell Beth that I asked you to tell her and Bill to work harder.”  

In the last paragraph of his last book, Professor Rice gave this advice: “This is a great time for us to be here. We have the Truth, in the Person, Jesus Christ. Our ‘nuclear weapon,’ however is prayer—for our country and for our Church, especially through the intercession of Mary, the mother of Life.” As we commemorate the anniversary of Professor Rice’s death, and continue to face many of the same challenges, let us pray and work harder and guide young people with his spirit of generosity, joy, and courage. 

[Photo Credit: University of Notre Dame]


  • Elizabeth Kirk

    Elizabeth Kirk is an attorney, policy consultant, and freelance writer. She currently serves as a research associate at the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law, where she teaches in the area of law and the family. She is also a lay consultant to the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

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