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Robert Rodes, ‘radical catholic’

| Thursday, December 11, 2014

Last week, Robert Rodes was laid to rest after a crowded Mass in the Basilica. A professor for more than half a century in Notre Dame’s law school, he was recognized by many to be the most distinguished member of its faculty. He gained eminence in Anglo-American jurisprudence for his integration of common law and Christian values: his legal history of the pre and post Reformation Church of England was magisterial.

Bob, an Episcopalian, had converted to Roman Catholicism after meeting his future wife Jeanne when they were undergraduates at Brown University. Her luminous intelligence was undergirded by a sturdy Boston Irish Roman Catholic faith. She was to teach for many years at St. Mary’s. Arriving at Notre Dame in 1956 after law school at Harvard, Bob was motivated by a vision of contributing to the emergence of a great Catholic university. Gradually he came to understand that for this to unfold, Notre Dame would be called to discern and focus on issues of justice dealing with the common good in a rapidly changing world. Unlike George Bernard Shaw, he did not believe that a Catholic university was an oxymoron!

While the liturgy and tributes at the funeral Mass were moving, surprisingly the socially radical and prophetic elements in Bob’s intellectual evolution were absent. A dear friend and colleague for fifty two years, we met at Notre Dame in 1962. In the years that followed, he broadened my horizons and I his. He arrived with an assured conservative mindset in matters ecclesial, I with a vision of Christian socialism.

Together we shared and debated the insights of John XXIII and Vatican II, particularly those of  Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher), Pachem in terris (Peace on earth) and the Pastoral Constitution of the Church Gaudium et spes (Joy and Hope). All this was followed in the 1970s by the impact of Gustavo Gutierrez’s Liberation Theology arising out of the structures of injustice in Latin America and building, in part, on Europe’s “Political Theology” as well as earlier Catholic social teaching in the 19th century — particularly its emphasis on justice for the industrial working classes and their trade unions. In a broader context we were also encouraged by the coming of the United Nations with its agencies and Charter of Human Rights, as well as the end of colonialism, the rise of South Africa’s indigenous liberation or “contextual theology” in opposition to apartheid, and the civil rights movement in the USA. It was in this unfolding historical context that Bob’s insights challenged but also meshed with mine, making more urgent our hopes for Notre Dame.

Unfortunately, while graceful initiatives are nurtured in the interstices of our university, several overall trends in recent decades have not been encouraging. For example, initiatives in the arena of ecumenical cooperation have been sluggish at best. Most alarming of all, how can it be that the globalizing corporate and utopian ideology of the “Free Market” goes largely unchallenged at Notre Dame —  even as it polarizes our planet, dramatically widening the chasm between rich and poor, threatening the stability of our fragile democracies and hastening impending climatic disasters?

Let me offer a glimpse of Robert Rodes’ mindset in facing some of these matters, quoting two of his publications: Law and Liberation (1986) and “Catholic Universities and the New Pluralism,” a chapter in Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C, Editor, The Challenge and Promise of a Catholic University (1994).

From the former we have: “The Church’s role as sign and celebration of liberation, corresponds to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in Gaudium et Spes that the church is ‘at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendence of the human person.’ The church is called to bear a prophetic witness to the indestructibility of that transcendence, and to its culmination in a liberation that no oppressor can impede. It is also called to demand a practical recognition of that transcendence in the institutions and practices of society” (p. 216).

In the closing pages of the latter he asks of Notre Dame a range of  questions, for example: “Do our teaching and research priorities reflect a preferential option for the poor, a concern for the margins of society? Or do we go with the courses that impress the biggest employers and the most important graduate schools, and with the research topics that attract support from the wealthiest foundations and publication in the most prestigious journals? Do we encourage dependence on outside funding to the point of letting outsiders control our research agendas, to the point of exercising a preferential option for the rich?” (p. 311).

When his biographer was asked if Pope Francis was conservative or liberal, he responded that Francis was neither, rather he was “a radical Catholic.” The same could be said of Bob Rodes. At times he abstained from casting a ballot in presidential elections. Fiercely pro-life, he was disinclined to vote for a pro-choice Democrat. On the other hand, he would not vote for a Republican whose Party’s economic polices he saw as the antithesis of the Gospels.

Perhaps the last word should go to John Noonan, Jr., a past member of Notre Dame’s law faculty and currently a United States Circuit Judge. “Robert Rodes is unique in his construction of a Christian jurisprudence. In Law and Liberation he addresses the malaise and dilemmas of a consumerist society with brilliant candor, warm charity and comprehensive wisdom. His approach will please only those who are not the slaves of self-interest, institutional bias or partisan ideology.”

Peter Walshe

professor emeritus and fellow of the Joan Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies

department of political science

Dec. 9th

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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