Fighter with a Heart: Writings of Charles Owen Rice, Pittsburgh Labor Priest

By McGeever, Patrick J. | The Catholic Historical Review, July 1998 | Go to article overview

Fighter with a Heart: Writings of Charles Owen Rice, Pittsburgh Labor Priest


McGeever, Patrick J., The Catholic Historical Review


Fighter with a Heart: Writings of Charles Owen Rice, Pittsburgh Labor Priest Edited by Charles J. McCollester. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. 1996. Pp. xx, 244. $49.95 cloth; $19.95 paper.)

Fighter is a delightful collection from the writings of Monsignor Rice, Pittsburgh's premier social activist priest. (He was once best known as a "labor priest," but has long since transcended that category.) McColester's deft editing of some sixty years of Rice's works, nicely appointed with telling photographs, chronologies, and a brief introduction and transitions, allows Rice himself to bring back to vivid life the nearly nine decades of his existence and many of the causes with which he has been involved-even at a time when he is in his ninetieth year and a doughty battler still. Those who are familiar with the social history of Pittsburgh, or wish they were, will not find a more enjoyable way to pursue their interest than with Fighter.

That said, there remain substantial differences of interpretation between the portrait of Rice offered in this volume and the one in my biography, Charles Owen Rice, Apostle of Contradiction (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1989). McCollester, a close friend of Rice and his appointed literary executor, says of that book that it "has the facts straight, but the analysis is weak" (p. 237). I, on the other hand, believe that historians will need to take with a large grain of salt McCollester's editorial efforts to depict a personal icon and hometown hero.

McCollester's interpretation of Rice is relatively unambiguous: the pugnacious Irish lad who becomes a devoted Catholic priest with an abiding affection for the underdog and a willingness to enter the lists against an ever-changing lineup of adversaries, perhaps going to a bit of (later regretted) excess at times, but erring only on the side of the angels, a hero of American labor history if ever there was one. Over six decades, McCollester's Rice speaks with a coherent and unambiguous voice. That is, in fact, the version of Rice I once set out to write, but along the way things became rather more complicated.

Fighters, I came to realize, have victims. In Rice's case this does not mean the captains of industry or the conservative politicians who ultimately won most of their battles and whom Rice merely managed to annoy along the way. It means those he really defeated: rank-and-file members he got tossed out of their unions, the Catholic daily communicant and official of CPUSA whom he apostrophized as a heretic, others whose reputations he ruined by using his clerical status and his access to the mass media they could not match, and perhaps other victims whose tales have never seen the light of day. Familiarizing myself with the stories of his victims did not ultimately convince me that Rice, even the Rice of many decades ago, was a scoundrel, but they did make it impossible to recount his life as I had originally envisioned it or as McCollester and Rice present it.

Two examples may suffice to illustrate these differences of interpretation. McCollester tells us that Rice "collaborated with the House Un-American Activities Committee, which held a hearing in August 1949, on the eve of crucial union elections in East Pittsburgh" (p. xvii). What he does not tell us is that it was Rice who secretly approached a committee member rather than the other way around, that Rice covered up his involvement in his writings at the time, or that Rice's intervention with HUAC came after repeated failures to convince union members democratically to vote out the leftists he opposed (Apostle of Contradiction, pp. 124-125). Nor was this an isolated instance of back-door intriguing by Rice: his only major success against the left was in convincing or helping to convince the pious Catholic Phil Murray to act unilaterally and undemocratically in expelling the left from the CIO.

The other example comes from the mature Rice writing in 1990, "Battles I have had aplenty, but in my adulthood they were never personal and, when I attacked people, it was over their actions or positions" (p. …

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