Catholic Lawyers Guild of Boston: Different starting points

This week, The Pilot presents the first of an occasional series of opinion pieces by members of the Catholic Lawyers Guild of Boston, which supports Catholic lawyers in applying their faith to the challenges of their professional and personal lives and also assists the archbishop in his works of charity and other community projects. The Guild sponsors the annual Red Mass for those who work in the legal professions to be held in September.

"We need an essay discussing the theme of Catholic justice; you'll have about 600 words. Can you do it for us?" asked Paul McNamara, the President of the Catholic Lawyer's Guild. "Of course," I said, chuckling at the request. "I'm sure that what took someone like Aquinas volumes to address, I can polish off in a page or two."

As I hung-up the telephone and started to think about this assignment, a conversation came back to me, one that I had with a theologian-colleague some years ago. At the time, the two of us were leading a seminar together for law students and graduate students in philosophy and theology. After class one day, we two were discussing a point that a student had raised. As we talked, my colleague suddenly said to me, "You must have found law school very difficult." "Well," I said a bit defensively, "like everyone, I found it challenging, but I did do rather well at it, actually." "You misunderstand," my colleague smilingly responded, "I don't mean intellectually difficult, I mean it must have been difficult for you as a Catholic."

Thud. My insightful colleague had put his finger on something that until then I only indistinctly had realized. Law school had been difficult for me, and in just the way he had indicated.

Like every law student, I had read reams of court opinions that touched on nearly every aspect of human undertaking. In area after area, in cases dealing with marriage, religion and religious groups, civic associations, labor organizations, and other sorts of groups, not to mention life issues, I found myself thinking "that's not really right" or "that's not the way these institutions understand themselves." Eventually, I found myself living between two worlds, one defined by the "secular" law, and one informed by what the Church teaches. That sort of cognitive dissonance undoubtedly affects every serious person of faith, but it may be especially acute for law students and lawyers.

Now, to some extent, one should expect this. The English common law (of which Americans and most English-speaking countries are heirs) as well as the civil law (which descends from the Roman law and is the system throughout Europe and in parts of Asia) are the only two legal systems that are not explicitly tied to a religion. This distinguishes the common and civil law from such important legal systems as Jewish law and Sharia (Islamic) law. This is not to say that the common and civil law have not been influenced by religious thought -- they long have been in conversation with one another. But, neither is the direct expression of religious belief.

There are many reasons for the rival accounts of justice that one might find in comparing what the Church teaches and what our law permits or sanctions. One of the most fundamental, however, are the very different notions of what it means to be a human being that the Church holds and the version that underpins American law today.

The viewpoint that guides our law understands us as sovereign, self-defining, rights-bearing selves, who are bound only by the obligations we freely assume. In this perspective, all ties to others, and all associations -- however described -- are limited purpose affiliations, which I can leave when I wish, or when the purposes of my affiliation with others have been achieved.

In the Church's view, we are not sovereign, but dependent beings. Our lives are not our own, but are gifts to us. I am situated to others not by rights, but by obligations. I am my brother's keeper, whether I like it or not. My ties to and duties toward others are not determined by a social contract, but by bonds of love that transcend me. I can turn away from what charity requires, but I cannot negotiate away its claims upon me.

Different starting points lead to very different conclusions about the character of justice and what it requires of me. Those are not just problems for lawyers. As St. Paul so unsettlingly said, "Work out your salvation in fear and trembling." Justice is a harder thing to determine than might first appear.

Thomas C. Kohler is a professor at Boston College Law School.