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March 26, 2012

Some after-dinner thoughts on Catholic law schools and universities

I had the occasion, the other day, to write up a few occasional thoughts on the role, mission, and aims of a Catholic law school, and of Notre Dame's in particular: 

The late Blessed Pope John Paul II observed that a Catholic University is “born from the heart of the Church.”  And we who are blessed to be a part of the Notre Dame Law School like to think that it is providential that our striking facilities are located, in turn, at the heart of this great Catholic university’s beautiful campus.  A Catholic university is called to creativity, to exploration, to the search for truth, and to the transformation of the world.  The work and mission of a Catholic law school – of our Law School – are essential to this project.

In our times, a great University must have a global focus – it must reach across boundaries and borders – and Law is indispensable to any effort to unite citizens, leaders, scholars, and societies.

In today’s world, research and learning must be interdisciplinary – their aim must be to uncover illuminating connections – and Law has always involved identifying the similar features of seemingly different cases and questions.

And, in our current context, it is crucial that the scholars and students be engaged with the world, and with what the Second Vatican Council called the “joys and the hopes”, as well as the “griefs and the anxieties,” of men and women everywhere.  The study of law and the formation of lawyers are, necessarily, activities that engage us with the world, its challenges, and its opportunities.  The work of a Catholic law school is both theoretical and practical; it involves critical reflection and careful application.

Here at Notre Dame, then, we believe that a great Catholic law school – that is, one that is meaningfully, distinctively, and interestingly Catholic – not only serves the needs of the profession and the community, it also plays an indispensable role in the high calling of a Catholic university.

As we see it, a Catholic law school – like Notre Dame – is able to be a better law school, and to better form conscientious professionals and leaders, precisely because it is Catholic.  It’s well known that law and lawyering get a criticism these days, and much of it is well deserved.  Too often, law is seen as a “bag of tricks” to be manipulated by the powerful for their own ends; too often, lawyers are content to regard themselves as “hired guns” or as mere technicians; too often, the formulation of legal rules and policies seems driven simply by partisanship rather than wise and prudent consideration of real-world facts and the needs of the community.

At a Catholic law school, though – and at Notre Dame – we can take comfort, and find inspiration, in the fact that our tradition has taught for centuries that law is an “ordinance of reason” and that its aim is the “common good.”  Our faith provides a vision of what law, done right, is supposed to be, and really can be.  It is not an exaggeration to say that the study and practice of law is elevated, for us, because we know that our human efforts to develop and implement just and efficient laws are reflections of – they participate in – the very mind of God.

Now, this might sound a bit grandiose or “high-falutin’.”   As every lawyer knows, the legal enterprise is not only about philosophical reflections on the nature of justice or the splendor of truth; it’s also about the nuts and bolts of crafting arguments, reaching agreements, finding facts, and solving problems.  We lawyers are inspired by the words of our patron saint, Thomas More, who notes – in Robert Bolt’s wonderful play, A Man for All Seasons – that God made men and women to “serve Him wittily, in the tangle of their minds.”  The life of the mind is an arena for serving God, and we lawyers like to think that we have a special calling to supply the wits, and help unravel the tangle.

At Notre Dame Law School, three words, or themes, come up again and again in our conversations about how we should do what we do, how we can strengthen and enrich this University, and about what makes us different from the many other fine law schools.  Those words are community, integration, and vocation.

We aspire to be not just a collection of individuals, but a true community of teachers, scholars, students, and professionals, united by a passion for justice.  The Church has long taught, in its social doctrine, that the human person is social, and flourishes only in and through community.  This is certainly true for law and lawyers.  At Notre Dame, our goal is to serve the common good – to put the law and our legal talents in the service of that good – and to do so in community.  The word “community” for us expresses both how and why we “do law.”  We invite our students not only to three years of technical training, but also to a shared enterprise, a learned profession, and a lifetime of relationships.

We also aim for integration.  Too many lawyers are unhappy, and this is in part because they have been taught to radically compartmentalize, and dis-integrate, their lives.  A Catholic university is committed to the idea that faith and reason work together – that they are, in the late Pope’s words – “like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”  Just as faith and reason can and must be integrated in the search for knowledge, it is also essential for professionals and students that their work, values, commitments, and loves be integrated and coherent.  At Notre Dame, we invite and try to inspire young lawyers to bring their values and religious faith to their studies, and then to carry them into their lives in the law.  In our view, we cannot expect young lawyers to think deeply and well about law, justice, and the common good if we tell them to privatize their ideals, or to radically separate their fundamental moral commitments from their law practices.  And so, we encourage our students to approach their vocations – as lawyers, spouses, parents, friends, and citizens – as whole persons.  We challenge them to integrate their work, their beliefs, their values, and their activism.  We urge them always to remember who they are, what they believe, where they came from, and to resist the temptation to “check their faith at the door” of their professional and public lives.

Finally, “vocation.”  Many of us, when we hear the word, probably think either in terms of the clergy and religious life, or "vo-tech" classes.  We mean something different, though, when we challenge our students to think of their lives in the law in terms of vocation, and calling.  We are not naïve.  We know that, for many, law is experienced more as a job, and less as an adventure.  We know that plenty of people go to law school, and go into law practice, not because they heard a “call,” but because their parents expected it, or because lawyers in the movies seemed glamorous, or because they couldn’t think of anything else to do.  Still, we propose to our students and graduates – and to our profession – that we should all wrestle with the question, “what would it mean for my time in law school, and for my life in the law, if I tried to think about the law as a vocation?”  We challenge our students and colleagues to ask, “who is calling me, and what am I being called to do?”  These are difficult questions to ask, yet alone to answer.  Odds are, we won’t get instructions from a Burning Bush, or be blinded by a light on the road to Damascus, or even get the answer from a still, small voice in the night.  Still, we try to listen. 

Posted by Rick Garnett on March 26, 2012 at 09:21 AM in Garnett, Rick | Permalink

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The questoin I would ask is, in what specefic ways is Notre Dame's [or any other Catholic law school's] approach to legal pedagogy different because it is a Catholic law school?

In what sense does "public witness to the way of Christ, as found in the Gospel and upheld by the Church's Magisterium, shape[] all aspects of [a law school's] life, both inside and outside the classroom"?

I agree with what you say, but how do we bring this about in Catholic law schools where faculty are often hostile towards any attempt to make the school seemingly "more Catholic"?

Administrators tend to point to the service work that students do as if service is distinctively Catholic and is sufficient to consitute a Cahtolic identity. I'm not knocking service work, but it seems that Catholic identity consitutes something more than than service (which many secular law schools also earnestly promote).

These are just some rambling thoughts from the student end.

Posted by: Catholic Law Student | Mar 26, 2012 12:31:07 PM

Very good question(s), Catholic Law Student. I definitely think that "service", standing alone, is not enough to supply what is Catholic about a Catholic law school (though the Catholic character should inform the service that, after all, *all* law schools practice and value).

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Mar 26, 2012 2:16:09 PM

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