Mirror of Justice

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Monday, April 30, 2012

Some advice, from a student, for profs at Catholic Law Schools

One of my "Catholic Social Thought and the Law" students shared with me these thoughts about -- and this advice for -- professors at Catholic Law Schools:

My first day of law school and I’m sitting next to my new roommate in Contracts.  Around us, students cement their plans for the weekend and complain about the reading, asking detailed and irrelevant questions like “But why did AutoZone sponsor the Professional Bull Riders?”  There’s an undercurrent of anxiety in the room, an emotion that becomes so familiar to me over the next few months of on-call classes that I become almost desensitized.  By third year I have the blasé expression of a Hindu cow.  Those first few months, though, I could not only tell you what a Carbolic Smoke Ball is, I could give an impassioned entreaty on behalf of all misled influenza victims everywhere.  I was a little bit of a gunner: I probably would have even made you one if you had promised me a good outline. 

Class starts, and instead of the professor launching into the facts of the case (“WHO IS REGINA?”) or introducing himself (“Contrary to popular belief, I am not married to [professor with the same last name]”), our Contracts professor looks up and makes the Sign of the Cross.  Like dominoes, sixty or so other students do the exact same thing.  The rest of us either make eye contact with each other or stare intently at our laptops while he recites a section of Aquinas’ Prayer for Guidance.  When it’s over, class begins.  It takes about thirty seconds, tops, and it becomes part of our routine. 

It’s an interlude between the hallway and the task at hand, but it takes on a different meaning when finals come around.  I start calling it the “quick and keen,” because that’s all I remember outside of the classroom, and that’s what it becomes for me: “Lord, make me quick and keen.”  First said to make a friend laugh, over the course of the semester it becomes my own prayer, something I say before I take an exam or interview with a potential employer.  

As students, we rarely get moments of silence to reflect in law school; for most of us, life is a mix of classes and chaos.  The “quick and keen” was different, it stayed with me.  When people asked me why I decided to become Catholic during my third year, depending on how much time they have, it’s part of the story.  We’ve all heard about the Butterfly Effect: a professor at a Catholic university starts his class with a prayer and two years later a student is baptized and confirmed in the One True Faith.  That’s far-fetched, but I think there’s a lesson in there somewhere. 

What I’d like to suggest to all Professors is this: if you’re at a University that allows you to be visibly Catholic, take advantage of that opportunity next semester (you can’t start mid-semester; that would be weird).  It doesn’t have to be anything dramatic -- part of the strength of the Contracts prayer was that it was said without any hint of the theatrical, it just set the intention for a class where few of us felt “delicate to interpret or ready to speak.”  From the perspective of someone who wasn’t always Catholic, this kind of prayer isn’t confrontational or in-your-face.  It’s nice.

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Garnett, Rick | Permalink

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Amen! I would certainly appreciate it if some of my profs began class with a prayer. It would be a small, but meaningful way of indicating that the law school is in fact a part of a larger Catholic university (though lots of students and profs seem to like to ignore this).

Posted by: Catholic Law Student | Apr 30, 2012 3:55:06 PM

Volumes could be published about this and related issues regarding the identity and soul of the Catholic higher education institution. But since volumes cannot be published here, let me offer a modest thought: if prayers, crucifixes, or religious statues and pictures were a part of the daily landscape, many faculty and students would probably assert that the Catholic institution was attempting to impose its views and values on them. However, when the outside political, social, and secular cultural views are viewed as normative for all society even though they conflict with Catholic teachings, there does not seem to be recognition that these positions when sought by constituencies of the school are being imposed on faithful Catholics and those folks who largely share the views of these Catholics.

Posted by: Robert John Araujo, SJ | Apr 30, 2012 8:15:29 PM

I think it's just fine if a Catholic law school or particular faculty in a Catholic law school wants to do this sort of stuff. (Even more so if it's as clear as can be that this is the sort of stuff that's done.) But this:

"From the perspective of someone who wasn’t always Catholic, this kind of prayer isn’t confrontational or in-your-face. It’s nice."

Strikes me as almost certainly an over-generalization and not something that should be accepted. In fact, I'm completely sure that for a large number of people, it's false. Now, that doesn't mean it shouldn't be done, but if it is done, it shouldn't be done with the expectation that all or even most non-Catholics will feel this way. (My expectation is that anyone who is not a Christian will almost certainly not feel this way.)

Posted by: Matt | May 1, 2012 8:46:38 AM

Hey Matt,

It probably is somewhat of an over-generalization. I texted my buddy that evening with "This [Catholic school] is so weird, they pray before classes and there are crosses in every room!" So "nice" may be an overstatement from the start (it later became nice), but it was certainly tolerable. My text to my friend wasn't sent angrily -- it wasn't the same kind of "weirdness" as I felt when I walked outside the law school a few months later and saw hundreds of white crosses for the victims of abortion in the ground. That, I feel, is more confrontational and in-your-face, because it's such divisive subject matter, and if an individual Catholic law prof wanted to do that kind of thing, I think it'd alienate a lot of people.

I'd argue that prayer is different. Would I suggest a prayer for the innocent victims of abortion? No, not in the academic setting, that would be unsettling for a majority of students (not just non-Catholics). Would I suggest a prayer that focuses students on the task at hand (as the Aquinas prayer does) or stays otherwise fairly general (I think the "Sign of the Cross" alone is a good one)? Certainly. I think the main objection that non-Catholic people attending a Catholic university will have is that it's a little weird, like some of Tim Tebow's teammates probably thought he was a little weird. But prayer (in general) is pretty well-accepted -- you may find that to be an over-generalization, too.

The thing is, Catholic school _is_ a bit weird, it's supposed to be outside of the mainstream (that's why it identifies as a Catholic university). If you go to a Catholic school, you can expect -- maybe you should expect -- a little bit of "weirdness." For non-Catholic law students, it's like Roth said in Godfather II: "This is the business we've chosen." If students that attend Catholic school feel that a short prayer is intolerable or confrontational, well, I think I'd be showing my student stripes if I threw around terms like "assumption of risk," but that's the idea and that's the risk whenever you go to a school that claims to have a Catholic identity: that it will be Catholic in front of you. It's in the promo materials.

I think the bigger problem with my proposal is that professors at a Catholic university might feel uncomfortable subjecting non-Catholics to prayer, which is why it should be (as it is now) every individual professor's choice. I think that's understandable: sharing your faith through prayer can be difficult and very personal to do in front of Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and if you don't want to do it, that's certainly understandable. The point of this post was that I don't think they shouldn't pray because they'll worry it will make other students uncomfortable, because I don't believe that it will, or if it does, that's disingenuous over-sensitivity on the part of the student when the student knew that he was "getting himself into" when he decided to attend a Catholic school.

Posted by: C | May 1, 2012 9:34:19 AM

When I began teaching at a certain Catholic university, I opened -- not each class session, but -- the semester with a prayer. I explained that in the Catholic tradition Mary is the Mother of Wisdom and Our Lady of Good Counsel, and that it was appropriate to begin the semester with a prayer that reminded us of the sacredness of the freedom of the intellectual life. I then invited those students who wished to pray the Hail Mary with me. Within a few months, reviews of my teaching were circulating on the internet that no professor who began the semester with a prayer could possibly be "open minded." With tenure in mind, I decided, "That's the end of that tradition."

Posted by: J | May 4, 2012 4:10:36 PM