Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, December 31, 2010

The Catholic Legal Educator

Teachers for All Seasons—Lord, give me a sign (Matthew 28:16-20)

            On the Vigil of the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God to whom our web site project is dedicated, I would like to offer the third and final installment of my disciple/teacher reflection.

            Prior to his ascension into heaven, Jesus exhorted his disciples with this command, sometimes referred to as the Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18-20) There are occasions when the meaning of these words are clear to us today, but there may be occasions when an illustration or two might help the contemporary disciple understand what he or she is called to do in teaching what Jesus commanded. Like Gideon, our petition for assistance is raised, “Lord, give me a sign!” (Judges 6:17) Or, in today’s vernacular: I need a little help here! I think those of us who teach law to future leaders of civil society have a great role and enormous responsibility in this Commission.

            Disciples of today have been blessed with many signs that involve the world that surrounds us and how we should respond to this world—those signs which recommend proper conduct or action and those which do not. In an American environment of discipleship, there are two sources of instruction that serve as some of these signs regarding proper conduct: those from the local bishops and those from the Universal Church. In the domestic context, these signs emerge from either the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Washington, D.C. or from individual bishops to the faithful of their dioceses. In a universal context, they are issued by the Pope in the exercise of his office and by the various dicasteries of the Holy See.

            One particularly important sign from the domestic scene was issued a few years ago. The USCCB in June of 2004 exercised its role as the college of American bishops to teach the Catholic faith and moral law when they issued a Conference statement on the subject of Catholics in public life. As they stated, “We have the duty to teach about human life and dignity, marriage and family, war and peace, the needs of the poor and the demands of justice.” They noted that the legal and political system must not be used as a tool of evil, and the bishops asserted that the legal system sometimes fails to protect “the lives of those who have no protection except the law.”

            The bishops continued by stating that those persons responsible for making the law have an obligation to remedy morally defective laws, and they extended their good offices in providing counsel to those in need of instruction on how to accomplish this objective that protects the moral order and the common good. The USCCB acknowledged its duty to persuade all Catholics to support the principles the bishops exhort regarding how the faithful are called to act in public life.

            Another important sign came in November of 2002 when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in a doctrinal note for the benefit of the universal Church addressed some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in public life. While the text was directed to the bishops of the Church, it was also directed “in a particular way” to “Catholic politicians and all lay members of the faithful called to participate in the political life of democratic societies.” That includes us, especially those of us who help form tomorrow’s judges, legislators, and government executives! The CDF noted that the success of how citizens make political choices is contingent upon their proper understanding of the nature of the human person. And where would they receive information about this?

            Special attention was given by the CDF to “the rightful autonomy of the participation of lay Catholics.” The CDF as a teacher helped to clarify the role of the laity in public life—be the Catholic practitioner of the law, judge, administrator, legislator, or citizen. The CDF, aware of the problems of merging the Church and the State, articulated a careful but clear instruction to the laity. It defined their coexistence in such a way that the Church and the State each have their proper roles in the world. However, it is the citizen, whose conscience has been formed by moral teaching of the Church that is directed to the common good, who has the right and the duty to pursue the truth and to promote and defend moral truths that bear on society, authentic freedom, justice, and the advancement of human rights including the non-derogable right to life.

            The fact that a source of the truth upon which a citizen relies may be the teachings of the Church does not disqualify (1) the Church from teaching that which may be used by the citizen nor (2) the citizen from using that which the Church teaches regarding the moral issues affecting law and politics. The Church does not interfere with the State’s proper function, but She does retain and must exercise Her proper role to provide instruction on moral truth that can be appropriated and used by the citizen in his or her participation in the exercise of the democratic process. The Church does not intrude into the affairs of the State by exercising political power that She does not possess; however, the citizen is free to rely on the truth which the Church teaches instead of the relativism or secularism which others promote and sometimes urge on citizens as they exercise their judgments made in the political processes in which the citizen participates.

            It is problematic to insist that the citizen must observe an unnatural dichotomy in his or her life insulating the spiritual and moral from the public and the political. In this regard, we can recall the Johannine text of Jesus farewell: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit...” (John 15:5) Those who would insist on defeating participation by the disciple-citizen would deny legitimate and authentic pluralism and would impose a regime of intolerant secularism on the civic community. This can result in the strong oppressing the weak, and it would transplant the environment of the 1930s and 1940s described by the German sacristan to the United States to which I previously referred in an earlier posting in this series to the domestic scene of today. In quoting Pope John Paul II, the CDF notes that the authentic freedom of the citizen does not exist without the truth: “Truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery.” (Fides et Ratio, N. 90) And where might we learn about the truth and what distinguishes it from falsehood?

            A number of models of behavior reflecting the truth and related principles would be Thomas More and John Fisher from the early sixteenth century and the late Gov. Robert Casey from the late twentieth century. All were citizens. John Fisher was Bishop of Rochester, and Thomas More and Robert Casey were public officials who held high appointive or elective office. Fisher and More relied on their informed conscience molded by Church teachings and dared to practice the truth they learned to the peril of their lives. More was proclaimed the patron of statesmen and politicians by the late Pope John Paul II. In conferring this honor on Thomas More, John Paul emphasized the “unity of life of the lay faithful.” More and Fisher both relied on properly enlightened consciences that exercised fundamental truths in the field of political and legal issues that were punctuated with grave moral concerns.

            Closer to home, geographically and temporally, is the example of the late Gov. Robert Casey. He was a staunch believer in the rights of human beings—not just some, but all human beings. He was a progressive leader who sought relief and comfort for the oppressed. He was also a Democrat who disagreed with his party and its stance on abortion. If he were alive today, I suspect he might expand the realm of these disagreements. In 1992 he requested the opportunity to address his Party one last time at its quadrennial national convention; however, he was denied the honor. Curiously, the Democrats allowed several pro-abortion Republicans to address the convention. As one commentator noted, Gov. Casey was humiliated by the party he faithfully served for so long because he would not go along “for fellowship” (recalling the words of Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons) on the abortion issue.

            Teaching has something to do with the models offered by More, Fisher, and Casey faced in their respective lives and careers in public service. Ah, yes, there it is again: teaching. We can’t seem to remove ourselves from it! Reiterating instruction on the pressing moral and social issues of the day is the proper role of a teacher, and exercising this responsibility is not mounting scorn on those who are the pupils of this teaching. It is the exercise of a solemn obligation and fundamental moral duty of the bishops to inform the consciences of those entrusted to their pastoral and teaching duties. (Lumen Gentium, NN. 21, 27) But what they teach also becomes the responsibility of those other teachers who collaborate with them as fellow laborers in the Lord’s vineyard. Any Catholic—clerical or lay, office holder or not—cannot compartmentalize the discipleship and his or her public life and insulate one from the other. All Catholics, regardless of their clerical or lay state, are subject to observe and abide by the same teachings of the Church. (Lumen Gentium, NN. 24-25) It becomes the respective duty of each disciple, be one clerical or lay, to live these teachings holistically in one’s life. These teachings cannot be followed when it is convenient; they cannot be honored at one moment and ignored at another when one feels like it. A Catholic cannot conveniently follow those teachings that he or she prefers and ignore those which are not in accord with his or her personal favor that may be influenced by powerful or influential lobbying groups.

            Ultimately, each person who chooses to remain a Catholic exercises the freedom to adhere to the Church’s teachings or not. That is the authentic freedom of each Catholic regardless of his or her status in the Church as lay or clerical. But by proclaiming that one is a Catholic, one has declared to the world that he or she is a Catholic because of this exercise of authentic freedom. But when one elects not to follow these teachings on all fronts, can it be said that this person is in communion with the Church? If the bishop fails in his duty, can he be in communion with the Church? If the office holder fails in his or her duty, can he or she be in communion with the Church? If a teacher who bears the name Catholic fails in his or her solemn duty, can he or she be in communion with the Church? When this occurs, one removes himself or herself from the communion by severing ties between the branches and the vine.

            Those of us who use the moniker “Catholic” in identifying themselves grow from the vine of Christ on which we are branches. If we are to be true to our calling and identity as disciples, we need to acknowledge the role of the Great Commission in our lives. So, for so long as we choose to remain branches, we need to direct our energies to producing fruit abundantly in the name of Christ and the Church.

            My presentation was intended as an effort to contribute to the work of many fellow Catholic citizens to persevere in their individual endeavors to proclaim the Gospel and advance the Kingdom of God—particularly those who labor in the legal academy. It is a modest effort to identify and examine the relationship between Catholic faith and the duties of the citizen who claims to be Catholic and who has an extraordinary influence on the formation of other citizens and disciples. As long as we freely choose to remain Catholic, we retain the responsibility to be faithful to the Church’s teachings if we are to be effective, contributing Christian members of the commonwealth. Catholics who exercise roles in American democracy (as voters, as officials, and as educators) participate in the exercise of discipleship by applying in this world the substance and content of communion with Jesus Christ and other disciples for the advancement of the common good.

            As disciples, we are citizens of two cities. Each of us is one person who holds and exercises various duties through this dual citizenship—we are the branches who remain tied to Christ, but we also exist and act in the temporal world. This fact should not deter us from embracing what Thomas More said when he declared his allegiance to both sovereigns, and God’s first.

            May my fellow contributors and readers of the Mirror of Justice be blessed with New Year filled with the inspiration of the Great Commission.


RJA sj


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