Sunday, February 10, 2019
In early 2004, I remember sitting in my office at St. John's and getting a call from Mark Sargent asking if I wanted to participate in a new blog that he and Rick Garnett were putting together. I was not entirely sure what a "blog" was, but as a junior law prof looking for any platform that would have me, I readily accepted his invitation. My primary objective in my early posts was to come across as knowledgeable enough about Catholic legal theory to belong on a blog dedicated to Catholic legal theory. As the years went by, I'm not sure my grasp of what we mean by "Catholic legal theory" became a whole lot clearer. My favorite post of the last fifteen years ("Catholic Legal Thought: Live at the Dubliner!"), though, reflects what is undoubtedly the central legacy of MoJ in my own life: relationships.
Since I composed that post ten years ago, law schools have gone through some tumultuous times, prompted by legitimate skepticism about the value proposition of legal education, causing us to focus on student outcomes to an extent not seen in many years, if ever. Does that mean that the broader Catholic legal theory project from which MoJ emerged has lost some energy? Perhaps, if measured by the number of conferences and colloquia dedicated to the field. But not if we take a broader view to ask how and why Catholic legal education matters - a question that can only be answered comprehensively and coherently with at least some resort to Catholic legal theory, as lived out in the context of academic and professional communities. What are we offering to prospective students and other stakeholders, and why should they care that we're Catholic? In that sense, MoJ has been a remarkable incubator of the type of conversations - and resulting relationships - that both aim at, and reflect, the heart of the project. Whether that continues in the form we've enjoyed for the past fifteen years or proceeds into new venues, the relationships must remain central to the work.
Thursday, October 11, 2018
Lest we grow complacent in attributing the degrading of our political culture solely to Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton steps forward to remind us that the race to the bottom is readily susceptible to a bipartisan effort. In a recent interview, she explained, "You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about. That's why I believe, if we are fortunate enough to win back the House and or the Senate, that's when civility can start again."
Her comments reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of civility's role in the pursuit of justice. As I explained earlier this week in an op-ed,
The means we employ in the political pursuit of our chosen values and priorities bear witness to how we view our fellow Americans.
As [Martin Luther King Jr.] reminded us during the tumult of the civil rights movement, “Hate is always tragic. It is as injurious to the hater as it is to the hated. It distorts the personality and scars the soul.”
That prison cells, firebombs and police dogs could not shake King from his commitment to civility speaks volumes about its importance to his work — and to ours.
Here is the lesson for Americans today who seek to defend their cherished values and priorities in the public square: Civility is not ultimately about manners; it’s about affirming our shared dignity and acknowledging — albeit sometimes through gritted teeth — that politics calls us to relationship.
When we allow our disagreements to obscure the dignity of our political opponents, we’re forgetting why King thought such battles were worth fighting in the first place.
You can read the whole thing here.
Saturday, September 29, 2018
This weekend I'm speaking at the Canadian Christian Legal Fellowship's national conference in Vancouver, and I'm struck by how little we hear in the US about current religious liberty battles north of the border. Some of the cases track with themes arising in American lawsuits, but others reflect a much more aggressive role for the state. For example, the Canadian government has added conditions to a popular and longstanding program funding summer jobs with a wide range of nonprofit organizations. An attestation attached to the program's application form this year required organizations to affirm that their "core mandate" respects a variety of rights, including "the values underlying the Charter of Rights and Freedoms," and specifically mentions reproductive rights. Not surprisingly, Catholic and other traditional Christian groups refused to sign, and they lost millions of dollars in funding that they had relied on for years. Litigation is pending.
Monday, September 17, 2018
On Friday, I had the privilege of participating in a conference at Fordham Law School commemorating the 20th anniversary of two conferences held there that, in retrospect, initiated the religious lawyering movement 2.0 (i.e., beyond the work of Tom Shaffer and Joe Allegretti). MoJ's own Amy Uelmen did a wonderful job as a co-organizer of the event. A few highlights:
- Strong participation from representatives of the National Association of Muslim Lawyers, an organization that was birthed at those Fordham conferences and is now a flourishing presence in communities across the country. Listening to UW-Madison law prof Asifa Quraishi-Landes describe the group's history, it was a blessing that Muslim lawyers came together to build infrastructure for fellowship and support before 9/11, anti-Sharia legislation, and travel bans inescapably pulled the organization in the direction of civil rights advocacy. NAML brings a formidable litigation presence today, but it's important to recognize that the group was formed by lawyers who wanted to support one another on their faith journeys within the profession.
- Howard Lesnick's work was honored by several speakers, including Emory Christian Ethics prof Darryl Trimiew, who noted that, like Jacob, Lesnick wrestles with God. For Lesnick - a deeply engaged skeptic - the wrestling is the point; the wrestling has not stopped; in the wrestling, there is beauty.
- David Opderbeck called for a new generation of law and religion scholarship, with a redoubled effort to engage the latest in Christian ethical thought and theology, and Russ Pearce noted the importance of identity questions to the religious lawyering movement, both past and future.
Lucia Silecchia and I offered remarks about what insights lawyers might take from Pope Francis's apostolic exhortation, Rejoice and Be Glad. I focused on his lament that some Christians "become incapable of touching Christ's suffering flesh in others, locked up as they are in an encyclopedia of abstractions," and his pointing to Jesus as clearing "a way to seeing two faces, that of the father and that of our brother. He does not give us two more formulas or two more commands. He gives us two faces, or better yet, one alone: the face of God reflected in so many other faces."
This reminded me of John Noonan's Persons and Masks of the Law. Noonan showed how lawyers use abstract principles and legal rules as masks to cover the real people affected by our work (e.g., "foreseeability" in the case of Helen Palsgraf).
How do we train our students to utilize abstract principles wisely without obscuring the faces of those affected by their work? How can we discard the masks without jeopardizing the healthy degree of detachment that is a key component of the rule of law? These are not just insights for lawyers, obviously: to what extent have the bishops employed their own set of abstractions in ways that serve to obscure the faces of abuse victims?
We have not had as many conferences dedicated to such conversations since the Great Recession and ensuing Law School Troubles - ten years ago, we gathered regularly at conferences for, e.g., religiously affiliated law schools, Catholic legal theory, Catholic social thought and law. Understandably, law schools have been focused on more pressing fiscal issues. As the market stabilizes, reconvening with friends and fellow travelers at Fordham reminded me just how important these questions - and our persistent, institutional engagement with them - are to the well-being of our students and the broader society.
Monday, June 25, 2018
Over the weekend, the President’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant by the owner after employees voted to refuse service based on the press secretary’s behavior defending the President’s policies. There are reasons to be concerned with this and similar incidents. The Red Hen’s owner explained, “We just felt there are moments in time when people need to live their convictions. This appeared to be one.”
I’m all for moral agency in the commercial sphere, but I need some clarity about the moral claims at issue here. A question for the Red Hen owner: what conviction – moral? political? culinary? -- would have been implicated, much less violated, by serving a meal to Sanders and her family? The Red Hen was not asked to cater a Trump rally or administration meeting. If our moral convictions expand to encompass a guilt-by-association mindset applicable to all aspects of officials’ private lives, our era promises to become even more corrosive to political discourse and meaningful respect for rights of conscience, properly understood.
Would a Catholic restaurant owner be justified in refusing service to a late-term abortion provider, for example? I don’t think so. What would be the objective of that exclusion? What is the risk of scandal being avoided? What edifying moral claim is being presented to the community?
Note that I’m not arguing that the Catholic restaurant owner or Red Hen owner should be legally prohibited from denying service based on a person's political views or practices – just that denying service for those reasons would not be morally justified. (Even on the moral dimension, I don't think there is much helpful insight to draw from the Masterpiece Cakeshop case -- refusing service because you are morally opposed to what a person stands for is different than refusing to participate in an act that you believe is immoral.)
A broader point about emerging strains of “resistance” in American politics. The Church teaches that “[r]esistance to authority is meant to attest to the validity of a different way of looking at things.” (Compendium para. 400) Resistance, understood in this light, is not about public shaming, virtue signaling, or the intentional destruction of lives and reputations. It is not the all-consuming “No!” It is, in the end, about the “Yes”—articulating and living out of an alternative vision of what can be. Denying someone service in a place of public accommodation based on who they are or what they have done might feel good, but it is not resistance.
Wednesday, June 6, 2018
U of Arkansas law prof Jill Wieber Lens argues that tort law must recognize the true nature of the loss when medical negligence results in a stillborn baby:
Tort law, for the most part, already enables parents to sue when someone wrongly causes their child’s stillbirth . . . . However, that tort claim must properly recognize the extent of the parents’ loss: It’s not just a loss of pregnancy or of a fetus ― it’s the death of a child. Only this kind of recognition correctly incentivizes doctors and provides compensation to grieving parents.
Proper recognition of the devastating loss after the death of a desired unborn child does not threaten abortion rights, and we cannot let the ongoing abortion debate minimize that devastation. This is something the pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion movements should be able to agree on.
Both sides of the abortion debate could and should agree on this, but I'm skeptical that they will. Pro-abortion rights advocates are leery to recognize the fetus as a child. If passage through the birth canal loses its moral significance, the abortion debate opens up to important and sensible new policy questions that have been marginalized in the U.S. since Roe.
Friday, February 9, 2018
I have an op-ed in today's Minneapolis Star-Tribune using the Dodge Super Bowl ad brouhaha as an opportunity to reflect on other aspects of Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy that may be fading from view:
Dr. King’s faith was inseparable from his public witness. King was a Christian leader, and there is no point in trying to separate him, or any aspect of his public leadership, from his faith. King’s moral framework was not a vague, platitude-driven appeal to feel-good sentiments. He did not run from, nor water down, who he was or what he believed. Instead, he relied on the full power and scope of his own faith tradition to distill the essence of a foundational truth about the human condition. He focused on the restoration of relationships – on what he referred to as “the beloved community” – appealing to a widely accessible moral vision that was not dependent on any particular religious revelation or ideological agenda. It was a basic reminder not to ignore what we know about ourselves: we are social creatures who are accountable to the demands of love and justice.
You can read the whole thing here.
Tuesday, September 26, 2017
Commonweal has published my review of an important new book, Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination, by Ryan Anderson, Sherif Girgis, and John Corvino. Here's an excerpt from my review:
The book’s fourth and, in my view, most important lesson: restoring relationships across the political divide does not necessarily require shared beliefs, but it will require shared work. The book’s tone in this regard was set by the introduction, jointly authored by Corvino, Anderson, and Girgis. They identify foundational principles and recite a history of religious liberty in our country. In an era of rampant “fake news” accusations, setting out agreed facts before proceeding to engage arguments is (unfortunately) a bold gesture. When it comes to religious liberty and nondiscrimination, if we cannot agree on where we should go, can we at least agree on how we arrived where we are? The authors can and do. Consensus about the facts should not be mistaken for concession on the normative claims, though; neither side pulls any punches in the arguments that follow. Anderson and Girgis identify specific areas of consensus with Corvino after 237 pages of back-and-forth criticism. Robust, honest, and respectful argument can be an impetus to authentic, if not total, agreement.
Friday, August 18, 2017
I confess that Public Discourse is not the first place I would have expected to see a stirring call to take down Confederate monuments, but Matt Franck offers just that today, and it is worth a read. Key excerpt:
For these [monuments] are in their turn a gratuitous slap in the face of people who have felt the sting too much already. For a white Yankee like me, they’re bad enough. For black Americans, they must be intolerable. Large and forgiving natures might look on the statues now as relics of an ugly past that the country has in many ways overcome, fading into the background of noisy traffic in the modern, bustling South. But recent events in Charlottesville suggest that this overcoming is by no means a finished business. The statues should go, in order to deprive today’s feckless white supremacists of rallying points at the feet of monuments erected by yesterday’s more successful white supremacists.
Understanding the principled difference between the founding generals and statesmen of the United States—including the slave owners—and the founders and generals of the Confederate States can give us a bulwark against the slippage that President Trump evidently fears. No one ever erected a statue of George Washington in order to communicate his race’s superiority and to lord it over others.
As Franck acknowledges, reasonable (and non-racist) citizens can disagree about this. But what's so troubling -- and this is my own editorializing -- is the utter failure among many opponents of removal to acknowledge the non-frivolous reasons for removal, much less empathize with our neighbors for whom removal would represent a burden lifted. (I don't think the failure runs both ways -- African Americans growing up in the South are not ignorant of the arguments for Southern heritage and history.)
Setting the tone for this failure, of course, is our President. He doesn't have a monopoly on a lack of empathy (see, e.g., "basket of deplorables"), but combined with his lack of intellectual curiosity, utter self-absorption, and willingness to leverage fear of "the other" for strategic political advantage, President Trump's glaring lack of empathy threatens to foment social divisions in our country to an extent unseen for generations. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that he is the source of our divisions - he is exacerbating them.
When I first became a dean, I was talking with another dean who was nearing the end of a very long and successful tenure. I had identified a range of important leadership qualities such as vision, integrity, transparency, and confidence. He responded, "No, the most important quality in a leader is empathy." The longer I serve in a leadership role, the more obviously and undeniably true I find his observation to be.
Wednesday, August 16, 2017
I have found myself struggling for words that might appropriately convey any helpful insights for our nation's current crisis of moral leadership, but I'm grateful that Cardinal Sean O'Malley has offered a reflection that calls us back to the central importance of ideas and ideals:
Nations live and flourish because of their ideas and ideals, not simply because of their material wealth or power. Our ideas and ideals express our identity and set the standards for our behavior as citizens. For the United States a core statement of our identity is expressed in the phrase “E Pluribus Unum”, from many peoples we shape one nation. This treasured civic truth reflects and is rooted in the biblical heritage of belief in the dignity of all people, and a shared humanity.
We have not always as a nation reflected the best of our ideas and ideals, but they stand as a goal toward which we strive. Our country is once again in a moment when the civic and biblical heritage is being attacked and tested. We need to reassert and reaffirm the belief that one nation is meant to include all: the multiple races, cultures, ethnicities and religions which make up our country.
The angry and violent mob which gathered in Virginia this past weekend, by word and deed, contradicted our national creed and code of civil conduct. As a nation in the past century we led the struggle against the pagan ideas of Nazism. Those who seek to resurrect a new form of Nazism and extreme nationalism – those who denigrate African Americans, who preach and practice anti-Semitism, who disparage Muslims, those who threaten and seek to banish immigrants in our land – all these voices dishonor the basic convictions of the American political and constitutional traditions. They must be opposed in word and deed. As a Catholic bishop I welcome the opportunity to stand with other religious leaders of the land in opposition to the voices of fragmentation and hatred. As the Archbishop of Boston, it is my responsibility to call the Catholic community which I serve to remember the basic truths of faith and reason which are so central at this moment. The truth that our rights and our duties to each other derive from God. The truth that we can successfully oppose hatred and bigotry by civility and charity. These truths can bind us together across racial, religious and ethnic communities. They can help us celebrate our pluralism as a rich treasure which strengthens this land. Today when our unity is tested, when our basic truths of faith and reason are violated, as people of faith and as citizens we must uphold our ideas and ideals. My prayer is that we can rise to this challenge. My belief is that we are surely capable of doing so