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Denver and the Professions: A Flashpoint for Change?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Jan 17, 2005

Just before Christmas, the Archdiocese of Denver told the local chapter of the Catholic Lawyers Guild to take a hike—a hike away from Church property, that is. It seems the Guild had decided to honor pro-abortion attorney Ken Salazar with its Thomas More Award. As a result, Archbishop Chaput refused to celebrate the annual Red Mass with the group at their dinner this month, and has also told them they can’t hold the event on Church property as planned.

Flying with the Rich and Famous

Among many issues that this debacle calls to mind is the danger posed to professional groups, and perhaps to lawyers in particular, of hobnobbing with the rich and famous. Ken Salazar is the Colorado Attorney General who was elected to the US Senate last November. Unfortunately, Salazar pledged in his campaign to “defend the constitutional right” to abortion and to oppose “mandatory waiting periods, spousal consent, biased counseling requirements, or other extreme limits on abortion rights.”

This is not even the false angst of a “personally opposed” politician struggling toward a public solution. It is already an extreme position to regard waiting periods and paternal consultation as extreme. The Catholic Lawyers Guild might have benefited from Peter Mirus’ column last week about coming up with a successful lesser good, since they apparently think it laudable to be up to no good at all—as long as you’re successful.

Ouch! My Wings are Clipped

Fortunately, Archbishop Chaput understands something about goodness, including the concept (apparently novel to the Guild) that it must be opposed to evil. Hence the withdrawal of ecclesiastical support, which is more significant than it might seem. If every bishop refused to recognize the claimed Catholicity of such wayward groups, we would have a far more congenial climate for constructive change.

In any case, the Archbishop’s decision stung, causing the president of the local chapter to sniff that the group “wanted independence” anyway. “We are obviously very distinctively Catholic,” incoming President Laura Tighe patiently explained, “but there’s a great difference on how we exercise our Catholicism.” This is very much like a football player running onto the field with a hockey stick. The game quickly becomes unrecognizable.

The silver lining in all this for Denver’s Catholic attorneys is that Archbishop Chaput is now looking for Catholic lawyers who know what it means to live their faith. Bishops everywhere may not be looking, but the same need exists in every profession and in every diocese. So what’s a zealous professional to do?

There are, as always, two choices: reform the professional group or start a rival group. To advocates of both approaches, I offer some pro bono advice.

Reform from Within

If you want to try to reform your professional group from within, you must have a concrete long-term plan with specific milestones. Frankly, St. Peter doesn’t care that you “thought you could do more good” by staying in the mainstream group while enjoying all its worldly perks. A determined cadre can make a big difference, but only if it employs realistic methods to achieve progressively more important goals.

Identify your allies and come up with an effective recruitment plan to gain more of them. Figure out which committees are key and volunteer (or run) for the right positions. Stay in touch with your bishop, who may be able to use his influence more effectively with the right people on the inside, and who can often improve the group’s spiritual direction. Don’t forget in all this to continue to be a model of professional responsibility. You don’t have to show your hand, but to effect reform you must have cards to play.

Starting from Scratch

If you judge that reform is not possible within a reasonable length of time, explore the possibility of forming an alternative professional society, as did the founders of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. A new group and its influence will likely be small for some time to come, but it is better to do limited good than to do nothing or, worse, to be complicit in evil.

Still, a caution is in order. Scripture is not kind to those whose plans exceed their capacity to build (Lk 14:28). Again, seek allies (or become one). Establish an effective control structure. Figure out how you’ll generate revenue. Test the waters to see if you can get members. Obtain the recognition and support of your bishop. Plan attractive, attention-deserving events. As always, fulfill your professional responsibilities. Expect rich blessings from God, but don’t expect to be bailed out if you don’t do your homework—or if your motivation comes from being a big fish in a small pond.

A Difficult Choice

It isn’t always easy to tell which course is best. Because Christians can’t always foresee the results of their work, discernment of God’s will by all the usual means, including prayer and an honest assessment of one’s own talents, inclinations and opportunities, will be critical to the decision.

The point is that the reformation and/or replacement of contemporary professional societies should be a high priority. Most of us spend nearly half of our time on our work—a significantly larger chunk of time than on any other single activity. Yet many, perhaps most, Catholic associations are too much like the Denver Guild for comfort. What is new here is that a trend has been openly resisted by a bishop. Now that we’ve noticed it, shouldn’t Denver be a flashpoint for change?

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