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Being a Catholic Lawyer Today

by Dr. Charles E. Rice


What do you say to a young man—or woman—who says, improbably, 'All my life I have wanted to be a lawyer'? Can a lawyer do any good with his life? Can he save his soul? Dr. Rice offers some useful insights to those who are considering law as a profession.

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Catholic Dossier

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, May/June 1999

So choose your law school, and your courses, with an eye to learning law rather than ideology. And if you are even younger, choose undergrad courses that will make you think.

“Ninety-nine percent of the lawyers give the rest of us a bad name.” “What do you call a lawyer floating face down in the lake? A good start.” We all know the jokes. Unfortunately, they have the ring of truth. “Only one American in five considers lawyers to be ‘honest and ethical,’ and the more a person knows about the legal profession and the more he or she is in direct personal contact with lawyers, the lower [his or her] opinion of them.” (Patrick J. Schiltz, “On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy and Unethical Profession,” 52 Vanderbilt L. Rev. 871, 906 (1999).)

Disparagement of lawyers, of course, is not a modern phenomenon. “Woe to you lawyers also! because you load men with oppressive burdens and you yourselves with one of your fingers do not touch the burdens....Woe to you lawyers! because you have taken away the key of knowledge; you have not entered yourselves and those who were entering you have hindered” (Lk 11:46, 52). Butler’s Lives of the Saints sums up the career of St. Ives who is the original patron saint of lawyers:

Sanctus Ivo erat Brito,
Advocatus, et non latro,
Res miranda populi.

“St. Ivo was a Breton and a lawyer, but not dishonest—an astonishing thing in people’s eyes!” (Butler’s Lives of the Saints (1963), Vol. II, 352).

So what do you say to a young man—or woman—who says, improbably, “All my life I have wanted to be a lawyer”? Can a lawyer do any good with his life? Can he save his soul? Let us imagine that we are talking to such a (perhaps deluded) young man or woman. We could say at least some things he or she might usefully consider before taking the plunge.

Let us suggest a few.

1. Competence. This is essential not only as to the technical aspects of the profession, but also as to your understanding of the Faith and of sound philosophy. As for technical competence, the trend in law schools is to regard the study of nuts-and-bolts subjects, such as commercial law, trusts and estates, even evidence and others, as optional. Instead, law school curricula abound in “Law and (you fill in the blank)” courses, which focus on policy and ideology. Many law school graduates, as a result, tend to be policy wonks rather than potentially competent practitioners. I say “potentially competent,” because real competence as a lawyer, as in any field, is achieved only through experience. Law school by itself will not make you competent. But if you waste your law school years on the study of fluff, you will start your professional life at a disadvantage. So choose your law school, and your courses, with an eye to learning law rather than ideology. And if you are even younger, choose undergrad courses that will make you think. After years of reading applications for admission to law school, I continue to marvel at the number of people who spend four years in college, at great expense, with little or no study of math, science and language. Those courses make you think systematically. A course in “Women in Politics” will not do you as much good as Calculus. And if you can take Latin or Greek, or both, by all means do it. As for philosophy and theology, you might be better off not taking them, depending on the college. If you have to be a do-it-yourselfer in these areas, abundant resources are available in print or on tape from Ignatius Press; Eternal Life in Bardstown, KY (which produces the tapes of Fr. John Hardon, S.J.); Franciscan University of Steubenville; and the International Catholic University. These sources provide materials appropriate for interested persons at any stage of life.

The bottom line is that you have to equip yourself, as a warrior, with the intellectual weapons of your Faith.

2. Character. In his analysis of ethical problems in the practice of law, Notre Dame law professor Patrick J. Schiltz said, “you will not practice law ethically—you cannot practice law ethically—unless acting ethically is habitual for you. You have to be in the habit of being honest.... Developing the habit of acting ethically is no different from developing the habit of putting on your seatbelt or cracking your knuckles: You have to do it a lot.... Always. Everywhere. In big things and small” (Schiltz, 911, 950). “Being an ethical lawyer,” Schiltz notes, “is not much different from being an ethical doctor or mail carrier or gas station attendant....You should treat others as you want them to treat you. Be honest and fair. Show respect and compassion. Keep your promises” (Schiltz, 909).

In Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II described the distorted idea of freedom which separates it from any obligation to conform to objective truth. “The attempt to set freedom in opposition to truth, and indeed to separate them radically,” he said, “is the consequence, manifestation and consummation of another more serious and destructive dichotomy, that which separates faith from morality” (VS 88). Your character can be rightly formed only in the light of faith, as well as reason.

Man is a creature with a supernatural destiny. The solution to the moral problem today is therefore supernatural, of the spirit. But that solution does not merely add a second story of the supernatural to the one-story building that is the supposed “natural” man. Rather, the supernatural is like a steel framework that defines and supports the entire building. The supernatural is not an add-on, a bottle of Gatorade lowered down to us from on high to help us do the job by our own powers. It should permeate all that we do. To achieve that we need, one by one, to commit ourselves, by the supernatural act of faith, to Christ who is the Truth. As John Paul said to 20,000 young people at the Kiel Center in St. Louis, “You belong to Christ, and He has called you by name. Your first responsibility is to get to know as much as you can about Him....But you will get to know Him truly and personally only through prayer. . . . Through prayer you will learn to become the light of the world, because in prayer you become one with the source of our true light, Jesus Himself” (The Wanderer, Feb. 4, 1999, p. 1).

The act of faith in Christ entails the gift of self to others in our daily work. “To follow Jesus involves . . . inviting everyone to communion with the Trinity and to communion among ourselves in a just and fraternal society.” This living of the act of faith is a form of witness that can transform society. In Veritatis Splendor, John Paul discussed at length the “numerous Saints who bore witness to and defended moral truth even to the point of enduring martyrdom.... Although martyrdom represents the high point of the witness to moral truth, and one to which relatively few people are called, there is nonetheless a consistent witness which all Christians must daily be ready to make” (VS 91, 93). “This witness,” he said, “makes an extraordinarily valuable contribution to the warding off, in civil society and within the ecclesial communities themselves . . . of the most dangerous crisis which can afflict man: the confusion between good and evil, which makes it impossible to build up and to preserve the moral order of individuals and communities” (VS, 93).

3. Put your family first, even before money. “[B]eing admitted to the bar does not absolve you of your responsibilities outside of work—to your family, to your friends, to your community, and, if you’re a person of faith, to your God. To practice law ethically, you must meet these responsibilities, which means that you must live a balanced life. If you become a workaholic lawyer, you will be unhealthy, probably unhappy, and I would argue, unethical” (Schiltz, 910).

“The precept of detachment from riches,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church disturbingly puts it, “is obligatory for entrance into the Kingdom of heaven” (2544). Before you start on the legal treadmill, it would be good to recall that, “The Lord grieves over the rich, because they find this consolation in the abundance of goods” (CCC, 2547).

“Don’t get sucked into the game,” warns Prof. Schiltz. “Don’t let money become the most important thing in your life. Don’t fall into the trap of measuring your worth as an attorney—or as a human being—by how much money you make . . . . Law students and young lawyers have to stop seeing workaholism as a “badge of honor.” They have to stop talking with admiration about lawyers who bill 2500 hours per year. Attorneys whose lives are consumed with work—who devote endless hours to making themselves and their clients wealthy, at the expense of just about everything else in their lives—are not heroes. And that is true whether the lawyers are workaholic because they truly enjoy their work or because they crave wealth or because they are terribly insecure. At best, these attorneys are people with questionable priorities. At worst, they are immoral. There are certainly better lawyers after which to pattern your professional life” (Schiltz 921, 923).

Referring to practice in big law firms, Prof. Schiltz said, “I don’t think big-firm lawyers are unethical if you define ethics as many do, as complying with formal rules of professional responsibility. But I define ethics more broadly to include fulfilling responsibilities to people other than clients and partners—such as family, friends, and members of the community—and also acting like a decent human being at work, even when the rules don’t require it. Especially on the former point, big-firm lawyers are often unethical. By permitting their lives to be consumed by work, they fail in their obligations outside of work. I’ve traveled around the country and spoken to many groups of lawyers and judges, and I’ve challenged them to name for me one big-firm partner who lives anything like a balanced life and is considered successful by his partners. I’m still waiting for a name” (Patrick J. Schiltz, “Of Money and Misery,” The American Lawyer, April 1999).

We ought to remember that “Parents’ respect and affection are expressed by the care and attention they devote to bringing up their young children and providing for their physical and spiritual needs. As the children grow up, the same respect and devotion lead parents to educate them in the right use of their reason and freedom” (CCC, 2228). You cannot do your job as a parent if you are not there. If you are always in the office crunching out billable hours, you are, in real terms, a failure. And an idiot.

4. Recognize the nature of the pagan culture in which we live. More than twenty years ago, Dean Roger C. Cramton described “the ordinary religion of the law school classroom,” as “a moral relativism tending toward nihilism, a pragmatism tending toward an amoral instrumentalist, a realism tending toward cynicism, an individualism tending toward atomism, and a faith in reason and democratic processes tending toward mere credulity and idolatry” (Roger Cramton, “The Ordinary Religion of the Law School Classroom,” 29 J. Legal Ed. 247, 262-63 (1978)). This effective paganism is a reflection of the Enlightenment philosophy which, over the past three centuries and especially in the past few decades in the United States, has sought to organize society as if God does not exist. In the two decades since Dean Cramton wrote, the paganizing influences of the Enlightenment have infected society as a whole as well as the legal profession. This is not the place for a detailed analysis of this development. But the evidence of our decline is abundant. We have defined the youngest human beings, the unborn, as nonpersons and subjected forty million of them to execution. And this figure does not include the uncountable but probably larger number who have been killed by chemical or other early abortifacients. Although the Supreme Court declined to find a “right to die” in the Constitution, it has given the states a green light to look the other way as the disabled, the retarded, the “persistently vegetative” and others are intentionally killed by terminal sedation and by withdrawal of food and water. Through contraception and abortion, our fertility rate for more than two decades has been below the replacement rate which a population needs to sustain itself. This phenomenon is seen also in Europe and the former Soviet Union. In demographic terms the future belongs to the Third World and the Muslims. The characteristic response of our “culture of death” is to employ the United Nations in a genocidal campaign to reduce the populations of Africa, Latin and South America and Asia.

On the domestic scene, the utilitarian culture of death prevails in public schools, the media and the academy. Our government has declared its neutrality on God, establishing an aggressive secularism as the unofficial national religion. Generations of children have come through the state schools without ever seeing the state, in the persons of their teachers, ever acknowledge that there is a God or an objective standard of right and wrong. The children are taught that they make their own morality, with the exception only of politically correct mandates against evil tobacco, judgmentalism, etc. When students carry this philosophy to its logical conclusion by mowing down their schoolmates, the response of the secular state is to call, not for repentance and prayer, but for gun control. And so on.

The law reflects this decline into paganism. “Only in the past two generations, in my lifetime,” wrote Professor Harold Berman of Harvard and Emory, “has the public philosophy of America shifted radically from a religious to a secular theory of law, from a moral to a political or instrumental theory, and from a historical to a pragmatic theory....Rarely does one hear it said that law is a reflection of an objective justice or of the ultimate meaning or purpose of life. Usually it is thought to reflect at best the community sense of what is expedient; and more commonly it is thought to express the more or less arbitrary will of the lawmaker . . . .

“The triumph of the positivist theory of law—that law is the will of the lawmaker—and the decline of rival theories—the moral theory that law is reason and conscience, and the historical theory that law is an ongoing tradition in which both politics and morality play important parts—have contributed to the bewilderment of legal education. Skepticism and relativism are widespread . . . . The traditional Western beliefs in the structural integrity of law, its ongoingness, its religious roots, its transcendent qualities, are disappearing not only from the minds of law teachers and law students but also from the consciousness of the vast majority of citizens, the people as a whole; and more than that, they are disappearing from the law itself. The law itself is becoming less fragmented, more subjective, geared more to expediency and less to morality, concerned more with immediate consequences and less with consistency or continuity. The historical soil of the Western legal tradition is being washed away in the twentieth century, and the tradition itself is being threatened with collapse . . . .

“It may be impossible,” Prof. Berman concluded, “to restore the ancient Judaic and Christian foundations of our legal tradition. But it is important, first, to recognize that it is the disappearance of those religious foundations that gives power to the convictions of the utopian nihilists—power possibly to overcome the superficial utilitarianism of the liberal establishment” (Berman, “The Crisis of Legal Education in America,” 26 B.C.L. Rev. 347, 348 (1985).

5. Resolve to become a warrior, not a spectator, in the religious and cultural war. “A new phase in the history of freedom is opening up,” said the Pope to the American bishops on their 1998 ad limina visit to Rome. “The challenge is enormous,” he continued, “but the time is right. For other culture-forming forces are exhausted, implausible or lacking in intellectual resources adequate to satisfy the human yearning for genuine liberation—even if those forces still manage to exercise a powerful attraction especially through the media. The great achievement of the council is to have positioned the Church to engage modernity with the truth about the human condition, given to us in Jesus Christ who is the answer to the question that is every human life” (43 The Pope Speaks [1998], 238, 241 (emphasis added)]. As lawyers, we have no right to separate our faith from our professional work. Each of us, in his own way, has to work to build the “culture of life.” The “culture of life,” however, will not result from a conscious effort to build it for its own sake. It will come about when, one by one, we unite with Christ in the act of faith which involves the gift of self to God and others. The Catholic Church provides the only coherent answer to the “culture of death” because the Church speaks for Christ, who is God. John Paul II reminds us that “conversion consists in commitment to the person of Jesus Christ, with all the theological and moral implications taught by the Magisterium of the Church” (Ecclesia in America, (Jan 22, 1999), no. 53). “The Vicar of Christ is in fact ‘the enduring principle of unity and the visible foundation’ of the Church” (Ibid, no. 33, quoting Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus).

As the Catechism puts it, “by uniting their forces let the laity so remedy the institutions and conditions of the world when the latter are an inducement to sin, that these may be conformed to the norms of justice, favoring rather than hindering the practice of virtue. By so doing they will impregnate culture and human works with a moral value” (CCC 909). Lay people are called to evangelization, “that is, the proclamation of Christ by word and the testimony of life.” For lay people, “this evangelization . . . acquires a specific property and peculiar efficacy because it is accomplished in the ordinary circumstances of the world” (CCC 905).

This is no time for pessimism. Rather we can, with John Paul II, hope for “that new springtime of Christian life which will be revealed by the Great Jubilee, if Christians are docile to the action of the Holy Spirit” (Tertio millennio adveniente, 18). “[O]nly in the Christian message,” said Paul VI, can modern man “find the answer to his questions and the strength for his commitment to human solidarity” (Evangelii nuntiandi (1975), 3). “[T]he Church evangelizes,” he said, “when she strives, solely by the divine power of the message she proclaims, to transform the hearts of each and every man, along with their activities, their lives and their whole environment” (Ibid., 18). As for the laity, “[t]heir proper field of evangelization is the . . . political, social and economic order. It extends to culture, the sciences and arts, international relations and communications” (Ibid., 70).

We have to acknowledge that “[t]he more the West is becoming estranged from its Christian roots, the more it is becoming missionary territory” (Tertio millennio adveniente, 57). “[T]he world needs purification; it needs to be converted” (Ibid., 18). John Paul referred to “the crisis of civilization, which has become apparent especially in the West, which is highly developed from the standpoint of technology but is interiorly impoverished by its tendency to forget God or keep him at a distance. This crisis of civilization must be countered by the civilization of love, founded on the universal values of peace, solidarity, justice and liberty, which find their full attainment in Christ.” (Ibid., 52).

You can make a difference, even as a lawyer. In a real sense, especially as a lawyer. Opportunities will present themselves for you to do constructive work to keep the government off the backs of churches, families, home schoolers, pro-life witnesses and others who are trying to live the culture of life. As a lawyer you can be part of the missionary effort called for by John Paul II. Evangelization, however, depends on interior conversion, not only of the evangelizee but, even more, of the evangelizer. “[T]he new evangelization,” said John Paul, “will show its authenticity and unleash all its missionary force when it is carried out through the gift not only of the word proclaimed but also of the word lived” (VS, 107). Laborare est orare: To work is to pray. We have to do both, but especially to pray, with particular recourse to Mary who is the Mother of Life and the Mother of our Lawgiver.

Charles E. Rice is professor of law at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming book The Winning Side.

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