Catholicism and Teaching Law: Catholic Law Schools Grapple with Faith's Influence

By Lefevere, Patricia | National Catholic Reporter, October 28, 2005 | Go to article overview

Catholicism and Teaching Law: Catholic Law Schools Grapple with Faith's Influence


Lefevere, Patricia, National Catholic Reporter


Increasingly law schools that call themselves Catholic are raising questions about the nature of their Catholic identity. Is it even desirable to have such an identity? Does the linking of Catholic and lawyer feel uncomfortable--except when uttered by the local bishop from the cathedral pulpit at the annual Red Mass? And in what way--if at all--are graduates of Catholic law schools different from those who earned their degree from a state or public university?

Talk about what does and what should distinguish a Catholic law school from a secular institution fill law professors' blogs and are the stuff of law reviews, conferences and classroom discussions at many of the 27 law schools that call themselves Catholic.

These institutions, located in 17 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, are currently educating some 22,000 future lawyers--the majority of them Catholic. Eight of the schools have been around over a century. The 27 schools employ more than 1,100 full-time faculty and some 1,500 adjuncts.

From such an infrastructure, one might expect a uniquely Catholic perspective on the law, a Catholic contribution to legal theory or an overriding Catholic moral voice on issues involving property, contracts, securities regulation or criminal procedure.

"Yes, it should be there," said Thomas Shaffer, professor emeritus and former dean of Notre Dame Law School.

"Catholicism has always copied too much in trying to come to terms with the secular university," he said. "Some law schools may be still doing that."

A legal ethicist, Shaffer has been looking at Catholic legal education and the making of the Christian lawyer for some 30 years. The question of Catholicism in CatholiC law schools is undergoing a kind of revival, he said. The humanistic approach, dominant for four decades, now faces a challenge from religiously affiliated law schools, be they Catholic, Protestant or Jewish, he said.

Shaffer said he thinks the movement has less to do with the Vatican's 1990 Ex Corde Ecclesiae--requiring theologians in Catholic institutions to be in conformity with the church's magisterium--than it does with the keen interest Catholic law schools have always had in ethics. These schools are now expressing this concern through exploring Catholic social teaching, he said.

The shift toward distinctly Catholic law schools has "turned the corner" at Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., Boston College and New York's Fordham University, said Shaffer. "I scratch my head about Georgetown. It's so urban and so large."

Last semester Jesuit Fr. Gregory Kalscheur coordinated three evening conversations on the Jesuit, Catholic identity and mission of Boston College Law School, where Kalscheur, a lawyer, is assistant professor. About 30 faculty attended one or more of the series, which continued this past summer.

In addition, Kalscheur has conducted three retreats for 45 law students, introducing them to discernment skills, based on a model of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. A dozen faculty members took part in the retreats.

Many contemporary academics shy away from any admission of religion into the conversation, afraid it will make the religious voice "the predominant, privileged or the excluding voice," he said. "My own fear is that prolonged failure to confront that fear explicitly and directly has helped to marginalize and exclude the religious voice."

To make sure the voice of the Catholic tradition itself is not devalued, ignored or made invisible out of concern for offending those of other religious traditions or no religious tradition remains a challenge for law schools that seek to be "authentically Jesuit," the priest said. "We have to be more explicit about the faith dimensions of our social justice mission. We have to move forward in ways that will generate increased trust, not anxiety or suspicion."

Interfaith law

At Fordham Law School, hundreds of the 1,546 students are Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and of no faith at all. …

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