Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Catholic Social Teaching and American Legal Practice

Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Catholic Social Teaching and American Legal Practice

Article excerpt

The very fact that I have been asked to give this lecture is an auspicious omen, not because it acknowledges my somewhat debatable qualifications as a speaker on the topic, but because it indicates that the close connections between theology, my own profession, and the law are recognized, and are being further cemented. (1) I am particularly pleased that this lecture marks the inauguration of the Catholic Lawyers' Program of the Institute on Religion, Law, and Lawyers' Work here at Fordham University's School of Law. (2)


In contemporary American culture there is a widespread assumption that religion is something private, something one does with one's leisure time, and that it ought not to affect the way one acts in the public square or market place. (3) But faith, as set forth in the Bible, is not just a private relationship to God, affecting what a person does in the synagogue on Saturday or in church on Sunday. (4) One comes to services of worship in order to gain strength and guidance for what one will be doing every day of the week. The Word of God, proclaimed in the sanctuary, has important bearings on the public order of society, including its laws. (5) Isaiah, for instance, warns: "Woe to those who decree unrighteous decrees, who write misfortune, which they have prescribed, to rob the needy of justice, and to take what is right from the poor of my people, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless." (6) Jesus, as we all know, was unsparing of His criticism of scribes who interpreted the law of Moses in ways that would inhibit the performance of good deeds, such as healing the sick and supporting one's aging parents. (7)

The Bible holds out to us not only the vision of individual salvation, but also the vision of a society of peace and love, in which all are solicitous for the good of all, especially the poor and the powerless. This vision has important implications for the ordering of society.

In medieval and early modern times, Christian thought played an important role in the development of the common law. (8) Three points of intersection may be noted. First, the natural law tradition emphasized the role of reason; (9) second, the Church's Canon law had some influence on British common law; (10) and third, the courts of chancery emphasized the relation of law to equity and justice. (11) It is perhaps not coincidental that the Chancellors of the Realm were usually clergymen and were known as "keepers of the King's conscience." (12)

In what follows, I shall contend that faith-based, but rationally defensible, social theory can make a significant contribution to the work of professional schools, especially those operating in Christian and Catholic universities. Law, in particular, cannot be adequately taught without reference to the purposes of society and the nature of justice, which law is intended to serve. The role of law and its place in a well-ordered society has been studied in depth for many centuries in Catholic social theory. (13) Most lawyers are not philosophers or theologians, and for that very reason they stand to gain from interdisciplinary dialogue.


Over the centuries, and especially in the past 150 years, the Catholic Church has built up a body of social teaching that is intended to contribute to the formation of a society marked by peace, concord, and justice toward all. This body of teaching, based on reason and revelation, has been refined through dialogue with Greek philosophy and Roman law, as well as the experience of the Church throughout two millennia, in interaction with many cultures in Europe, the Americas, and other continents. (14) It seems safe to say that no other institution has developed a body of social teaching rivaling that of the Catholic Church, in depth, coherence, and completeness. …

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