What is the “mission” of a Catholic law school?

What is the “mission” of a Catholic law school? October 27, 2007

I am on my way back — having a beer in the airport — from the annual AALS hiring conference.  (This is, for the unitiated, a several-days-long affair, at a huge hotel, where aspiring law-professors run from one 30 minute interview to another, and the appointments commitees of dozens and dozens of law schools hole up in suites, waiting to pepper candidates with questions about their goals, lives, work, etc.)

One result of spending the day meeting and talking with a contingent of talented, engaging, and intimidatingly credentialed would-be law professors (that is, an effect besides the “good Lord, I’m glad I got my job ten years ago” feeling) is reflection on what it means — beyond slogans, inoffensive generalities, or uncontroversial bromides about “justice” — to profess and aspire to be a “Catholic law school”.

To their credit, most of the future law-teachers with whom my Notre Dame colleagues and I spoke asked us about — “called us” on — the “Catholic mission” thing.  As a rule, we would say, among other things, that there are dozens of faculty and each would likely express and live out the “thing” in different ways.  Fair enough.  But, what else?  Some affirmations of the importance of community, collegiality, social-justice, etc., were also appropriate, and regularly provided.  We talked some about how a Catholic law school’s mission finds natural expression in indisciplinary work (that is, “interdisciplinarity” is not, on the Catholic understanding of a university’s work, a fad or an add-on; it’s a natural, necessary feature of the search for truth.)  And, I emphasized, as I usually do in these conversations, my view that a Catholic law school should call its students and faculty to “integration.”

But . . . what else is needed?  What else should be said?  I’ve been teaching at a Catholic law school for nine years, blogging about “Catholic legal theory” for nearly five, and have talked to dozens and dozens of potential hires.  I know — I just know — there’s more to the “mission” of an authentically, meaningfully Catholic law school than what I usually manage to articulate, and I feel like I’m not doing right by those who say, “that sounds interesting, even attractive . . . what does it mean?”

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  • SMB

    Here is the rub. ‘Integration’, ‘interdisciplinarity’, and the ‘search for truth’ are all good things, but there is nothing specifically ‘Catholic’ about them. Unless our mission statements also include the words ‘Christ’ and ‘Church’, the label ‘Catholic’ will seem inappropriate.

  • Donald R. McClarey

    Perhpaps a good start is to consider what is not part of the mission of a Catholic law school:



  • I hope that there is a strong difference between your Catholic law school and the state-run law school I attend. But to mark a distinction, you do not need to mention Christ and Church when, for example, teaching the particularities of hearsay evidence. I don’t know where you would work the difference in, but this is what I think it should be: the Catholic legal education can be based on the outlandish notion that there is Truth. I’ve found my legal education to be, in certain respects, disheartening (almost depressing), because I’ve only learned that a “reasonable” argument can be made on either side of any given issue. Everything has been wrought relative and subjective – truth is for fools or liars. Can you not do better than this state-school approach, and yet still teach the art of lawyering? After all, the best arguments are those that have the force of truth behind them – that seek after the Right answer. I wish I had applied to Notre Dame instead…

    Peace in Christ,

  • SMB

    I agree wholeheartedly. But even the notion of objective truth is not peculiar to Catholicism–although Catholics may be among its few defenders. When folks hear ‘Catholic’, they think ‘Church’. When we avoid using the latter word, they wonder why. If the label ‘Catholic’ cannot meaningfully be applied to education in the law, a law school should stop using the label.

  • Irenaeus

    It would seem to me that Catholic legal theory would be miles apart from what’s being taught at places like Yale, Duke, Harvard, etc, since Catholicism has natural law theory and Aristotle and Aquinas etc. to fall back upon. Catholic thinking seems to have the capacity for coherence. But I’m in religion.

  • Rick Garnett

    Thos, it’s not too late to transfer, is it? =-)

    I think Iranaeus and Thos are onto something in emphasizing “coherence” and the unifying pull of a commitment to Truth.

  • SMB,

    Certainly you must be right that applying the name “Church” to an institution’s identity must have some bearing on the education given therein.

    (Prof.?) Rick,

    Sadly, it is too late to transfer, thanks in part to my military employment/scholarship.

    True to form, let me provide an example to elaborate on my point about Truth:

    – A Christian who is an aspiring lawyer wonders how he will assert a client’s 4th Amendment rights when he knows that client was caught red-handed in preparation for a “sex tourism” trip to S. America to prey on young boys.
    – The secular law school faculty sees this as cut-and-dry (in spite of their denial of absolute truth); the right is there, the exclusionary rule is there, and a counselor is ethically bound to represent his client (yadda yadda).
    – But the Christian who is an aspiring lawyer finds an emptiness in this clear-cut rule. He sees that Herman Goering’s aide-de-campe may have been under some sort of ethical obligation to aid Goering accomplish his will to its utmost. He sees that so-called obligations to follow morally tenuous means to one particular end (restraining police violations of citizens’ rights) are in no way clear-cut. He sees that aiding a man addicted to sexually violating young boys is no way to carry forward the banner of Christ.
    – Certainly the faculty of Notre Dame is (and should seek to continue to be) prepared to equip the Christian law student to face such moral perils of the profession with courage and integrity (to Christ). That should be your distinguishing feature. I will largely lack such equipment when I begin practice.

    Peace in Christ,

  • Oops, I guess I ended up talking about Christian character, a subset of Truth. The Truth I meant to emphasize was that it is either right or wrong to aid fellow citizens who seek to obtain freedom to continue pursuing deviancy. The Catholic Law School should equip Christian lawyers to be able to discern truth (i.e., the right course) in those particularly tight spots.

    Peace in Christ,

  • A Catholic law school is to teach no less than how to be Jesus in and bring Jesus to the law. We Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the sacraments. Therefore, a life committed to the sacraments is integral to bringing the Real Presence of Christ to the making and practice of law. A commitment to the moral teachings which underly the sacramental practices and teachings of the Church is also integral to the practice of law for the Catholic lawyer.

    What we get in most Catholic law schools are statements about Catholic “tradition” and “commitment to social justice” which are not in some cases any different from the mushy leftism of the secular campuses, though in many cases, people in the law school are courageously living out their faith. What would change the world would be the commitment of a Catholic law school faculty and staff to eucharistic adoration, prayer, and Vincentian good works.

    Such a school does not have to exclude non-Catholics, but those who are completely committed to secular understandings of human behavior and law would probably be more comfortable elsewhere. That’s OK. There are more than 160 law schools in America. Christian humanism is our project.