For some time now, legal scholars have been engaged in a project that seeks to examine law (and business practice as well insofar as that practice concerns law) through the lens of Catholic Social Thought. As part of my own interest in the subject, I have been making my way through this book, with the hopes of writing a longer review. I would like to use a few blog posts to develop some preliminary points to help shape my thinking.
The book, edited and selected by Ronald J. Rychlak, applies a Catholic perspective to a number of legal areas, such as torts, family law, and legal ethics. The contributions provide a good overview of the state of Catholic-inflected legal scholarship. The Catholic tradition has a number of principles, such as subsidiarity, solidarity, the common good, and the value and dignity of work, that at the level of scholarship can fruitfully engage American legal norms.
Whether you think this project worthwhile as a practical exercise – that is, whether Catholic thought can help lawyers in their day to day practice – may depend on whether you see the American legal landscape friendly to arguments rooted in that tradition. Some Catholics think the American experiment is opposed to Catholicism, especially in light of Obergefell and Roe. As Gerard Bradley of Notre Dame, who wrote the preface, notes, Catholicism has had little formally to do with American law, if by that we mean laws directly inspired by Catholic principles (the laws protecting priest-penitent privilege being an interesting exception). What positive laws there are in America oftentimes seem opposed to Catholics, from the public school cases of the nineteenth century to the HHS mandate.
Others, however, take a different view. Some excellent work has been done in this area, especially as it concerns “religious lawyering;” my friend Amy Uelmen has written on how a lawyer can insert her religious perspective even into a big corporate law firm practice. The Catholic tradition allows, indeed requires, Catholics to bring their faith to everyday interactions. On a more scholarly level, the book contains helpful analyses of, for example, the Eighth Amendment in light of Catholic teaching on the death penalty. As Robert George of Princeton notes in his essay, Catholic reflection on positive law assumes some connection to natural law. Without that connection, law becomes mere power relations and an instrument for injustice. Given cases like Roe, the Catholic intellectual tradition today must serve to limit that sense, common among the ruling legal elites, that law comprises its own morality rather than serving as a tool to further the common good.