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Law From a Catholic Lens

8/27/2007 - 5:45 AM PST

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Kevin Lee on the Church and Legal Culture


Buies Creek, North Carolina, Aug. 27, 2007 (Zenit) - Much ink has been spilled over the supposed implications of having five Catholic justices sitting simultaneously on the U.S. Supreme Court.

But beyond speculation about what results this development may produce in specific cases such as abortion, there has been little discussion of what a uniquely Catholic understanding of American law actually means and how it may apply in the various substantive areas of law.

A new book, "Recovering Self-Evident Truths: Catholic Perspectives on American Law," (CUA Press), attempts to fill this void by explaining the theological and philosophical considerations that are foundational to a Catholic understanding of the law.

Kevin Lee, a professor of law at Campbell University, and author of the chapter titled "The Foundations of Catholic Legal Theory: A Primer," shared with us the contours of a distinctively Catholic understanding of law, and how Catholics may productively contribute to the law's development.

Q: What does it mean to offer a Catholic perspective on American law? Is it simply a critique of legal institutions like feminist legal theory, or does it offer something more?

Lee: A Catholic perspective must be concerned with what it means to be committed to Christ and to his Church.

So a Catholic perspective on American law means considering what law looks like from within that commitment.

It involves a critique of institutions and theories, but it also requires critical reflection on the patterns of meaning that shape and are shaped by the law and the legal system.

Q: Why is it necessary to ground an understanding of a legal system in a distinctively Christian anthropology?

Lee: It is not "necessary," in the sense that it is possible to create a legal system rooted in some other anthropology.

Much of contemporary American legal theory, for example, can scarcely be considered compatible with a Christian anthropology.

But I think Catholic anthropology has a contribution to make. It offers a unique understanding of the irreducible dignity of the person and the giftedness of the community.

Catholic thought affirms that human beings are creatures with particular natures, capacities and limitations.

We all have dignity as bearers of the "imago Dei," but we are also sinful and prone to weaknesses. We form communities naturally, through small acts of love and kindness, but that does not mean that we are not capable of meanness and selfishness.

The Anglo-American legal system could simply abandon its Christian roots as archaic or nonsensical, but doing that would mean abandoning our tradition and denying that tradition has anything to offer.

Anyone who would advocate that position would bear a heavy burden of proof.

Q: A number of scholars are rediscovering the Catholic influence on the formation of Western legal systems -- an influence that lasted well into the last century. Does the Catholic conception of reciprocal rights and duties, so long a part of Anglo-American law, continue to govern our legal system, or have individualistic and modern liberal theories such as those of John Rawls transformed American law?

Lee: There is no doubt that the contemporary Anglo-American legal system has been massively influenced by modern liberal democratic theories.

But, I don't think that Catholic thought is in total opposition to either modernity or liberalism. It is much more complex than that.

Modern liberals, like Catholics, are concerned with rights and justice.

For example, Pope John Paul II's passion for individual freedom against totalitarian rule found support among liberals.

The critique is more nuanced than a simple rejection of modernity and liberalism.

Q: What role does natural law play in Catholic legal theory? Is the natural law the "self-evident truths" that the American founders asserted governed political life?

Lee: Natural law is based on the belief that nature has rational purposes. It seeks to read moral precepts from such purposes as they are visible in nature.

Citing St. Paul's letter to the Romans, Christian natural law theorists have held that these precepts are based on self-evident foundational principles. But, it is a theory that is no longer widely accepted.

Modern science opposes the idea that there is any purpose to nature, moral or otherwise.

Contemporary secular philosophy largely denies moral truth altogether, and even contemporary Christian ethicists tend to look to virtue rather than law when speaking about morality.

Nonetheless, natural law theory still offers many ...

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