In 1535, English Lord Chancellor Thomas More lost his head after refusing to acknowledge that King Henry VIII – and not the pope – had the authority to annul his marriage. More, who was sainted by the Roman Catholic Church in 1935, has been invoked ever since by those who believe that faith and law are not mutually exclusive.
Now that philosophy – as old as Scripture and as inherently American as the Founders and the Declaration of Independence – has been formalized through the creation of the Saint Thomas More Society of Fort Wayne, one of several such groups nationwide seeking to teach and embolden attorneys, judges and others as to how their Bible-based morality might properly shape the practice of law.
“A couple of years Bishop (Kevin) Rhoades mentioned the society at the Red Mass (an annual event focusing on legal issues). There had been one in Harrisburg (where Rhoades had been bishop before coming to the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend),” said Craig Bobay, Allen Circuit Court Magistrate and one of the local chapter's founding members. “What drew me was the opportunity for ethical and spiritual formation. Lawyers don't have to leave their Christian faith at the door.”
Such a sentiment may seem foreign – even dangerous – to those who insist that religion has no place in public life. But the Supreme Court's “separation of church and state” notwithstanding, that is a decidedly narrow and un-American contention.
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other,” said John Adams, who signed the Declaration and Bill of Rights before serving as our second president.
“Human law must rest its authority ultimately upon the authority of that law which is divine . . . Far from being rivals or enemies, religion and law are twin sisters,” agreed James Wilson, who signed the Constitution and served on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Membership is open to attorneys, judges, canon lawyers, law professor, student or school in the Fort Wayne area. People of all faiths are welcome, but the society's constitution and bylaws commit members to ongoing education, ethical and spiritual formation and study of “the principles of the Catholic Church relating to moral and legal problems encountered in the practice of law.”
“We believe in natural moral law,” said canon lawyer Mark Gurtner, priest at Our Lady of Good Hope Catholic Church on St. Joe Road. “This (group) is an excellent idea, because the wisdom and moral teachings of the church can benefit Christians and society.”
At a basic level, such an approach should alarm no one. Although secular ethical guidelines are often viewed as the outer limits of acceptable legal conduct, those limits often represent a morally ambiguous area best avoided whenever possible. If the perceived duty to an authority greater than any judge induces virtue, the legal system will be the better for it.
But the concept of natural law – found both in the Bible (Romans 1 and elsewhere) and the Declaration's recognition of rights granted by “nature's God” – could be more problematic. Natural law is the basis of Catholic teachings about abortion, gay rights and other social issues, but as recent headlines have made clear, laws governing such things are in flux. Attorneys are free to believe and (usually) to choose clients as they wish, but they are not free to choose which laws they will obey and which they will ignore. Christians may decide they must obey God's laws rather than man's – as Scripture says they should – but as attorneys they have also freely assumed an obligation to “Caesar's” laws.
And although Bobay stressed the society will not accept clients or advocate on legal issues, membership could expose members – especially judges – to the perception that they are not entirely objective where certain issues are concerned.
But those and other potential pitfalls should not overshadow the fact that
Christian are beginning to reclaim their rightful place in the public square. Just as the recent creation of “Shepherds United” represented local clergy's commitment to promote life, traditional marriage and religious liberty in the secular arena, the More Society reflects a similar determination within the legal community.
And if members are bound by existing laws, Gurtner noted they are also free (within Constitutional bounds) to promote new laws that better reflect their beliefs. In fact, as Adams warned, America as we know it cannot exist if it relies on man-made laws alone.
“A law is something which must have a moral basis, so that there is an inner compelling force for every citizen to obey.” That wasn't said by a Christian, but by Chaim Weizman -- the first president of the state of Israel.