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Where Catholicism and law intersect

NCR Staff

Notre Dame is a special place, I think,” says M. Kathleen Kaveny, referring to the law school where she teaches. “It is a great place to explore what it means to be a Catholic, a smart person and a lawyer at the end of the 20th century.”

Kaveny, associate professor at the Notre Dame Law School, says she can’t imagine having as much freedom at other law schools to think and write about questions at the intersection of Catholicism and law.

Notre Dame’s longtime dean, David T. Link, plans to carry the principles of Notre Dame’s success to the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., where he has been appointed founding law school dean.

Kaveny graduated summa cum laude from Princeton in 1984, then earned a law degree and a Ph.D. in ethics from Yale. She worked as law clerk for John T. Noonan Jr., Catholic historian and U.S. appeals court judge in San Francisco. She also worked from 1992 to 1995 as an associate lawyer for Ropes & Gray in Boston, a firm specializing in health care law.

Now, Kaveny writes and speaks often on such legal-moral issues as assisted suicide, genetics and cloning. Besides bringing “a Catholic sensibility” to questions already under debate, Kaveny likes to raise new ones. For example, in Cleveland in March, she critiqued the concept of “billable hours” at a conference sponsored by the Cardinal Suenens Program in Theology and Church Life. Kaveny compared Catholicism’s liturgical sense of time with the legal profession’s practice of tracking time, even small units of time, and billing them to clients.

Kaveny sees widespread dissatisfaction expressed by young lawyers in surveys as the result not only of the long, isolating hours of work -- an average today in large firms of 10 hours a day, six days a week, Kaveny said -- but also of the way time is perceived and used in law offices.

“Because the pressures of large firm life force most lawyers to internalize a monetary understanding of their time, they find themselves increasingly alienated from aspects of their lives that characteristically do not value time in this way, such as family birthdays, holidays, volunteer work,” she wrote. A major reason lawyers are willing to work so hard, besides their competitive natures, is that “they have forgotten what it is like to view time in a way that would make any other endeavors seem worthwhile.”

In contrast, Kaveny wrote, the Christian community witnesses to a “radically different understanding of time,” not time as “an endless, colorless extension, much as it can appear to be in modern law firms,” but as rhythmic, cyclical, related to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and therefore “intrinsically valuable.”

“The rhythm of the alternating feasts and fasts punctuate the time of a Christian,” as do the sacraments, which call attention “to markers within it,” she wrote.

More broadly, she said religion and law are related because “law is the structure we hang our community on.” From a Catholic perspective, “law is not just about building negative fences or maximizing economic efficiency,” she said. “It’s about creating a positive context that will allow us to live together in a society and to further the common good.”

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 1999