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Moments in Time

Laying down the law for Christ


Lawyers often get a bad rap in our society, but most ethical issues in our country come to light because of lawyers who quietly, patiently pursue those who broach not only civil but ethical principles. Every day it seems we read a new article about corporate executives caught cheating their own companies. The nightly news shows them hauled off to court by the police, but it is usually lawyers who have tracked them down. Lawyers are the ones who attempt to defend the legal rights of the prisons in Guantanamo. Lawyers are the watchdogs for environmental laws, civil rights, discrimination and child abuse. In fact, Christianity owes a great deal to lawyers, or their equivalent in the Roman Empire, rhetors. Not quite lawyers in the modern sense, rhetors did defend their clients in law cases, so their profession roughly parallels those of a modern attorney.

Famous lawyer saints would include St. Hilary of Poitiers, St. Augustine, St. Basil (although he never practiced), St. Ambrose and Tertullian as well the great Reformation figures St. Thomas More and John Calvin. It would be hard to imagine Christianity without these brilliant and influential writers. There are lesser-known saints of the legal profession, however, and it might do well to remember that lawyers themselves have many advocates pleading for them before the throne of heaven.

St. Genesius of Arles, for instance, is the patron saints of lawyers along with the great Hilary of Poitiers. Genesius was martyred during the persecution of Diocletian in the early fourth century. The story goes that he was a notary who made shorthand summaries of judicial proceedings for the public archives (a court reporter, I guess). One day, while performing his duties in the presence of the judge, Genesius, who was a catechumen, was so offended by the edict of persecution that was read out that he threw down his register and quit his profession. He was, alas, beheaded.

Genesius would be neither the first nor the last Christian lawyer to lose his head in defense of justice. The work of such lawyers continues, and present Christian lawyers should be proud of their distinguished heritage. The rest of us might think twice before passing on the latest lawyer joke. We may need a good defense in the heavenly court someday and, contrary to rumor, that court is packed with lawyers.

Gary Macy is a theology professor at the University of San Diego. He may be reached at macy@pwa.acusd.edu

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 2002