A LEGAL RELIGIOUS ORDER? The Catholics have order…


The Catholics have orders of priests, Brothers, and Sisters, who serve as doctors, nurses, teachers, activists and community organizers, missionaries, scholars and researchers, church bureaucrats, trainers of priests, pray-ers, social workers, counselors, youth workers, chaplains, etc.

How about an order of lawyers?

When all the jokes are done being cracked(!), the poor, the Third World, the environment, the sick and disabled, the mentally ill, minorities, battered spouses, the oppressed, workers, stockholders, the abused, nonprofit organizations, criminal defendants, victims, debtors, activists, opposition political parties, the Church, even priests/Brothers/Sisters and religious orders, and some lawyers themselves(!), need good legal advice and representation they can’t afford.

Much good legal advice and representation is priced out of reach of most people, and as we’ve seen in the last generation in the United States at least, governments can’t be relied upon to fund Legal Aid, Public Defenders, etc., adequately if at all, especially when the adversaries of the above persons and groups rule or wield undue influence. Thus “justice” promised by many legal systems is only available to the well-off.

Good legal advice and rep costs so much for a variety of reasons besides the greed of some individual lawyers and firms. Law school is expensive. Many lawyers of necessity must live in expensive parts of their countries, such as capital cities, megalopolitan suburbs, and county seats. Even pro bono work needs to be subsidized by other, paying clients. Fees and expenses imposed by courts, regulatory agencies, and other government entities, add to the total cost. Then there are the ordinary expenses of running a law office or firm, supporting employees and dependents, etc. And often the practice of law is accompanied by marginally-relevant costs ranging from the social (fancy dinners, official schmoozing, etc.) to the criminal or near-criminal (bribes, “gratuities,” etc.). Plus, good legal advice and rep is simply alot of hard work.

Part of the success of the American Catholic parochial school system can be attributed to its staffing by lower-paid and volunteer workers – originally religious Sisters, now mostly single and married laywomen. (In parts of Ireland and Canada, originally religious Brothers.) These persons do this work often because they believe in it religiously. (No pun intended.) In the other areas of Religious specialty noted at the top of this piece, Catholic success and advances also owe at least in part to lower-paid and volunteer workers. In addition, religious orders and their apostolates attract the freewill donations of Catholic faithful, other institutions, and even non-Catholics.

The vital difference Catholic religious orders traditionally make is that their members have chosen to be unmarried, have no family dependents, live in common in religious institutions themselves, and thus can afford to serve the needy more cheaply than laypersons “in the world” with spouses and children etc. Another difference is that most Religious can theoretically be assigned anywhere in the world (or at least in their country) where there is need, often with little notice. (Think of religious orders as the original transnational corporations!) In addition, while this point doesn’t necessarily commend itself to religious worker morale, religious have sometimes been directed to perform tasks they didn’t even wish to – again, not completely unlike other lines of work, come to think of it!!! And there are probably other points to be made in favor of this model of public service. And of course, it traditionally has enjoyed the sanction of the faith itself.

While certainly Catholic religious orders, as well as such concepts as celibacy and obedience, have seen better days, even one lawyer serving free of familial attachments, in an area of need, free or cheap to clients, supported and subsidized by donors, endorsed by religion, could make a huge difference in a single community. In fact religious Brothers and Sisters are even free of some of the obligations traditionally imposed on priests, such as earning a theology degree, saying Mass, preaching, administering other sacraments, preparing converts, etc., often very time-consuming.

The Jesuits have included some lawyers and/or law professors, as have a few other orders of men and women. But imagine mobilizing a whole corps – of any size – of dedicated Religious lawyers! (Again, spare us the jokes!) Call it perhaps The Society of Saint Thomas More – the Morists (SSTM).

Even imagine the good influence they could be on the wider legal system, on other lawyers, judges, legislators, government officials, in some cases even juries, as well as on the whole legal discourse of a society.

Halfway measures would probably help also, e.g., less-traditional groupings such as Secular Institutes, Lay Apostolic Societies, Secular Third Orders, associations of volunteers, lay associates or auxiliaries, alumni organizations, student/seminarian groups, etc.