Can Lawyers Be Saints?

Can Lawyers Be Saints?

Bishop Anthony Fisher

Laws must protect the weak, defenceless: Bishop Fisher

The following is an edited version of the homily given by Bishop Anthony Fisher OP, Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney, for the Red Mass Opening of the Legal Year, celebrated in St Mary's Cathedral on 2 February 2004. Prior to entering the priesthood, Bishop Fisher himself had a legal background.

The law in our country today is challenged in many directions by those who would compromise its reverence for human life, especially in its beginning and end; those who would equate all sorts of relationships with marriage and family life; those who would respond to perceived threats to security with suspension of rights; those who put the interests of the privileged and powerful before God's little ones, the orphan and widow, the sick and poor, the stranger and refugee, the ones most in need of the protection of law.

There are obviously many viewpoints on what laws are best, as there are of interpretations of law and fact. But it is not good enough to say that all views on these matters are equally valid and that therefore, in the end, it is all a matter of who has the power to impose what upon whom.

Any jurisprudence worthy of the name must remain focussed on justice and equity, that is, what is good for individuals, especially the least powerful, and so required by the common good.

The very freedoms and tolerance which allow us to take different positions on what laws are best are themselves premised not on moral relativism but on respect for democracy, for the rule of law and for each other, on certain 'non-negotiable' rights, duties and principles which must stand firm amidst ideological fashions or against powerful interest groups and even, sometimes, against majorities.

If that is to happen we will need just, merciful, wise, dare I say 'holy' law-makers, judges and lawyers - men and women of conscience who will bring their principles to bear in their professional lives.

Some people think distinctively Christian values are all very fine as long as they remain in the realm of high-sounding poetry and private devotion. But when it comes to attitudes and norms they would exile Christianity from the public life of our democratic, pluralist society.

Recently some legal academics have proposed that believers in general and Catholics in particular should be excluded from appearing before government inquiries, as friends of the court, even as candidates for legislative, judicial or executive office.

For all the talk of tolerance and pluralism, these ideologues want to impose upon the law a doctrinaire secularism which marginalises believers and threatens the spiritual and cultural foundations of our civilisation (cf Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, On Participation of Catholics in Political Life, 2002). It will take real courage to resist this. It will take saints.


But can lawyers be saints? According to popular mythology this is a contradiction. People love telling lawyer jokes and commonly place them in hell. Yet the early Church, at least, knew many lawyer-saints. Cyprian, Ambrose, Jerome, Benedict, Thomas a'Becket and many others were all lawyers before they became clerics, monks, preachers and saints.

Many more recent saints had a legal background, e.g., Thomas More, Charles Borromeo, Peter Canisius, Francis de Sales, Alphonsus Ligouri and [Blessed] Frederick Ozanam.

Some saints left the law only unwillingly: St Turibius was a law professor at Salamanca University when elected Archbishop of Lima. Despite pleading that he was a layman who wanted nothing more than to stick to his law practice, he was ordained and carted off to Peru. His previous profession proved handy, however, as he became an outstanding advocate of the rights of the natives against the enslaving conquistadors.

Others practised law until their deaths and found there a way to holiness. Luigi Beltrame Quattrochi, who died in 1951, was one half of the first couple to be canonised together - only three years ago.

All in all - and here's the surprising thing given the image in the popular culture - lawyers seem to be the most represented profession amongst the ranks of canonised saints after the professionally religious. Perhaps they are good at arguing their own case before the Divine Judge!

So what would a holy lawyer look like today?

The range of saintly lawyers I have listed suggests they can be a very diverse range of characters. What they had in common was a commitment to the truth of the Gospel, a deep prayer life and a willingness to give witness to their faith both within their profession and outside it, if needs be unto death.

St Thomas More, for instance, was no simpering, plaster cast saint, social misfit or would-be martyr: he was a man who loved his wives and children and parties, his legal practice and his life at court. He lived his life to the full and showed that one can be charming without selling out, steady in living the truth without being holier-than-thou. He calmly and unostentatiously stood by his principles even in the face of psychological torture and execution.

We might not agree with everything he said and did. But we can only admire the tribute he paid by his life and his death to the truth that morality cannot be separated from God, nor law from morality. He was truly a man of the commandments and the beatitudes, a man for all seasons, a man for our times. For perhaps better than any other he showed us how we can integrate a full legal-professional and family life with a personal life of prayer and principle (cf John Paul II, Motu Proprio Proclaiming St Thomas More Patron of Politicians (2001), 76; CDF, On Participation of Catholics, 1).

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