The dignity of human life must be at the center of all man-made laws if society is to strike harmony with natural law, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan said on Jan. 24 at a Fordham Law forum.
Delivering the inaugural address at “Law and the Gospel of Life,” Cardinal-Designate Dolan invoked Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae. Written 17 years ago, it speaks not just to Christians, but to “all people of good will” on the contrast between a culture of death and a culture of life, the archbishop said.
In modern political and legal theory, religion has been set aside from public policy discussions and law, in favor of secular arguments that are based on shifting values, or “drifting dunes of utility, convenience, privacy, and self-interest,” he said. Such a culture constructs laws that lead to the devaluation of human life, whether it be through abortion, infanticide, contraception, war, or poverty.
This runs contrary to the concept of “natural law,” an objective truth that recognizes all human life as sacred, and thus meriting legal protection.
“In the utilitarian view that dominates our age, the principle that human life is an end in itself, not a means to an end, is always subject to a calculation that would justify harm to another—if we deem it to produce enough of a benefit to ourselves,” Archbishop Dolan said.
Even babies, he said, have become a “commodity.” The nation of China enforces the law of one child per family, and in other nations couples use contraception until they “decide they’d enjoy one.”
“Pragmatism, utilitarianism, and consumerism are fancy vocabulary words for the passionate drive for having anddoing,” Archbishop Dolan said. “(But) life is basically aboutbeing, and the law’s most noble purpose is to safeguard the “being” of life from the rawest preferences for having and doing.”
Archbishop Dolan’s remarks were followed by responses by Jacqueline Nolan-Haley, professor of law, and by Monica McDaniel (LAW ’09), former president of Fordham Law’s Catholic Law Students Association.
McDaniel, an associate at White & Case, said that the pro bono departments of some law firms can lack good moral reasoning: on the one hand offering representation to fight conscientious objection to abortion while simultaneously offering to defend freedom of expression in another case.
It is up to law students and lawyers who believe in the Gospel of Life to uphold their values in school and in the workplace, she said.
“This may mean starting a conversation with a co-worker on a difficult subject, or challenging a professor who makes ethically dubious claims, or opposing an unethical practice advocated by a client, or requesting not be put on an assignment involving a corporate client whose mission we can’t support—even if we risk earning a reputation of not being a ‘team player,’” she said.
Accepting questions from the audience on “anything but my income taxes,” the archbishop acknowledged the frustration that some faculty members can face when students see no place for religion in classes on topics such as bioethics.
“One of the things that is frustrating is that the natural law approach is automatically thought to be synonymous with Catholic teaching, but it is not uniquely Catholic,” Archbishop Dolan said. “Some of its greatest proponents—Aristotle, Cicero—never even heard of the Catholic Church.
“You can tap into your pedagogical toolbox and take this out of a Catholic context,” he said. “This is a human thing . . . an examination of conscience.”
Following the event, Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, presented Archbishop Dolan, a St. Louis native, with a St. Louis Cardinals hat, which he promptly donned to unanimous applause.
The archbishop made a promise to return to Fordham following his elevation to cardinal next month in Rome.
“Any opportunity to visit Fordham is an occasion I relish,” he said.
The event launched the new initiative by Fordham Law’s Institute on Religion, Law and Lawyer’s Work, to explore the challenges of applying Gospel values to law and social policy. The institute was established in 2001 with funds from William F. “BJ” Harrington (LAW ’59) for the purpose of integrating faith values into the practice of law.
Harrington’s son, William P. Harrington (LAW ’82), moderated the evening’s discussion.