John Paul II’s Influence on Law & Justice: Law School Conference

April 6, 2006

As the first anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s death approached, legal scholars, philosophers, and theologians from around the country convened at St. John’s University School of Law on March 23-24 to explore the jurisprudential legacy of this charismatic and beloved pope. Keynoter John L. Allen, Vatican Correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, summed up the late-pope’s legacy by noting that John Paul “was not a lawyer-pope, but he was a giant of a pope, and the law, like every other area of life, could not help but be touched by his influence.” 

Welcoming the participants at the start of the conference, St. John’s University President Rev. Donald J. Harrington, C.M. sounded a theme that would echo throughout the two days. Underlying all of John Paul’s thought, Rev. Harrington said, was “amazement at the dignity and worth of the human person.”  In Rome for the 10th anniversary of St. John’s Rome campus, Rev. Harrington was in St. Peter’s Square on April 2, the day John Paul died, marveling at the outpouring of love and affection for the dying pontiff. The task of the conference attendees, he noted, “is to come a few more steps along the path of understanding the breadth of the pope’s contributions to law, culture and politics.” The end result of that understanding, he predicted, is that we all “can stand in amazement at the worth and dignity of this particular human person.”

Varied Presentations
Over a dozen scholars presented papers, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the School of Law’s Journal of Catholic Legal Studies.  Commenting on the Journal, School of Law Dean Mary C. Daly noted that the “rich tradition of Catholic social teaching provides particularly fertile ground for scholars trained in the law, and the Journal of Catholic Legal Studies is committed to cultivating that scholarship.” 

The presentations covered a wide variety of topics and indicated the breadth of John Paul II’s influence. Topics included the role of religious rhetoric in public debates, the pope’s vision of international law, his view of the “preferential option for the poor,” Biblical roots of his jurisprudence and its relationship to Jewish understandings of justice, and the particular ways in which his thought relates to property rights, corporate law, employer-employee relations, the death penalty, abortion, euthanasia, and the “Culture of Life.” Underlying many of the presentations was a recognition of the central role played by the Pope’s vision of the “essential dignity of the human person.”

Michael Simons, Associate Dean for Faculty Scholarship and Professor of Law, served as master of ceremonies throughout the two-day event, which he co-chaired with Professor Susan Stabile. Attendees included a wide range of those interested in John Paul’s legacy, from scholars and clergy to local residents and students. “There’s more interest these days in Catholic social thought,” David Kozlowski, President of the Catholic Law Students Association, said. “The Law School offers a relatively new course, Catholic Social Thought and the Law, taught by Professor Susan Stabile, which I’ve taken.”

John Allen Gives Keynote Address
In his address, Allen gave an overview of John Paul’s legal legacy. He first noted that John Paul’s extensive influence on law and politics came not from any particular vision of legal theory, but rather from his “sense of apostolic zeal, which deeply influenced the way Roman Catholics approach law, politics, and every other arena of human endeavor.” John Paul’s most important jurisprudential legacy, Allen said, is the way he inspired Catholics – including law makers and legal scholars – “to take seriously the public implications of their faith.” 

The Vatican correspondent outlined five areas in which John Paul’s impact was felt most keenly: he consistently preached against the “fallacy of legal positivism, the notion that law is whatever parliaments or courts say it is”; he drew explicit connections between faith and public policy that became a model and a challenge for all Catholics; he became “the world’s leading advocate of human rights”; he became a forceful and effective advocate against the death penalty; and he urged that the use of military force be predicated on the norms of international law  

He also identified three areas in which the late Pope’s jurisprudential legacy has left “open questions,” including the pastoral approach that the Church should take toward Catholics in public life, the meaning of the traditional Catholic “Just War” tradition in the face of modern terrorism, and the ways in which Catholic institutions balance their mission and Catholic identity with the civil law under which they operate.

Concluding his remarks, he noted that the conference is a model for how legal thinkers can bring “the best of Catholic moral and social reflection together with the highest standards of Western legal thought.” Allen urged the conference attendees to “set an example by fostering a conversation which is inclusive and respectful, but which also has teeth in insisting upon identifiably ‘Catholic’ answers to our challenges.” By doing that, Allen concluded, the impact of Catholic Legal Studies, like the impact of John Paul II, “will transcend the boundaries of law and politics, and become a point of light for all of us.”

A Future for Catholic Legal Studies
At the end of the conference, Professor Michael Simons praised the sense of community that had developed at the conference. “Catholic Legal Studies will grow,” he added, “through events like this and through publications like the Journal of Catholic Legal Studies.” Commenting after the conference, Gregory Sisk, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, expressed similar expectations. “If Catholic Legal Studies should succeed in becoming a distinct and meaningful movement within American jurisprudence in the coming decades,” Sisk noted, “the symposium on ‘The Jurisprudential Legacy of John Paul II’ at St. John’s University this past weekend will be remembered as a watershed event. Not only were each of the presentations wonderful contributions toward a jurisprudence grounded in Catholic social thought and the Catholic intellectual tradition, but the spirit of fellowship generated among all the participants was tangible and powerful.” Sisk added that “what we heard and felt at the St. John’s symposium makes me greatly optimistic that we can have an impact on the legal and political culture and do so in unity while retaining our diversity of approach.”