Guest Columnist All are called to holiness, even lawyers

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Pope Francis last week issued a short letter about holiness. On the Call to Holiness in Today's World offers important considerations for those of us working in the legal profession. 

Francis' work, called an apostolic exhortation, begins with a reminder of the universal call to holiness. Holiness is not reserved for the clergy or those in religious orders. It is for everyone.  Even lawyers.

Following his pastoral nudge to direct our lives towards holiness, Pope Francis observes that "the 'genius of woman' is seen in 'feminine styles of holiness.'" He credits the work of saintly women for having helped reform and invigorate the Church and "sustained and transformed families and communities by the power of their witness." Saint Pope John Paul II, one of Francis' recent predecessors, identified in the "feminine genius" four key aspects that "aid humanity in not falling": receptivity, sensitivity, generosity, and maternity.  

Women make up more than a third of those working in the legal profession in the United States.  Rather than regard the increasing ranks of women as competing against our male counterparts, the "feminine genius" suggests that the growing number of women lawyers can make the legal profession an even more noble one. We receive. We feel. We give. We are mothers.   

Francis' exhortation also cautions against two heretical ideas that "continue to plague us" – gnosticism and pelagianism. A recent article in Crisis magazine written by Jesuit priest Father James V. Schall summarizes helpful guidance offered by the Magisterium on these two ideas so we can "see more clearly what [the pope] is driving at." As written in his exhortation, the pope's concern is that these "two false forms of holiness . . . can lead us astray."  

The gnostic "exalts knowledge or a specific experience" to the point where he embraces a rigidity that does not leave room for God's transcendence. Lawyers, particularly experienced and accomplished ones, can mistakenly adopt a "gnostic mentality" that concerns the Holy Father: "because we know something, or are able to explain it in certain terms, we are already saints, perfect and better than the 'ignorant masses.'" Our professional prowess is important, but as the pope underscores, "a person's perfection is measured not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the depth of their charity."

Yielding to the error of pelagianism or semi-pelagianism (both emphasizing human will and dismissing or relegating the role of divine grace), can tempt us to trust our own abilities and adopt a sense of superiority to others. This also is an attractive idea to lawyers. We know the rules. We have the license to practice. We can argue in court. Such misguided confidence in our own efforts, the pope warns, can create "a will lacking in humility" that "prevents grace from working more effectively within us."       

Rather than fall for these contemporary versions of error, the pope points to an alternative path – living the Beatitudes. Because doing so is particularly difficult for today's members of the American bar, a few of the pope's observations are important to consider.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit." After paying off astronomical law school debt, a young lawyer can quickly feel entitled to the comfort secured by her salary. Francis warns that such a sense of entitlement may lead a person to "become so self-satisfied that we leave no room for God's word, for the love of our brothers and sisters, or for the enjoyment of the most important things in life." 

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" and "Blessed are the peacemakers."  Although the justice of which Jesus speaks in the Beatitudes is different than that of this world, "[t]rue justice comes about in people's lives when they themselves are just in their decisions."  Further, when faced with the issue of "what ought to be done," the Holy Father recommends that we "pursue what makes for peace, for unity is preferable to conflict." 

"Blessed are the merciful." Finally, invoking a common theme of his papacy, Francis reiterates the importance of mercy. "Mercy does not exclude justice and truth." Our advocacy on behalf of truth and justice must be guided by mercy, ever aware of ourselves as part of "an army of the forgiven."      

Pope Francis' most recent guidance offers cautionary concern and practical steps for living the universal call to holiness. Even for lawyers.

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