Spotlight on: Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy

A Catholic university ought to be a place in which the Church’s vision of the person and society can engage fruitfully with a wide variety of secular disciplines. The Catholic intellectual tradition, which sees a unity beneath all truth, has something to say to the sciences, to the humanities, to business and the economic sphere,…

A Catholic university ought to be a place in which the Church’s vision of the person and society can engage fruitfully with a wide variety of secular disciplines. The Catholic intellectual tradition, which sees a unity beneath all truth, has something to say to the sciences, to the humanities, to business and the economic sphere, and certainly to law and public policy. This is the conviction that lies behind the activities of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy.

Named for St. Thomas’ longtime president and chancellor, the institute was formed in 2004 as a joint venture of the Center for Catholic Studies and the School of Law. It was conceived in the context of the center’s efforts to reach out to other parts of the university and was heartily endorsed by the School of Law’s administration.

Housed at St. Thomas’ School of Law on the Minneapolis campus, the institute is co-directed by Thomas Berg, St. Ives Professor in the School of Law and an acclaimed scholar of law and religion, and Robert Kennedy, chair of the Department of Catholic Studies and a writer on professional ethics and the Catholic social tradition. They were joined in 2007 by assistant director Valerie Munson, a practicing attorney and a specialist in issues related to law and religion.

The mission of the institute is to promote the active engagement of the Catholic intellectual tradition with law and public policy. To do this, the institute’s activities focus on four areas: the development of curricular resources for Catholic law schools, the promotion of scholarship related to law and the Catholic tradition, the organization of lectures and other events for the community, and the non-partisan analysis of public policy issues.

Developing Curricular Resources

The Catholic intellectual tradition derives its reflections on law and society from classic writers like Augustine and Aquinas, to early modern thinkers like Francisco Suarez, tomodern legal scholars like John Finnis and James Gordley. Yet most law professors have little acquaintance with this tradition, even those who received their training in Catholic universities. As a consequence, while a number of professors want to integrate Catholic thinking into their courses, very little material exists to help them do this. In response, the institute has organized several conferences aimed at encouragingthe development of new classroom materials and the sharing of materials already in use.

The most recent conference was held at St. Thomas last November. Law professors from nearly a dozen schools around the country gathered to discuss the issue of preparing materials for specific disciplines within the law. They identified keyconcepts from the tradition that ought to be communicated to Catholic law students and specific areas of legal education that would be open to these concepts, and they agreed to develop study aids for students entering law school. A follow-up conference and faculty development workshops are the next step. An effort also is underway to make instructional materials available on a Web site for use not only by UST faculty but also by faculty at other schools of law.

The Promotion of Scholarship

Despite the breadth and richness of the Catholic tradition of reflection on law and society, a great deal of work remains to be done to make the tradition accessible to a modern audience of scholars and lawyers trained primarily in secular theories of law. There also is a pressing need to bring the tradition to bear on new issues, such as applying the law to recent developments in scientific and cultural arenas.

Over the last few years, the institute has organized two international conferences to provide venues for scholarly research and discussion. The first focused on “The Good Society,” while the second explored the theme of “Public Policy and the Virtue of Prudence.” Scholars from around the United States as well as from Latin America, Europe and Asia contributed papers, the best of which are now being prepared for publication.

Plans for two additional conferences are underway. One will concentrate on the new legal and moral issues in the area of intellectual property. The other will bring an array of scholars together to reflect on the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr and its implications for contemporary public policy issues. Other scholarly projects, such as translations of classic texts from the Catholic tradition, also are being considered.

Community Events

Public events give the institute the opportunity to bring a Catholic perspective, and sometimes a more broadly religious perspective, to bear on issues of the day. Severalrecent events illustrate the range of these activities.

On Sept. 17, 2008, the institute sponsored a panel discussion on the subject of conflicts of conscience experienced by health care providers. This issue has received national attention over the last few years because of several lawsuits that arose when pharmacists refused to dispense medications such as the “morning after” pill on the grounds that doing so violated their consciences.

The panelists were Robert Vischer, professor of law at UST; Janet Smith, an internationally renowned ethicist and in fall 2008 a scholar-in-residence at The Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity; and Martha Swartz, a practicing attorney and adjunct professor at Rutgers University School of Law. In a lively discussion, they explored positions that ranged from favoring protection for one’s conscience to favoring the enforcement of the obligation of health care professionals to serve the public. Smith argued that professionals cannot and should not be forced to act against their consciences. Swartz, however, emphasized the duty of professionals to provide health care services and the consequences to patients if they are denied access to legal health care alternatives. Vischer argued for a middle position under which the law would protect individual professional’s right of conscience as long as the patient had reasonable access to the health care alternative sought.

On Feb. 13, 2009, three nationally prominent writers were invited to compose a “Memo to the President.” The panelists were John Allen, senior Vatican correspondent for CNN; Andrew Bacevich,  rofessor of international relations at Boston University; and David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values. Each panelist discussed what he would say to President Obama if he were given half an hour to explain the priorities he thought the new president should adopt.

Allen’s memo urged the president to take religion seriously and to acknowledge the capacity of religion and religious leaders to shape world events. Bacevich emphasized the president’s duty to act for the common good and noted the importance of that concept in Catholic social thought. He also argued that the president’s constitutional obligation is to provide for the common  efense of the nation and not to undertake projects to shape affairs in other parts of the world. Blankenhorn focused on two issues, the crisis of fatherhood and the virtue of thrift. He noted that the absence of fathers in so many households has created a set of problems that government cannot ignore. He further observed that thrift, the Christian concept of stewardship and a virtue once widely cultivated in American society, is rarely  celebrated today, although the country’s current economic challenges may see a return to this value.

On March 18, 2009, the institute hosted a “Muslim- Catholic Dialogue on Faith and Reason.” The presenters were Archbishop Celestino Migliore, apostolic nuncio and permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, and Ibrahim Kalin, professor of Islamc history and culture at Georgetown University. The dialogue was inspired by Pope Benedict’s lecture at the University of Regensburg in September 2006 in which he posed questions to the two modern bodies of thought that challenge Christianity: rationalism and Islam. He argued that the Catholic tradition is firmly committed to the compatibility of faith and reason. Benedict invited modern rationalists to engage in a dialogue with Christians that fully embraces the use of reason, and he wondered if Islam would admit the importance of reason or would insist that faith is beyond reason. The two panelists debated the issues surrounding the complementarity of faith and reason from their respective faith traditions and offered a fine example of dialogue between two different cultures. 

Public Policy Analysis

The fourth goal of the institute is to encourage the non-partisan analysis of public policy rooted in the Catholic tradition. The objective here is to make available to bishops and Catholic legislators a review of issues and policies that can help them advocate effectively and make decisions that are consistent with their faith commitments. While this last area of the institute’s activity is the least developed to date, plans are underway to assemble a team of experts in law and theology who will be available to address these matters as they arise.

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