Law and Medicine in the Service of the Person and Society

(A lecture given in Wellington, New Zealand, 1994, to a combined meeting of the SS. Cosmas and Damian Guild and the St. Thomas More Society)

            Job satisfaction is something that everyone attaches importance to. Many people miss a major aspect of job satisfaction because they are lacking in social sense. They work because they have to make a living, and hopefully also because they like their work, and in that sense it provides them with some degree of personal fulfilment. What they fail to realise and draw satisfaction from is that the job they are performing is also a service to society. Every honest job contributes to the common good. Certain professions however offer special service to society, should evoke a special spirit of service; and when this is present give a very unique type of job satisfaction. Teaching is one such profession. So is medicine. So is the priesthood and other specially dedicated vocations in the Church.

            My father was a doctor and I am a priest, and I have always felt that medicine and the priesthood particularly qualify as service professions. I am also a lawyer, both civil and canonical; but must admit that only in the more recent past have I come to consider that the law too has every title to rank as a unique service profession. It is not that I excluded it deliberately before from my idea of major service professions; I just did not positively include it in the list. Now I do, most positively.

Service callings

            Each of these callings serves other people in a distinctive way. In a broad generalisation, one could say that medicine seeks to heal the body, priesthood to heal the soul, and law to heal the relations between persons. My topic today is not the ministerial priesthood. I wish to dwell rather on the importance of medicine and the law in the service of persons and society.

            Medicine is an art as well as a science. I am not speaking here of the doctor devoted just to research, although he or she also contributes to the services offered by medicine. I am thinking about general practitioners or specialists whose concern is to treat patients directly, in order to heal them.

            The law, as I see it, is also an art and not just a science. The lawyer seeks - he or she should seek - not only to know legal principles - theories of justice, of rights and wrongs and claims and defences - but to bring about justice, in society and between individuals: to defend rights, to endeavour that each one has his or her due.

            The physician who practices the art of medicine can heal only if he has a true idea of what bodily or physical health is. So it is with the lawyer who practices the art of law: he can only help to resolve and heal the disputes about claims and rights that arise in civil society, if he is inspired by a true idea of justice, of what is really due, and what is not due, to each one.

            I imagine that you doctors have often enough reflected on this, and want always to be true dispensers of sound medicine. It is possible that some of you lawyers may not have thought so much about your service mission, and the full implications of working not only to further the legitimate interests of individual or corporate bodies, but specially so as to foster justice in interpersonal relations between individual citizens, for that is where your service has its particular human dignity.

            It would be interesting to go further into some of the positive implications of this panorama for both professions. My present intent, however, is not to pursue that line, but rather to dwell with you on some negative trends that are powerfully affecting law no less than medicine, and threatening to destroy their self-awareness as real service-professions, as well as the actual human and humanising service they offer.

            Medicine is meant to cure; and is now being more and more instrumentalised in order to take away health and even life. Abortion is of course a major example. It is a violation of all that medicine stands for if doctors let themselves be used for abortion. The same basic analysis should be applied to euthanasia, if it is properly considered. Medicine then becomes an instrument for dehumanising people and society, instead of making them more human.

            The abortion doctor makes himself a part - a principal - to the taking of innocent and defenceless human life, and so too becomes an active agent in the current process by which our society is being rendered violent. Once abortion is legalised - once it is lawful to eliminate a human life, simply because someone finds it an unwanted nuisance - what grounds are there to convince people that one cannot take other lives which are seen as an obstacle to the satisfaction of lust or greed or desire for revenge? By what arguments can one convince a person who is so inclined, not to eliminate an aged parent who has become a burden on one's nerves or finance or patience?

            Law is also being used and instrumentalised for a whole process of dehumanisation of persons and society. Law is meant to be at the service of rights: of their definition, their defence and vindication. This so often is not the case with the law today, because of the rapid undermining and loss of the sense of what is really due - or not due - to persons.

            Laws are being passed which create "rights" that are wrongs, and which therefore of course violate true human rights. If a "right" that is a wrong is exercised, it immediately does wrong. It does wrong first of all to other people. An instance could be education laws by which parents are deprived of rightful parental control over the education actually given in school to their children. Such laws obviously violate the parents' rights, as well as those of the children. Divorce laws violate the rights of children even more; for children have a right to a united home, where they can learn that most fundamental lesson for future life in society: that it is possible for people to get on, respect each other, remain faithful to freely assumed commitments, despite the apparent justification for quitting which the defects of others - one's partner, one's associate, one's spouse or whoever - may seem to provide.

            More should be said here, however. A "right" that is a wrong not only harms others, but also harms the very person exercising that false right. The same considerations just given about divorce could easily be developed to show why divorce laws tend to do harm to the spouses themselves. Abortion no doubt illustrates this point even more graphically and tragically. The girl who exercises her legal "right" to abort, not only harms - destroys - the life of the child she has conceived, but does grave harm to her own life as well. A permissive society may hold nothing against her for what she has done. Her parents, relatives, friends, even if perhaps they think she did wrongly, may forgive her. But she will not be able to forgive herself. As any pastoral worker knows, she has to live out the rest of her life with the intolerable awareness of having killed her own baby - wanted or unwanted, but hers. And in the few cases where she manages to overpower or suppress her guilt, the same pastoral experience shows that she does so at tremendous cost to herself, with the result of a radical defeminization and dehumanization of her personality and life. No law should allow any woman or girl to do herself such a wrong.

            The legal profession is in a special way at service of justice; it seeks to defend individual and inter-personal rights, and in doing so serves to bring about and maintain the common good.

            But if the lawyer has not a clear idea of the common good, and equally of the extent and limits of personal rights, he may find himself in the position of defending "rights" beyond the measure of justice. Then of course he would not be following the true norm or justice, which is "to each his due". And he would be acting individualistically, or allowing his client to be individualistic.

Serving interests or rights?

            Lawyers are constantly under pressure to act as if their mission is to serve people's interests, whereas it is to serve their rights. The lawyer owes it to his or her clients to defend their rights. But he must also help them not to claim more. To help them obtain more would be injustice towards others; and injustice is always the seed of further social disturbance. So the lawyer must always maintain that concern to get a client to see what is just; and to see what it would be unjust to demand.

            Law, like medicine, has a particular healing power, always provided it is properly applied. People so often react embitteredly if they do not get all they wanted. But if all they wanted was not what they were entitled to, they should be helped to be satisfied with what in fact was their due. That way resentment and bitterness can gradually give way to peace. The lawyer can do so much here. And it is a noble job, that so furthers social peace.

            One cannot exaggerate the importance for all citizens, and for doctors and lawyers in particular, to have a proper grasp of the Natural Law; so as to know what humanises, and what on the contrary makes society less human. If they consider the matter in any depth, people realise without difficulty that the law of the State is not, and cannot be the ultimate norm governing human standards or conduct; nor is it always binding. As is clear from the constant appeal to human rights, modern consciousness is becoming more and more sensitive to the fact that laws can be in violation of rights inherent in human dignity. Nevertheless, the human rights movement is itself in danger of working from false or inadequate premisses. That is why attentive reflection and keen scrutiny are specially needed today, so as to identify true personal rights, and to be able to distinguish them from false "rights", which in effect violate human dignity and dehumanise persons.

            The human rights movement is itself a testimony to the existence of a natural law: a law that is higher than any positive law of the State and which must be protected - in legislation and in practice - if mankind is to keep its true humanity. It points out the way men and women need to follow, so as to develop truly as persons, growing in personal humanity and in social solidarity. Without knowledge of that law and respect for it, mankind can find itself embarked on a way of inhumanity.

            In any matter where the interlinking interests of several persons are involved, one cannot separate legal or professional concerns of justice from social and christian concerns. The delicate and often difficult process of discerning, defending, and finally declaring what is just is rightly considered a legal and judicial task. But the common good requires that it be backed up by the equally delicate and difficult task of getting people to see that what has been declared to be just is in fact just, and to accept it as such. Is this latter task to be left solely to priests and pastors? Is it not also a task for the jurist, for the lover of law? Should it not also enter his professional horizons and concerns? And does he not, should he not, have the ability to perform it?

            You would not be doing true legal work if you fail to present to people the full personal challenge that living justice represents. Do not be afraid to put challenges to people; and do not underestimate the attraction of the challenge of justice, when it is properly put. Justice, despite its difficulties, has an appeal, an immense appeal; not only social justice, but also (and very particularly) commutative or personal justice, with its call and challenge to each one to respect others, to face up to what he or she owes to others, and to give it.

The healing power of justice

            Medicine is designed to heal; and this too should be true of justice. But the healing power of justice is often not appreciated by lawyers or judges, and its power in this sense is at times not activated by them.

            Justice is a powerful stimulus to people. It appeals to their inner honesty, to their deeper sense of values, calling on them to put the proper rights of others above their own personal convenience or advantage. That is why one is left perplexed at the suggestion that a judgment has no power to "heal" persons. It is not so. A just judgment - a declaration of justice - has great power to heal, or at least to point out the path to health. It is true that the judgment alone - the simple declaration of justice - may not be sufficient to restore health. It needs to be accepted personally, and put into effect. That is why even though justice always possesses healing power, in the end it is not just the declaration but the acceptance of justice that heals. To bring about that acceptance is a task that the lawyer must attempt, if he is to be fully faithful to his vocation.

            When we say that good medicine heals, we mean that the healing process demands not only making a proper diagnosis but also getting the patient to accept the necessary treatment or medicine, even if bitter or painful. The diagnosis or prescription - the judgment - is useless if there is no one capable of getting the sick person to accept and apply the remedy.

            So, both judges and lawyers have a capacity to heal. But their healing capacity is not exercised if they let people think that a violation of rights or a failure to fulfill obligations is a healthy and not a pathological situation.

            Yes, one comes across cases where a judgment seems to leave a person "wounded," and he or she lapses into a bitter and resentful attitude. But if the judgment is just, the person should not be that way, or be left that way. The professional and christian concern in such cases ought to be to help the person out of the attitude, through seeing that the judgment, despite the personal hardships it may seem to cause him or her, defends other people's rights. Only if the person accepts this, will the "wound" gradually disappear and the healing process be brought to completion. The lawyer no less than the doctor has constant opportunities, and God will give him special grace, to bring about such deeper healings.