“Ask a Priest: How Much Can an Attorney Be Involved in Questionable Practices?”

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Q: I am a recent convert to the Catholic faith as well as a licensed attorney. Before my conversion, I practiced as an estate planning lawyer at a fairly large firm, but I have been at home with my children for the past four years. I am now considering returning to the practice of law, possibly again in the trusts and estates field. If I go practice in a firm again, I will probably be asked to provide estate planning documents for homosexual couples (at least occasionally), advise with regard to prenuptial agreements, and assist clients in filling out living wills and health-care directives that may request termination of life support before the time when the Catholic Church finds such termination to be morally licit. As a junior attorney, I don’t think I’d have much say as to which clients to work for. Would it be morally licit for me to work in this field again under these circumstances? -M.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Welcome to the Church! You will find a treasury of teachings and practices that can enrich you spiritually throughout your life.

You are already discovering that to be a follower of Christ implies taking up a cross. Your questions about the practice of law touch on the area of material cooperation in evil.

It is virtually impossible to avoid all material cooperation in evil. Somehow, somewhere we support a business or entity that is involved in morally illicit activity or that assists someone else who is involved in dicey activity.

The ideal is that we try to distance ourselves as much as possible from evil. How far we can materially cooperate is not always easy to discern. This is where you need to step back and look at the big picture of the work you would be asked to do in a particular law firm.

Perhaps the occasional case of estate planning for homosexual couples might be permissible in that it isn’t inherently evil for someone to want to provide property or financial security for another person in the event of death. People have been known to make such arrangements for a close friend or caregiver.

If such estate planning were to become a bigger part of the workload, and if your involvement in the work implied support for same-sex marriages, then that might be problematic. At that point your work might be viewed as formal cooperation in such “marriages.” Work on prenuptial agreements for same-sex couples, I think, would certainly imply support for something that is inherently disordered.

The termination-of-life work is morally problematic if it involves inherently evil practices such as stipulations about assisted suicide or refusal of ordinary medical care.

This might be the moment to see whether you could work at a firm with an opt-out clause. The long-term danger is that involvement with questionable work could lead you down a slippery slope. Too many people in too many fields have gone down that slope, which is one reason why the wider society has weakened morally.

So a question facing all of us is, do we want to become part of the problem or part of the solution? Perhaps it might be worth looking for another law firm that has a policy of avoiding the kind of cases you mention above.

This is something you might want to take to prayer and see where the Holy Spirit is leading you. (For more reading see the National Catholic Bioethics Center page.) I hope some of this helps. God bless.

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