Pope John Paul II is talking tough on divorce, urging lawyers and judges to oppose it and calling the end of marriage a "festering wound" that is devastating society.
Yet American legal analysts see little in the pope's latest speech that would make Roman Catholic lawyers reconsider their professional duties. Attorneys have the choice now to opt out of cases on moral grounds, they say, though some also recognize it can be tough to avoid handling divorces.
John Paul "isn't introducing some radical new element or question," said George Kuhlman, ethics counsel at the Chicago headquarters of the American Bar Association.
But the pope undeniably made some of his strongest anti-divorce comments Monday in a speech to the Vatican court that handles annulment appeals.
Civil lawyers must refuse to "use their profession to an end contrary to justice, such as divorce" and shun activity that "could imply a cooperation to divorce," the pope said.
Judges usually cannot avoid their duty to handle cases, he said, but they "must find effective means to favor the marriage union" and seek reconciliation.
Kuhlman noted that any attorney can object to being involved in a divorce case on moral grounds, and American law recognizes their right to refuse. That protects both the lawyer's conscience and the client's interest, he said.
"Taking on a cause so morally repugnant (to the attorney) would raise the question whether the lawyer's heart would be in it," he said. Legal ethics requires zealous representation for a client.
Judges, too, have some rights to recuse themselves on moral grounds, he said, though that's more complicated. And in criminal law, a lawyer may have to obey a court order to handle a case.
But did the pope mean Catholic lawyers are morally obligated to avoid divorce cases at all costs?
John Sier, a Detroit attorney who is active in a Catholic lawyers' society, doesn't think so.
He cited a little-noticed passage in the official English translation of the pope's remarks, which says lawyers "should only collaborate" when divorce is the "intention of the client and does not aim to the breaking of marriage but to other legitimate purposes."
As Sier understands it, the pope was urging lawyers to seek reconciliation between couples. But if a divorce occurs, Sier said, a lawyer is morally justified in handling "other legitimate purposes" for a client, such as fair division of property, custody and visitation.
At the Vatican, Enrico Serafini, a lawyer for the annulment tribunal, said the pope did not say secular law should be changed -- just that "divorce is a bad thing for all orders, and he who collaborates with something bad should have the right not to collaborate and therefore should not collaborate."
In practice, however, it can be difficult for lawyers to refuse divorce cases, said Samuel B. Casey, executive director of the Christian Legal Society in Annandale, Va.
Casey is Catholic, though most of the 11,000 lawyers and law students on the society's mailing list are Protestants. He once worked for a large San Francisco law firm with "important clients and high-dollar divorces that disrupted not only the family but the company. As a young lawyer you can't help but get involved."
When his own parents broke up, he developed a strong aversion to divorce and asked not to handle those cases "even though it was dangerous to my career."
The legal society developed a mediation ministry to help attorneys work with troubled couples, the Institute for Christian Conciliation, now run by Peacemaker Ministries of Billings, Mont.
"Most people who have been through it do not commend divorce," Casey said.
On the Net:
Christian Legal Society: http://www.clsnet.org
Peacemaker Ministries: http://www.hispeace.org
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