Lawyers and judges uphold the foundation of the American justice system and for those who are Catholic, being a member of the St. Thomas More Society provides a moral guideline. But every person, a politician, voter or someone who works for justice can benefit from the teachings of St. Thomas More, which is why the society hopes to expand its reach.
“Our Church teachings are what we are turning to, we’re making no bones about that,” said Little Rock attorney and St. Thomas More Society president Shawn Johnson. “Our Catholic Church teachings help form and guide us.”
The St. Thomas More Society in Arkansas began in 1999 with the celebration of the Red Mass, a special Mass held for lawyers, judges and government officials to “come together and ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our work,” said Cathedral of St. Andrew parishioner Connie Brown Phillips, an adjunct law professor at the Bowen School of Law in Little Rock who chairs the Red Mass Committee.
The society was founded to keep the Red Mass going. Arkansas’ Red Mass coincides with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Red Mass the first week in October.
Beyond lawyers, judges and canon lawyers, society bylaws were amended this year to include Catholics who fill other roles in legal or political professions, anyone from paralegals to lobbyists, and the average Catholic citizen who is interested in the life and ministry of St. Thomas More.
“We felt we wanted it to be very inclusive of the other members of the laity as well as the priesthood,” said Johnson, a parishioner at Our Lady of the Holy Souls in Little Rock. “… Lawyers tend to be viewed as an exclusive club. Our Church and participation in our faith is not that way. This is the way to unite the two.”
The patron saint of those in legal and government professions, St. Thomas More was a lawyer and literary scholar, as well as a father and chancellor of England, according to franciscanmedia.org. He refused to support King Henry VIII’s divorce and remarriage and would not sign the 1534 Act of Succession, which in part acknowledged King Henry as the head of the Church of England, denying the pope.
Before he was beheaded for high treason July 6, 1535, his final words were, “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” His feast day is June 22.
“He’s a model for virtue and the fact that his life spoke to standing up for God first and his king afterwards … he understood there is a higher law to follow,” said Our Lady of the Holy Souls parishioner Jim Goodhart, an attorney for 32 years and the society’s vice president. “And when there are difficult challenges or decisions that all of us have to make, that it’s really God who we answer to and he’s the source of all justice and wisdom and we take our direction from our heavenly father.”
With 300 members, about 50 are active participants, Johnson said. The 12-member board meets monthly, but all members are invited to the meetings.
The society has also held prayer breakfasts, brown bag luncheons and educational materials or provided speakers on legal topics. The society provides book scholarships to law students studying in Little Rock or Fayetteville, averaging about $250 each.
Vaughan Hankins, an attorney and member of Christ the King Church in Little Rock, has been a member of the society for about 10 years and currently serves as treasurer. At last year’s Red Mass, members were given blessed lapel pins that bear the saint’s image, designed by local liturgical artist George Hoelzeman.
“I wear mine all the time when I’m in court. It’s not just for looks; it’s a reminder for me of how you conduct yourself,” Hankins said. “It’s not wearing it on your sleeve and being loud and verbose about it, it’s just how you carry yourself, how you act. And I try to keep that in mind wherever I go, but putting that pin on kind of helps you remember.”
At every gathering of the St. Thomas More Society, the lawyer’s prayer is read, encouraging the Lord to be with them while in court, to listen to clients and be honest with adversaries, ending with, “So that today I shall not, in order to win a point, lose my soul.”
“I believe strongly in the principles of St. Thomas More in the ethical treatment of people under the laws as well as the practice of law. We study ethics in law school and it’s just another way to promote that and support that belief,” Phillips said of the society.
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