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The following essay is adapted from a commencement address given at Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Florida, on May 12, 2024.

Ihave attended many law school commencements: My own in 1980, my wife’s two years later, those of four of our children. I have spent forty-one years as a law professor. But I was never asked to speak at a law school commencement until today.

I have been thinking of those forty-seven speeches I didn’t give, hoping to find in them some inspiration for this talk, or at least a few good jokes. It didn’t work. Routine platitudes and plaudits just won’t do. For one thing, this is the Silver Anniversary of a unique place. It is twenty-five years since, on the last weekend of March 1999, Tom Monaghan called to Ann Arbor a couple dozen Catholic lawyers and professors to fill out his vision of Ave Maria Law School. Tom already had a dean—Bernard Dobranski, who had been running Catholic University Law School. Tom recruited the initial core faculty, a superb group comprised of Joe Falvey, Steve Sefranek, Laura Hirshfeld, and two people who have faithfully served you and all of your predecessors: Professors Mollie Murphy and Rich Myers.

The conversations that weekend were exhilarating and fruitful. The most notable attendee was Justice Antonin Scalia. He brought along one of his law clerks, a young woman who has since made something of herself in the legal world, too. She would soon marry her law school beau, a man named Jesse Barrett. She was then just Amy Coney.

One thing I learned from forty-seven ceremonies is that no commencement speech is too short. The same is true of homilies, I think. So, here are just three pieces of advice—challenges, in fact—as you go forth.

The first challenge: You have big shoes to fill. I was a visiting professor at Ave in the fall of 2001. I taught the first graduating class when they were 2Ls. Some of them stick in my memory for the odd reason. Chad Doran married the daughter of my late, cherished Notre Dame Law colleague, Professor Charlie Rice. Another I will identify by first name only. Patrick was a Thomas Aquinas College grad, smart and affable in his way. He signed up for my seminar on religious liberty, came the first day, and never showed up again. I asked him why he dropped my class. His answer, in full: “I could tell from that first day that your class was going to be a lot of work. And I don’t do . . . work.”

Patrick was atypical. Top to bottom, that class was the best group of students I have ever taught. It included so many able lawyers, including several with whom I am in contact still. Matt Bowman is senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, doing some of the most important appellant litigation in America on culture war issues. John Manos is VP and general counsel at EWTN. Monica Secord occupies the office right below mine at Notre Dame Law School. She is program director of International and Graduate programs.

Monica’s classmate Erika Hiester clerked for Judge William Pryor of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Last week he wrote to me about Erika. Chief Judge Pryor said that she “was one of the best law clerks ever to grace my chambers. She worked alongside clerks who had graduated from Ivy League law schools, three of whom are now judges (a federal circuit judge, a state supreme court justice, and a federal district judge) and another who clerked for a Supreme Court justice. Erika was as good or better of a lawyer as any of them.”

Now for the second challenge. The shoes you are stepping into are made bigger by the gift you received here—a Catholic legal education. It is a pearl of great price. Yes, you worked for it, you paid for it, you earned your degree. But the education that Ave Maria provided you is nonetheless a gift. And, like all gifts—starting with the gift of life itself—you are obliged to use it for the good of others. Consider the Parable of the Talents.

These days almost all law professors in America shun Catholic legal education because they think it is blinkered: narrow, parochial, sectarian. They are all wrong. It is they who have blinders on. They see only bits and pieces of the truth, and those more by accident than by design. They “see through a glass, darkly,” to use St. Paul’s expression from 1 Corinthians.

Only a radically defective legal education—or insanity—could lead smart lawyers to hold that a twelve-year-old who is not allowed to choose his own bedtime must be allowed to choose his sex. Or to call for abolishing police forces and replacing them with an army of social workers. Or explain prosecutors who do not believe in prosecuting. In many big cities, paying at Target or CVS has become optional; shoplifting is no longer a crime. It is a hobby.

But I am still in the weeds here. Tall weeds, maybe, but weeds nonetheless. For behind all of this craziness is a rejection of God and his moral law. Our Supreme Court says that the “heart of liberty is the right of each person to define his own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

In other words, God is not the source of meaning and value for our actions. We are. It is an old temptation. Just ask Adam and Eve.

Only a Catholic legal education teaches you to see law whole and entire. You were taught about law’s deep foundations in the natural moral law and about how God’s transcendent justice is the measure of all things. You were taught to cherish all of life from conception to natural death, and every life, every human being, because each one is made in the image and likeness of God. Per Corinthians: “You see as if face to face.” Everyone else sees shadows and fragments.

Yes, we live in a post-Christian culture. Any lawyer educated at Ave will face headwinds, difficulty, conflict. That is so often the lot of those with integrity. Living in the truth is never easy.

Voices from Middle Earth supply some consolation, and courage. “‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.'”

Third and last challenge: Now that you know what you are going to be when you grow up it is time to ask the really important question, what is God asking of me? In what particular way am I to use my gifts in service to others? This is the matter of personal vocation.

Cardinal Newman talked about this, in words quoted by Pope Benedict during the Newman Beatification ceremonies. “God has created me to do him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission” [emphasis added]. “My mission” is a distinct and unrepeatable assignment. In his book Love and Responsibility John Paul II wrote: “What is my vocation means in what direction should my personality develop, considering what I have in me, what I have to offer, and what others—other people and God—expect of me.

These are all unmistakable references to an individualized way of following Jesus, in season and out of season. Pope John Paul II wrote in 1992 that “each one of the faithful must be helped to embrace the gift entrusted to him or her as a completely unique person, and to hear the words which the Spirit of God personally addresses to him or her.”

The path with our name on it is not necessarily the one we expect or even have prepared for.

Judge Pryor added in his e-mail to me last week that Erika Hiester, one of his best clerks ever, “was foremost grounded in her faith, which is why she now delights in raising her seven children as her vocation.” On this Mother’s Day I salute my wife Pam, an honor’s graduate of Cornell Law School. She took the New York Bar Exam while eight months pregnant and never practiced law after all. She found her calling raising our children—and putting up with me.

We are talking about being called, having work set before us, being chosen. Tolkien got this just right, too. Frodo asks Gandalf: “‘Why was I chosen for this perilous quest?’ ‘Such questions cannot be answered,’ said Gandalf. ‘You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.'”

Gandalf added: “That may be an encouraging thought.”

Gerard V. Bradley is professor of law at the University of Notre Dame and trustee of the James Wilson Institute.

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Image by Lastenglishking licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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