“Practicing (and) Catholic”

Matthew P. Cavedon


Sai Santosh Kumar Kolluru recently reflected for Canopy Forum on how Hindu beliefs and practices inform his service as a lawyer. His writing inspired me to put down some thoughts on the relationship between Catholic theology and my own practice as a criminal defense attorney. In certain ways, this job might seem unnatural. I’m old-school enough to believe that saying “oh, my God” casually is a sin, but spend my days representing people accused of violence, theft, and sexual perversion. Were my function – as I think some people assume it to be – to either justify evil deeds or help people lie their way out of responsibility for them, I imagine the dissonance would be a heavy cross to bear.

But really, my role is twofold. I’m an advocate and a counselor. And in carrying out both of these responsibilities, I’ve found much that aligns with my duties toward God and my neighbors. As an advocate, I have three jobs. One is to try to suss out the truth. Funny though this may seem to an outsider, I rarely have a client sit down and say, “I did it. I’m not taking responsibility for it. Get me out of this!” Often, my team is as much an investigator as anyone else. I need to contact witnesses and visit crime scenes in order to pick up where the police left off, or see the sides of the story that never became interesting once they decided they had enough to arrest my client. Occasionally, that process continues all the way up to trial, where I’m questioning a witness in order to get as good of a glimpse of the truth through body language and answer delivery as I can together with the jury.

In doing that work, I take as my example the Prophet Daniel. Much of his story, including his journey into a lion’s den and a blazing furnace, is common to all Christians and Jews. But Catholics and Orthodox Christians also recognize as divinely inspired a few chapters at the end of his book in the Bible. There, he is watching the trial of a woman, Susanna. She has been accused by two religious elders of committing adultery with a young man in her garden. The hidden reason for their charge is that she refused to indulge their lecherous advances. Daniel senses that something isn’t right in their story. He steps in, separates the two accusers, and questions each. They give conflicting answers when asked what tree the lovers were under. Daniel has caught these men in their lie, and they are convicted instead of Susanna. This story is strikingly modern in its appreciation for a good cross-examination and the value of sequestering witnesses. In remembrance of it, I wear a medal of the Prophet Daniel around my neck and ask his prayers when I start my day’s work.

Sometimes, though, guilt and innocence are not really in question. That is often true of drug possession cases, where contraband is often on my client’s person or my client admits to having it. I still act as an advocate, turning my focus to whether the government violated my client’s rights. Was the stop based on a good legal cause? Did the officer use intimidation or false promises to get my client to agree to a search or make an admission? I have no ethical qualms about making sure that those who are tasked with enforcing the law follow it themselves. And I’m downright enthusiastic about ensuring that the Constitution’s promises – that people will not be subjected to illegal searches and seizures, coerced into confessions, or forced to defend themselves without an attorney – hold true.

That’s all well and good for an American citizen, but what does it have to do with being a Catholic? Catholicism itself teaches us to respect the norms of our community and its political order. The natural law teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas talk about how every society aims to achieve the good – but that the good is a very abstract concept. So each society makes choices about how it can best attain justice and further human flourishing in light of its experiences, needs, and abilities. God commands societies to do this as part of His care for His human creatures, and helps them to do so. It is not that the U.S. Constitution comes down to us from Heaven. But it is the conscientious work of my people in their pursuit of right order. So every day that I work to uphold what is noble and humanizing in it, I am also helping to do God’s will on earth. In advocating for my clients’ dignity and the best values of our American society, I am doing something for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Catholicism itself teaches us to respect the norms of our community and its political order.

Of course, there are also plenty of times when I have to advocate for someone who has legitimately been found guilty. I then try to advocate for mercy in sentencing. Not simply for leniency – doing less time rather than more. But for trying to see the person in the way that God does, with the soul opening onto horizons of hope beyond its guilt and even its present range of possibilities. God sees every soul as more than just the brokenness in which it finds itself today. That’s why Mark Ji Tianxiang is a saint (and one whose prayers I often ask for on behalf of my clients). St. Mark’s life is not your average story of an addict who got clean and then went on to sweet and happy things. He spent 30 years so badly addicted to heroin that he was barred from receiving the sacraments because he was seen as a living scandal. Then he was martyred before recovering. Nonetheless, the Church believes that he reigns with God in Heaven. What does that mean for my work? I will certainly fight for rehab programs instead of rebar jail walls. But I will do so knowing that even now, God wants to work wonders in the depths of my clients’ souls. Even now, He is looking at them with love. And even if I cannot rationally see grounds for mercy, I must accept people as subjects of hope. I can advocate for mercy because, as legendary trial attorney Melvin Belli once said, “There is never a deed so foul that something couldn’t be said for the guy.” None of us is entirely consumed by the worst thing we’ve done. Christ’s love always has more to say about a soul.

Not all of my work is advocacy. My role as a counselor also provides occasions for grace. One of a Catholic’s great duties is to live out the “preferential option for the poor.” That means seeking out people in suffering and accompanying them – people with limited material means, and those afflicted by spiritual, emotional, mental, and other inner torments. My clients often fit several of these bills. For many, their criminal case isn’t even their biggest crisis of the week. It’s paying next month’s rent. Keeping the utilities on. Buying groceries. Paying for medicine. For others, the State is not the enemy that looms largest in their minds. It’s addiction, or withdrawal, or trauma, or mental illness.

One of a Catholic’s great duties is to live out the “preferential option for the poor.” That means seeking out people in suffering and accompanying them – people with limited material means, and those afflicted by spiritual, emotional, mental, and other inner torments.

My job is to walk a tightrope of care. On the one hand, I cannot fix all of my clients’ problems. If they have 99, I might be able to address one. I am not a psychologist, an exorcist, the Department of Veterans Affairs, or a Section 8 waiver. Much less all of these in one. I’m just a lawyer, and not even a child custody or workers compensation one at that. And I have over a hundred cases at any given time. If I try to become everyone’s savior, I’ll burn myself out and serve none of them effectively. Oftentimes, all I can do is commend my clients in prayer to the Savior Who does perfectly love them.

But neither can I fall into what Pope Francis calls the “camouflaged hatred” of indifference. My clients’ lives are not a mere spectacle for me to cynically watch from afar, afraid of getting dirty. Christ promises us that He’ll meet us in those who have need for us. That’s a good invitation to get into the muck. To go sit with my client’s mother in her driveway and hear what he was like as a kid. To go to child custody and conservatorship hearings. To really get into the mess of my clients’ lives. Not because I’m a“saint” or a white savior or something. But simply because I can give a ministry of presence and compassion. Which literally means nothing more than “to undergo with,” but which can open onto the sort of deep relationship that changes both of us for the better. I can meet Christ in these people’s lives and cooperate with His work on both of us. ♦


Matthew P. Cavedon is a criminal defense attorney in Gainesville, GA. He graduated from Emory University in 2015 with a law degree and masters of theological studies.