Integrating Catholic Social Thought in Elder Law and Estate Planning Courses: Reflections on Law, Age and Ethics
Villanova Journal of Catholic Social Thought, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2010
55 Pages Posted: 8 May 2010 Last revised: 8 Jul 2010
Date Written: 2010
A course in elder law or estate planning encompasses many of the most profound issues that arise in human life: the contemplation of mortality, ambivalent attitudes toward property and its proper distribution, complexities in family relationships, obligations to support loved ones, anticipation of physical or mental challenges, and reflections on one’s desired legacy to loved ones. Although there is much in the Catholic tradition and in the Scriptures themselves that speaks to these questions in an indirect way, this has not often been fully explored because this field may not, on its face, have an obvious connection to religious tradition. However, I believe that there are two distinct areas in which teachers in this field may draw on core principles of Catholic social thought to deepen the understanding that they and their students might have about these rich connections.
The first part of this article will explore how attorneys can find guidance from Catholic social thought on issues that may arise as they advise individual clients on estate matters. Here, notions of responsible stewardship, familial obligations, the proper formation of one’s legacy, and medical planning raise important ethical questions at the individual level, as attorneys assist clients in developing their estate plans. In addition, my reflections in this first part will address the ways in which elder law practice provides a unique setting for law practice as a form of ministry. Unfortunately, lawyers engaging in elder law and estate planning practices are frequently and disproportionately the subject of serious ethical charges, given the temptations that they face and the particular vulnerabilities of those they serve. Thus, in this discussion of the representation of individual clients, I hope to reflect on what Catholic social thought may bring to the attorney’s understanding of the professional role.
The second part will present broader and more general questions about public policy toward the elderly—questions that can be the basis for much fruitful discussion in estate planning or elder law courses. It is often noted that the elderly are the largest growing segment of the American and global populations. Thus, the second section of this article will offer brief reflections on how Catholic social thought may contribute to some of these broader public policy discussions as our society considers how best to meet the needs of our elders. Although this article will not attempt to arrive at easy answers to any of these dilemmas, it hopes to begin reflection on them and to offer some ways of thinking about how Catholic social thought may offer some guidance in these complex areas of human life.
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