On being a nun and a lawyer

by Eloise Rosenblatt


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A retired bishop laughingly feigned disbelief — "How can you be a nun and a lawyer?" I had just been introduced to him by his friend, a Catholic layman judge, also retired and a resident in that Mercy-sponsored assisted living residence.

The logic of it seemed to go like this: "I am a retired bishop. This layman is a retired judge. We know who we are — men of the church and of the court. But if this is a Mercy-sponsored residence, and you are a Mercy Sister, how can you be a lawyer?"

Probably standard feminist analysis is not the right tool here. Yes, I'm a woman lawyer. I remember laughing, so it would be silly not to just enjoy the bishop's humorous welcome, and leave it at that. But he was onto something.

How to reconcile that I'm a nun and a lawyer? Can this iconically holy way of life be compatible with a sleazy, bordering-on-unethical profession? I joke that I swim with sharks, but my back fin is small and detachable.

A layman can be a lawyer and a judge — that's graspable. But can anyone picture a nun talking like Judge Judy? A woman lawyer — that can be imagined, because women lawyers appear on TV in shows like "Blue Bloods" or "The Good Wife."

Often women are scripted into emotionally compromised situations that pit their professional duty of loyalty to a client against competing family interests, a romantic attachment or a public political stance. I laugh that some of these TV scenarios would, in real life, get the lawyer disciplined or suspended by the state bar.

But let me switch gears. I wasn't always a lawyer. I am a Sister of Mercy, living in California. When I entered after college, and after Vatican II, the normal ministry choice was either teaching or health care.

I taught high school, later got a doctorate in theology, and developed a feminist consciousness. I taught biblical studies in seminary and university settings. I published in my field and was on the lecture circuit. Then I did some educational administration.

After this, I went to law school, passed the bar exam, got my license to practice law, and hung out my own shingle. No law firm partner was going to hire someone his mother's age.

I took cases that people asked for help with. I originally thought I'd be doing employment law, but it ended up being mostly family law. All my cases come from referrals. I don't work in a Catholic institution or for a Catholic organization. I have my own professional structures of accountability.

The state bar is like a parole board: It keeps a watchful eye on me and my client trust bank account, supervises my required continuing education update, and collects hundreds of dollars in dues from me every year — so that it can pay people to keep their eyes on me and other attorneys in California.

I carry malpractice insurance, though it is less costly than the premium for an MD who is an ob-gyn or a surgeon. Which means there's normally less risk of disaster if an attorney handles your needs than if a doctor does. This premise can be debated. Some people have suffered severe, lifelong trauma after falling into ocean waves and getting bitten by a shark.

As for the role of advocate, I reflect that when I speak of a person as "my client," this has many levels of commitment and engagement that are distinct from referring to someone as "my student."

I am sometimes aware that I am thinking differently as a lawyer than as a theologian. Mental content and mental processing have to change in multiple ways to practice law. And practicing law is very different from teaching law.

I have been in private practice — mostly family law — for the last 10 years in California, with both pro bono (legal service done for free) and paying clients. In court, I am addressed as "Ms. Rosenblatt" or "Counsel." I sign court documents for clients with my legal name, "Eloise M. Rosenblatt." My signature has to be a giveaway of a bygone literary world. On a stipulation (formal agreement) I signed this week in court, there were five signatures, including the judge's. Mine was the only one that was unfashionably Palmer-script-legible.

When I speak at a parish event, I am "Sister Eloise." If it's an interfaith event or a public gathering and I'm there as a nun, I'm usually "Sr. Rosenblatt." If I go to an academic conference, I'm "Dr. Rosenblatt" or "Professor Rosenblatt."

It's a fluid experience of my personal and professional history. I am comfortable with this fact of my merged and multiple identities. If I were multilingual, I think I'd also have the sense that I'm myself, being expressed in different languages, cultures and social settings.

I experience a deviance from older ideals proposed to vowed women religious — that the ultimate goal of personal spiritual development was becoming ever more fully a woman who fulfilled the vows, a woman religious consecrated to God.

That language for holiness feels somewhat like a bell jar placed over me — as though "person" was made the equivalent of "nun." From within my enclosed space, I can see "out there," but I am still living apart from everything outside. I can see the world through the glass jar that separates me, but I am not out there myself.

However, the reality is that I have been living "out there" in the evolution of my life through several distinct ministries. Have I failed to realize holiness, or does the reality of my life invite me to understand differently what holiness means for women religious?

In this way of redescribing holiness, how do I appreciate, thank God, and express the person I have become as a woman religious — through all these profound changes in my own ministerial and professional life? Is my holiness related in some essential way to my ministerial evolution? Or must I abstract from my "doing" of teaching, administering and lawyering, and look instead to my "being" a vowed woman religious, consecrated to God?

This evolution of education and ministry is not unusual in religious communities. Consider how you, as reader, have evolved from your early ministry to your present involvements. Few women religious remained all their lives in the same profession, and even if they did, there were significant variations in place, people and focus. Since Vatican II, we have been evolving as the world and the church have been changing. Has our understanding of holiness also evolved?

On March 19, Pope Francis released an apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, on the call to holiness in today's world. I will be reflecting on holiness as God's vitality that has indeed moved in me all these years. It's not my vitality alone, being inseparable from God's. I am always being moved by this divine, creative re-energizing in my life "out there."

[Eloise Rosenblatt is a Sister of Mercy of the Americas from California. For 10 years, she has been practicing family law as a civil attorney in private practice, serving both paying and pro bono clients, mostly women.]