The Melbourne Catholic Lawyers’ Association (MCLA) Annual Dinner took place on 1 September, in an air of anticipation and celebration.

More than 130 guests were in attendance, including many eminent legal figures. Active and retired judges, President of the Victorian Bar Council Róisín Annesley KC, barristers, solicitors and other legal professionals all gathered to hear Justice Simon Steward, appointed to the High Court in 2020, speak on the topic ‘The Christian judge in an increasingly secular world’.

The sense of excitement and occasion was heightened by the presence of Archbishop Peter A Comensoli and by seven Melbourne-based priests, including notable human rights scholar and Rector of Newman College Fr Frank Brennan SJ and MCLA chaplain Fr Cameron Forbes, who will take up the position of Rector at Corpus Christi College in 2023. Notable too were a number of prominent Catholic legal scholars, as well as the 13 law students whose attendance was sponsored by MCLA donors.

In his introduction to Justice Steward, leading commercial and public law barrister Albert Dinelli (who was counsel assisting the 2018 Royal Commission into Banking and Superannuation Fund Misconduct) remarked on the Justice’s notable career in taxation and commercial law, his rapid rise through the judiciary and his public acknowledgement of his Catholic formation. ‘At Justice Steward’s swearing in,’ Mr Dinelli noted, ‘his Honour recognised the Society of Jesus for the education they gave him at Xavier College and, in his words, for instilling in him that it is a privilege to serve others.’

Justice Steward began his address by acknowledging the gravitational pull of secularisation, not only within Australian society, as witnessed in the 2021 Australian Census, but also within his own family, remarking calmly that his active ‘Catholic faith makes me officially out of sync with many in Australia.’ Noting the significant decline of those identifying as Christian in the recent Census—the number has dropped by 8.2 per cent overall—he asked, ‘Where did all the people go in five years?’

Despite this apparently precipitous disavowal of Christian belief and practice in Australia, Justice Steward remarked that much of common law, our public ethos and what the late Chief Justice of the High Court Sir Gerard Brennan called the ‘moral matrix’ of Australia derives from a Judeo-Christian legacy. Providing an erudite survey of such values as fairness, compassion, moral obligation, ‘the inchoate sense of service’ in most Australian lawyers, and even such disputed legal concepts as ‘unconscionable conduct’ in commercial matters, Justice Steward noted that these values derive from and depend upon deeper moral commitments than are offered by materialism or social relativism.

He identified three ways in which Catholic (along with other Christian and Jewish) legal professionals might continue to uphold this fragile legacy: through public service, through fidelity to the law, and by publicly acknowledging one’s faith.

Remarking on his own reluctance to become a justice on the High Court—where the hours and demands are heavy and the life ‘one of lonely monastic’ endeavour—Justice Steward argued that the sacrifice and service demanded of those engaged in the public pursuit of justice nevertheless brought great benefit to society. While Christians are called to such a commitment by God (as well as by reason), they can also find common ground with others who strive to uphold the moral and social coherence of the law.

Exhorting his audience to remain faithful to the rule of law, and observing that the principles of the written and common law were first forged within the Judeo-Christian tradition, Justice Steward observed that even in the 21st-century, secularised West, these principles need to be accompanied by respect for human conscience and freedom, careful examination of evidence, procedural fairness, and a dedication to administer and study the law with a high level of competence. These are obligations for every Christian lawyer, he said, whether ‘you are a magistrate or in the High Court.’

Finally Justice Steward encouraged the assembled guests not to hide their faith, recalling that although advised against it, he had concluded his swearing-in speech with these words: ‘I hope with God’s grace, as I will face the many difficulties ahead, I will do so with diligence, fortitude and wisdom.’

Justice Steward recognised that Catholics are increasingly the subject of media and public suspicion, but he quietly declared that it remains important to witness to God and to the example of ‘the saints and the teachings of the Church’, suggesting that this can be done in small and personal ways with colleagues and clients.

The Melbourne Catholic Lawyers’ Association runs regular retreats, Masses and events throughout the year. For more information or to contact the Association, visit www.catholiclawyers.com.au or email info@catholiclawyers.com.au.

Main image: The Honourable Justice Simon Steward and Archbishop Peter A Comensoli.