UTK students consider Catholic law society

Bishop Stika meets with group looking to form a faith-based legal organization on campus

By Jim Wogan

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville could be the next college campus to host a Catholic legal society for students. While the idea is still in its early stages, Bishop Richard F. Stika met recently with seven students from UTK to discuss the idea for a Catholic student legal society there.

The 90-minute discussion took place over lunch at the Chancery on April 6. The meeting was initiated by Bishop Stika, although the idea belongs to the students themselves.

“We came to propose this idea and to tell Bishop Stika what we have been up to, and how it has been going so far. He was very supportive,” said Jake Valete, a second-year law student at UTK and the spokesperson for the group.

Mr. Valete said the group, which has been meeting informally, has grown to include 11 UTK students. Mr. Valete became Catholic last year after going through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. He is a parishioner at Holy Ghost in Knoxville.

“It is really just a group of people we happen to know in law school and who are Catholic, and we just get together once in a while to talk through the moral issues of the things we are studying and how to comport our practice in the future with that,” Mr. Valete said.

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville lists hundreds of student organizations on its website—22 of which are devoted to law. None are connected to the Catholic faith.

“There are a number of Catholic student law organizations on college campuses all over the country, and we’d love to have one here in Knoxville, at the state’s flagship university,” Bishop Stika said. “I think it would be a good fit and also would be a great resource—allowing students a forum or a place to discuss the law and how it interacts with our faith.”

The students believe getting Bishop Stika’s buy-in is important.

“As we realize that we want to do something that reaches across parish boundaries, across school boundaries, and elsewhere, it has been kind of intimidating for me, at least, to think, how do you even go about that? So, Bishop Stika’s support is important,” Mr. Valete said.

“(This meeting) took a lot of weight off my shoulders. I am feeling a lot more encouraged and to know that there is support out there, to know there are people who see the need for this kind of thing who I haven’t even met yet. It is really encouraging.

“It is very important to me to know that we have the support of the Church, and that we are not stepping on anyone’s toes, and that I have channels and access to make sure I am not going to cause any problems for anyone or go against the wishes and the needs of the hierarchy,” Mr. Valete added.

Right now, the Catholic law students at UTK meet informally—at lunch or after classes at a local bar. Discussion can cover a lot of topics—academics, sports, social life, and yes, faith.

“I’d say faith-based stuff always comes up. Law always comes up, and personal stuff. More than anything, up to this point our meetings have been helping each other feel not so alone. Any way that we can do that (is good). I have been trying to help get it together. Everyone else has been great. They’ve been doing a lot,” Mr. Valete said.

Officially, the group doesn’t have a name. They’ve been using St. Thomas More, the patron saint of lawyers, as a “placeholder” until they can adopt something official. Several college campuses around the country have a St. Thomas More society for law students.

Mr. Valete said the group’s meeting with Bishop Stika came up randomly.

“It was on a whim. I was at the Rite of Election this year; my brother and my sister-in-law were in the process of converting. They actually just got confirmed, and there was a line to go up to meet the bishop.  I decided to hop in line and get a blessing from Bishop Stika in this endeavor and he invited us over to lunch,” Mr. Valete noted.

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