Douglas Kmiec, dean of the Catholic University of America School of Law in Washington, D.C., lends a Catholic voice to the debate over legal issues of the day.

He taught law at the University of Notre Dame for many years after attending Northwestern University and the University of Southern California's law school. He also worked in the Justice Department under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr.

Register correspondent Joseph A. D'Agostino talked to Kmiec about his faith formation, law and life in Washington.

Are you a cradle Catholic or a convert?

I'm a cradle Catholic who was converted. I was born and baptized Catholic and was raised in a Catholic family that took its faith very seriously, but I also have been blessed along the way to encounter faith-filled people who have been an influence on my life. They have opened the doors of faith to me in ways many people are not fortunate enough by virtue of their busy lives to encounter.

So, when I say that I am a converted cradle Catholic, I mean my faith has been deepened by an association with these good people and by the things they have invited me to read over the years, much in the way someone new to the faith might be excited for the first time by encyclical writing or by reading aspects of the catechism and reflecting on what that means in one's own life.

Did you fall away for a while and then come back?

No, I think it was a question of being like those who, at least as I perceive it, become somewhat complacent about faith or who are just simply not engaged in the way faith wants to embrace all of you — your spiritual side as well as your intellectual side.

I think people worship and kind of stay at a certain pattern, at a certain level; they plateau. They don't give up their faith. They're guided by it at a very basic level, but they're not really challenged by it. I think I've been fortunate to be challenged along the way, to have to explain my belief to others and therefore find out more about it.

I am going to guess a lot of this had to do with reading intellectual material. Is that true?

Initially, but some of the intellectual things I would be instructed to read — whether it was Thomas Aquinas or the City of God or whether it would be encyclical writing of the Church — has prayers embedded within it. I look at Pope John Paul II and his marvelous body of work, and at every turn, when he reflects on the significance of family or the significance of human work, he's linking that to Scripture.

I have on my morning table the devotional of Abraham Lincoln — not a great Catholic scholar. Mary Todd Lincoln gave Abraham a devotional and it largely consists of the Psalms, but there are New Testament passages. The devotional has from the original author little doggerel or poetic phrases that deepen the meaning of the Scripture itself or elaborate on it.

The historians disagree over the extent to which Lincoln himself relied upon it, but there is some evidence that in fact he treasured this book not only because it was from his wife and family but also because of the extent to which he carried it with him almost regularly. It was a gift from my own spouse, on Father's Day I think, and I just find it a wonderful resource.

Are you an admirer of Lincoln?

I am. I think he wrestled with a great moral dilemma. He didn't get it correct right away; he had his imperfect territorial solutions and so forth that he attempted on the slavery question and ultimately saw the imprudence and immorality of that.

But Lincoln did something very important for us — he reminded us that the Constitution can't be understood and we can't really govern ourselves without the premises of the Declaration of Independence. So for me Lincoln was a necessary course correction at a time when the Constitution might have become merely a commercial charter.

As opposed to one based on natural law?

Well, I think Lincoln takes it closer to being one based on natural law. I view the Declaration of Independence as the closest we get from the founding generation that is an explicit embrace of natural law.

You talked about how reading deepens your faith. Was there some particular book or body of books that did that? Many look to St. Augustine as a great influence.

I'm going to echo that sentiment. I feel so imperfect to my tasks during the day that reading Augustine is a great encouragement because of his coming to terms with his own sin and imperfection, and his heartfelt and honest laying that out. I always find that useful for my own examination of conscience.

As a lawyer and someone who teaches jurisprudence, I think Thomas and his treatise on law can't be overlooked, but I will say I find it less personal than Augustine and far more intellectual in the sense of abstract and philosophical premises worked through to conclusion.

Who were these people who got you to read these things that deepened your faith?

There were people at different times. I was greatly taken with Fulton Sheen as a youngster. Anybody growing up in the '50s was plunked down in front of his program, “Life is Worth Living,” and my mother and father would find reprints of his and bring them home. One of the things they started us doing as a family was to read together as a family, often out loud, and I have continued that with my own five children. The things we would typically read would be essays of Fulton Sheen's, so I suppose I have to give him credit.

In college and law school, I wandered through secular sources that ultimately proved to be unsatisfying, so it was really learning in the negative. It was the era of John Rawls, and his theory of justice was all the sparkle of the intellectual community. I remember taking multiple philosophy seminars that implicated Rawls or Kant or individuals of like nature, including those far less favorable to anything — Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Hegel and the like.

Northwestern had a wonderful philosophy department, and I suppose if I were to find one savior out of the desert it would be the late Henry Veatch, who was an Aristotelian scholar. But as an Aristotelian, he was a kind of a foundation for me for Aquinas, and he would encourage me to read both. Even in that college period, people would start showing me the good things. It was like being let in to the good part of the library.

Did you become more Thomistic in reaction to that?

I had two benefits in my law school period. One, I was married, so I became more family-oriented. I didn't have children at the time, but I was oriented toward my spouse and her interests as an antidote to the coarsening of the human heart or personality in law school, and that was a wonderful leaven to have.

And, increasingly, I would find I would be wandering into St. Basil's in Los Angeles, which was the home of the former Cardinal [J. Francis] McIntyre, and he would ensure that the back vestibule of the church was filled with things you could just pick up and read. That became my way of actually keeping sane, which is the way I would put it, in terms of law studies.

Following law school, I returned from California to home base. I was born and raised in Chicago, and at the time there were family needs to be close to my parents, and so I didn't think about practicing in Southern California. I stayed in Chicago and practiced until I went to Notre Dame.

[Between Notre Dame and Catholic University] there was an inter-regnum at Pepperdine.…It was not just nice geographically. This was an eye-opener of faith as well.

People — Protestants especially — tend to criticize Catholics as not being scripturally grounded. The founding faith of Pepperdine is the Churches of Christ. Of the things I remember most vividly from being there was a very large Bible lectureship that involved thousands of people who would come from across the country to study the Bible, reflect on it and think about its meaning in their daily lives; it was remarkable to see.

My experience at Pepperdine [was not] in any meaningful sense for me incompatible because right at the foot of the hill was the little Catholic church my younger children attended and where my wife taught and where we both were religious education teachers on Sunday.

What do you think of the environment in Washington for Catholics and other traditional religious people? Somehow now it's controversial for Sen. Rick Santorum to express basic Catholic doctrine on homosexuality.

I'm an optimist when it comes to this. First of all, the Scripture tells us that nothing is impossible for Christ. I believe it. I also believe that I am the master of my own faith and happiness in terms of how strongly I want to immerse myself in both. Abraham Lincoln, again, said that we have the capacity to make ourselves happy if we want. A melancholy man said that.

We can view ourselves as cultural lepers who are always subject to attack and always marginalized, and thereby make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or we can just do what Santorum did — and I hope he has no regrets about doing it; I don't think he does — which is to say honestly, My Church has given me significant moral guidance on this question. It has acknowledged that everyone, homosexual or not, is created in the image and likeness of God but that there are sexual practices that aren't open to life, that aren't consistent with marriage, aren't consistent with family and, quite frankly, for that reason are viewed as morally inappropriate.

All it takes is one voice like Santorum to turn it around, and then 10 more voices are informed by the Catechism and those 10 in fact multiply themselves.

Do you think a small elite could lead the way and lead a lot of people?

Yes, because I think they are speaking the truth of the human person. I think that's what the Holy Father tells us over and over again: “Be not afraid.” Don't be afraid of your faith…in a democracy, which the Holy Father also warns can be idolized to the point of being the end of the moral enquiry.

Joseph A. D'Agostino writes from Washington, D.C.