A New Book on Catholicism and Human Rights

From Cambridge University Press, here is a new book on the often forgotten contribution of Catholic thought to human rights law: Catholic Cosmopolitanism and Human Rights, by scholar Leonard Francis Taylor (National University of Ireland–Galway). The publisher’s description follows:

It is because Catholicism played such a formative role in the construction of Western legal culture that it is the focal point of this enquiry. The account of international law from its origin in the treaties of Westphalia, and located in the writing of the Grotian tradition, had lost contact with another cosmopolitan history of international law that reappeared with the growth of the early twentieth century human rights movement. The beginnings of the human rights movement, grounded in democratic sovereign power, returned to that moral vocabulary to promote the further growth of international order in the twentieth century. In recognising this technique of periodically returning to Western cosmopolitan legal culture, this book endeavours to provide a more complete account of the human rights project that factors in the contribution that cosmopolitan Catholicism made to a general theory of sovereignty, international law and human rights.

  • Provides an engaging narrative on the integration of democratic and human rights norms into Catholicism, which in turn promoted those values through Christianity’s global reach
  • A valuable historical survey of Catholicism as a cosmopolitan project from the medieval to the modern era
  • Undertakes to provide a critical narrative of the development and direction of international law as it was characterised by Catholic preoccupations from the medieval and early modern era

The Religion of Unpolluted Human Ignorance (or, You’re Perfect Just the Way You Are)

I recently read, for the first time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences,” regularly referred to as the “First Discourse” to distinguish it from the more famous, second “Discourse on the Origins and the Foundations of Inequality Among Mankind.” The First Discourse is a short thing, not more than 20 pages or so, but extraordinary in its biting observations on the positive wickedness and pretension of hubristic aspiration to scientific and humanistic knowledge and improvement. “That opaque veil with which Wisdom cloaked her actions should have warned us that we were not destined for a vain quest for knowledge. Is there a single one of her lessons from which we have profited or which we have neglected with impunity? Let all nations once and for all realize that nature wanted to protect us from knowledge, just as a mother snatches a dangerous weapon from the hands of her child. Let them know that all the secrets she hides from us are so many ills from which she protects us and that the very difficulty they encounter in searching for knowledge is not the least of her kindnesses. Men are perverse; but they would be far worse if they had had the misfortune to be born learned.”

The First Discourse ought to be read by everyone who is part of the knowledge class, as a bit of cold water on the pretensions of the ostensibly learned. But quite apart from its incisive criticisms (and there are quite a few), the First Discourse contains several themes that run through Rousseau’s broader body of work–especially the natural, unadulterated, internal goodness of humanity, the depravity and corrupting influence of social conditions and culture, and the importance of resisting this cultural pressure in being true to what or who one “really” is, uncorrupted by social expectations, knowledge, learning, and so on. As it happens, these are themes that are also crucial for understanding the present moment in American social and cultural life.

A new book, Rousseau’s God: Theology, Religion, and the Natural Goodness of Man (University of Chicago Press), by John T. Scott, develops many of these themes across Rousseau’s writing.

John T. Scott offers a comprehensive interpretation of Rousseau’s theological and religious thought, both in its own right and in relation to Rousseau’s broader oeuvre. In chapters focused on different key writings, Scott reveals recurrent themes in Rousseau’s views on the subject and traces their evolution over time. He shows that two concepts—truth and utility—are integral to Rousseau’s writings on religion. Doing so helps to explain some of Rousseau’s disagreements with his contemporaries: their different views on religion and theology stem from different understandings of human nature and the proper role of science in human life. Rousseau emphasizes not just what is true, but also what is useful—psychologically, morally, and politically—for human beings. Comprehensive and nuanced, Rousseau’s God is vital to understanding key categories of Rousseau’s thought.

Aquinas on Aristotle (Jerusalem on Athens?)

One of the most enjoyable parts (for me, at least!) of my “Jurisprudence, Justice, and Politics” course last year was reading selections of Aristotle and St. Thomas with my students, and observing both continuities and crucial differences in their accounts of law, virtue, justice, the good life, and so many others. These similarities and contrasts go very much to the heart of the “law and religion” project that our Center has as its mission. Here is what looks like a wonderful and deeply erudite new book by the late Fr. Leo Elders, an eminent scholar of Aquinas, on these very subjects: Reading Aristotle With Thomas Aquinas: His Commentaries on Aristotle’s Major Works (CUA Press), released early next year.

Reading Aristotle with Thomas Aquinas: His Commentaries on Aristotle’s Major Works offers an original and decisive work for the understanding of the thought of Thomas Aquinas. For decades his commentaries on the major works of Aristotle have been the subject of lively discussions. Are his commentaries faithful and reliable expositions of the Stagirite’s thought or do they contain Thomas’s own philosophy and are they read through the lens of Thomas’s own Christian faith and in doing so possibly distorting Aristotle?

In order to be able to provide clarity and offer a nuanced response to this question a careful study of all the relevant texts is needed. This is precisely what the author sets out do to in this work.

Each chapter is devoted to one of the twelve commentaries Thomas wrote on major works of Aristotle including both his massive and influential commentaries on the Metaphysics, Physics and Nicomachean Ethics as well as lesser known commentaries. Elders places Thomas’s commentary in its historical context, reviews the Greek, Arabic and Latin translation and reception of Aristotle’s text as well as contemporary interpretations thereof and presents the reader with a thorough presentation and analysis of the content of the commentary, drawing attention to all the places where Thomas intervenes and makes special observations. In this way the reader can study Aristotle’s treatises with Thomas as guide.

The conclusion reached is that Thomas’s commentaries are a masterful and faithful presentation of Aristotle’s thought and of that of Thomas himself. Thomas’s Christian faith does not falsify Aristotle’s text, but gives occasionally an outlook at what lies behind philosophical thought.

“My Faith in the Constitution is Whole”

As recently as a generation ago, America’s civil religion centered on the Constitution. A good example can be found in the speeches of progressive Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, famous as a member of the Watergate committee, who often referred to her “faith” in the Constitution as the guiding principle of her public life. Times change; it’s hard to imagine progressive politicians referring to the Constitution in such an uncomplicatedly affirmative way today. Readers can decide for themselves why that is so. The book is “My Faith in the Constitution is Whole”: Barbara Jordan and the Politics of Scripture, by Robin L. Owens (Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles). The publisher is the Georgetown University Press. Here’s the publisher’s description:

US Congresswoman Barbara Jordan is well-known as an interpreter and defender of the Constitution, particularly through her landmark speech during Richard Nixon’s 1974 impeachment hearings. However, before she developed faith in the Constitution, Jordan had faith in Christianity. In “My Faith in the Constitution is Whole”: Barbara Jordan and the Politics of Scripture, Robin L. Owens shows how Jordan turned her religious faith and her faith in the Constitution into a powerful civil religious expression of her social activism.

Owens begins by examining the lives and work of the nineteenth-century Black female orator-activists Maria W. Stewart and Anna Julia Cooper. Stewart and Cooper fought for emancipation and women’s rights by “scripturalizing,” or using religious scriptures to engage in political debate. Owens then demonstrates how Jordan built upon this tradition by treating the Constitution as an American “scripture” to advocate for racial justice and gender equality. Case studies of key speeches throughout Jordan’s career show how she quoted the Constitution and other founding documents as sacred texts, used them as sociolinguistic resources, and employed a discursive rhetorical strategy of indirection known as “signifying on scriptures.”

Jordan’s particular use of the Constitution—deeply connected with her background and religious, racial, and gender identity—represents the agency and power reflected in her speeches. Jordan’s strategies also illustrate a broader phenomenon of scripturalization outside of institutional religion and its rhetorical and interpretive possibilities.

Christianity’s Cultural Authority

In many of the accusations of “Christian nationalism” that one hears today, the true complaint seems to be that Christianity continues to wield an outsized, or, at least, an undesirably outsized (from the accuser’s point of view), political and (especially) cultural authority. Though one may debate the matter in today’s world, the accusation is, so far as it goes in this way, historically accurate. Christianity has, in fact, been the dominant religion of the Western political and cultural world. Indeed, some might even say that one may measure the success of any given religion, defined broadly, by the extent to which it can subsume the state and the culture into its rituals, practices, strictures, beliefs, and ways of life.

A new book traces this history of politico-cultural dominance in the early medieval period: Christendom: The Triumph of a Religion, AD 300-1300 (Penguin Press), by Peter Heather.

In the fourth century AD, a new faith exploded out of Palestine. Overwhelming the paganism of Rome, and converting the Emperor Constantine in the process, it resoundingly defeated a host of other rivals. Almost a thousand years later, all of Europe was controlled by Christian rulers, and the religion, ingrained within culture and society, exercised a monolithic hold over its population. But, as Peter Heather shows in this compelling history, there was nothing inevitable about Christendom’s rise to Europe-wide dominance.

In exploring how the Christian religion became such a defining feature of the European landscape, and how a small sect of isolated congregations was transformed into a mass movement centrally directed from Rome, Heather shows how Christendom constantly battled against both so-called ‘heresies’ and other forms of belief. From the crisis that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, which left the religion teetering on the edge of extinction, to the astonishing revolution in which the Papacy emerged as the head of a vast international corporation, Heather traces Christendom’s chameleon-like capacity for self-reinvention and willingness to mobilize well-directed force.

Christendom’s achievement was not, or not only, to define official Christianity, but – from its scholars and its lawyers, to its provincial officials and missionaries in far-flung corners of the continent – to transform it into an institution that wielded effective religious authority across nearly all of the disparate peoples of medieval Europe. This is its extraordinary story.

Christian and Muslim Approaches to Law

One of the very earliest recorded encounters between a Christian and a Muslim, a public debate between a Syriac patriarch and an Arab emir shortly after the Arab conquest of Syria, concerns the role of law in religion. Without a body of law, the emir insisted, Christianity could not call itself a religion; Christians should convert to Islam, a real religion that had the Sharia. The patriarch responded that Christians indeed had law, though not as Muslims understood it; Christians had no need to convert. I thought of this debate when I saw a notice for a forthcoming book from Cambridge, Law and the Rule of God: A Christian Engagement with Sharia, by Joshua Rallston (Edinburgh). Law–or, rather, the proper conception of law–is a major point of contention between these two world religions, and a comparative study like this one seems very promising. The publisher’s description follows:

Sharī’a is one of the most hotly contested and misunderstood concepts and practices in the world today. Debates about Islamic law and its relationship to secularism and Christianity have dominated political and theological discourse for centuries. Unfortunately, Western Christian theologians have failed to engage sufficiently with the challenges and questions raised by Islamic political theology, preferring instead to essentialize or dismiss it. In Law and the Rule of God, Joshua Ralston presents an innovative approach to Christian-Muslim dialogue. Eschewing both polemics and apologetics, he proposes a comparative framework for Christian engagement with Islamic debates on sharī’a. Ralston draws on a diverse range of thinkers from both traditions including Karl Barth, Ibn Taymiyya, Thomas Aquinas, and Mohammad al-Jabri. He offers an account of public law as a provisional and indirect witness to the divine rule of justice. He also demonstrates how this theology of public law deeply resonates with the Christian tradition and is also open to learning from and dialoguing with Islamic and secular conceptions of law, sovereignty, and justice.

Virtue Politics Operationalized

One of the best books I’ve read recently is James Hankins’ Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy. In it, Professor Hankins provides an alternative to the account of Renaissance political thought that places “republican liberty” as its chief achievement. It is, says Hankins, the cultivation of virtue in political leadership, and the reclaiming of the classical traditions of virtues of character in Greek and Roman thought, that animates the central political project of the great humanist tradition. Machiavelli, who is often placed at the center of Renaissance political thought (he is certainly the most widely read figure of the Renaissance political tradition), is, on Hankins’ account, at best deeply ambivalent about this tradition, and certainly not the central representative of the spirit of the age.

I’ve thought a lot about Professor Hankins’ book, and in particular just what a virtue politics of the modern period, in America, for example, might do (or aspire to do). So I’m especially pleased to see that he will have a new book out in the spring that seems to concretize the Renaissance virtue politics program in a number of ways, and whose subject is the last figure (before Machiavelli) he considers in Virtue Politics, Francesco Patrizi. The book is Political Meritocracy in Renaissance Italy: The Virtuous Republic of Francesco Patrizi of Siena. It will be a must read for anyone interested in this fascinating period of history and anyone thinking about the role of virtue in contemporary political life.

At the heart of the Italian Renaissance was a longing to recapture the wisdom and virtue of Greece and Rome. But how could this be done? A new school of social reformers concluded that the best way to revitalize corrupt institutions was to promote an ambitious new form of political meritocracy aimed at nurturing virtuous citizens and political leaders.

The greatest thinker in this tradition of virtue politics was Francesco Patrizi of Siena, a humanist philosopher whose writings were once as famous as Machiavelli’s. Patrizi wrote two major works: On Founding Republics, addressing the enduring question of how to reconcile republican liberty with the principle of merit; and On Kingship and the Education of Kings, which lays out a detailed program of education designed to instill the qualities necessary for political leadership—above all, practical wisdom and sound character.

The first full-length study of Patrizi’s life and thought in any language, Political Meritocracy in Renaissance Italy argues that Patrizi is a thinker with profound lessons for our time. A pioneering advocate of universal literacy who believed urban planning could help shape civic values, he concluded that limiting the political power of the wealthy, protecting the poor from debt slavery, and reducing the political independence of the clergy were essential to a functioning society. These ideas were radical in his day. Far more than an exemplar of his time, Patrizi deserves to rank alongside the great political thinkers of the Renaissance: Machiavelli, Thomas More, and Jean Bodin.

“Roma Traversata”

This might seem a little far afield for us, but the Center regularly sponsors conferences in Rome and Marc and I are there a lot for our work. One of the great pleasures of Rome is wandering through its streets. It’s such a dense city, and practically every corner has an interesting history. A new book out this month from Cornell University Press looks like it will be a welcome addition to the literature on the city. And the book’s focus on how a great city grows organically over centuries is very much in keeping with our Tradition Project. The book is Roma Traversata: Tracing Historic Pathways through Rome, by scholar Allan Ceen (Penn State). Here’s the publisher’s description:

Roma Traversata analyzes pathways to decipher the complexity of Rome’s urban layout. Nearly all of the prehistoric country paths converging on what was to become the Roman Forum (the ancient city center) are still traceable in the modern city. To these were added other major streets in ancient times. Additional Medieval and Renaissance streets developed the city further as its center shifted from the Forum toward the Vatican. Some of these provided the framework for Rome’s late 19th century urban development.

Ceen follows nine routes: three prehistoric, three ancient, and three post-classical pathways through the city, showing us that streets are not merely the space left over between buildings but have a formal character of their own and even determine certain aspects of buildings. Rather than insisting upon the greater importance of streets over buildings, Ceen studies the interactions between buildings and public space, something he describes as urban reciprocity.

Profusely and beautifully illustrated, Roma Traversata shows that streets and pathways of Rome are not merely ways of getting from place to place. They are places.

The Catholic Church as Shatterer of Polities

In our law and religion colloquium, one of the early themes Mark and I touch on is the dualism of Christianity, and the complicated sense in which this dualism is, and is not, a precursor to contemporary ideas of church-state separation. Some of the complications concern the view that separation in this early sense may not have meant complete division, but instead a kind of complementarity of authorities.

We don’t touch perhaps as much as we should on the Catholic Church’s role in the formation of the contemporary nation state, but this new book does: The Catholic Church and European State Formation, AD 1000-1500 (Oxford University Press) by political historians Jørgen Møller and Jonathan Stavnskær Doucette. Their core claim seems to be that the Church was the prime mover of political fragmentation (or “pluralism,” to give it its modern euphemism), and in particular the disruption of the Holy Roman Empire, during this period.

Generations of social scientists and historians have argued that the escape from empire and consequent fragmentation of power – across and within polities – was a necessary condition for the European development of the modern territorial state, modern representative democracy, and modern levels of prosperity. The Catholic Church and European State Formation, AD 1000-1500 inserts the Catholic Church as the main engine of this persistent international and domestic power pluralism, which has moulded European state-formation for almost a millennium.

The ‘crisis of church and state’ that began in the second half of the eleventh century is argued here as having fundamentally reshaped European patterns of state formation and regime change. It did so by doing away with the norm in historical societies – sacral monarchy – and by consolidating the two great balancing acts European state builders have been engaged in since the eleventh century: against strong social groups and against each other.

The book traces the roots of this crisis to a large-scale breakdown of public authority in the Latin West, which began in the ninth century, and which at one and the same time incentivised and permitted a religious reform movement to radically transform the Catholic Church in the period from the late tenth century onwards.

Drawing on a unique dataset of towns, parliaments, and ecclesiastical institutions such as bishoprics and monasteries, the book documents how this church reform movement was crucial for the development and spread of self-government (the internal balancing act) and the weakening of the Holy Roman Empire (the external balancing act) in the period AD 1000-1500.

The Church of Saint Thomas Paine

A few years ago, while a fellow in the Madison Program at Princeton, I did a little research on a relative of mine, Mangasar Mangasarian, who had attended Princeton in the 19th Century. I had always heard that Mangasar, one of the earliest Armenian immigrants in the US, had gone on to become a Protestant minister. That was the story our family told, and it was true, as far as it went. What they failed to mention (maybe they didn’t know), and what I came to learn at Princeton, was that Mangasar eventually left his pulpit in the Presbyterian Church to found his own, rationalist sect, the “Independent Religious Society of Chicago,” which had some success around the turn of the century. I guess my relatives found that part of Mangasar’s story less edifying.

I’ve always wanted to do some more research to find out why Mangasar took the path he did. We’re a little late getting to it here at the Forum, but a book published last year by Princeton seems like it will provide some very helpful information. The book, The Church of Saint Thomas Paine, by Leigh Eric Schmidt (Washington University in St. Louis) describes 19th century secular “religions” in the United States. I checked the index online and Mangasar’s name appears quite prominently! Can’t wait to see what the book says. Meanwhile, here’s the publisher’s description:

In The Church of Saint Thomas Paine, Leigh Eric Schmidt tells the surprising story of how freethinking liberals in nineteenth-century America promoted a secular religion of humanity centered on the deistic revolutionary Thomas Paine (1737–1809) and how their descendants eventually became embroiled in the culture wars of the late twentieth century.

After Paine’s remains were stolen from his grave in New Rochelle, New York, and shipped to England in 1819, the reverence of his American disciples took a material turn in a long search for his relics. Paine’s birthday was always a red-letter day for these believers in democratic cosmopolitanism and philanthropic benevolence, but they expanded their program to include a broader array of rites and ceremonies, particularly funerals free of Christian supervision. They also worked to establish their own churches and congregations in which to practice their religion of secularism.

All of these activities raised serious questions about the very definition of religion and whether it included nontheistic fellowships and humanistic associations—a dispute that erupted again in the second half of the twentieth century. As right-wing Christians came to see secular humanism as the most dangerous religion imaginable, small communities of religious humanists, the heirs of Paine’s followers, were swept up in new battles about religion’s public contours and secularism’s moral perils.

An engrossing account of an important but little-known chapter in American history, The Church of Saint Thomas Paine reveals why the lines between religion and secularism are often much blurrier than we imagine.