Thursday, February 1, 2024
The Center for Law and the Human Person is delighted to host Professor Daniel Mahoney this coming Wednesday, February 7, from 5:15-6:15 in the Slowinski Courtroom of the Columbus School of Law. Professor Mahoney is the author most recently of "The Statesman as Thinker" and "The Idol of Our Age," as well as other insightful work in the history of political ideas. He is one of the world's foremost experts on the thought of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and what it has to tell us today.
Please join us for his lecture, Freedom, Moral Purpose, and Self-Limitation: The Enduring Wisdom of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Tuesday, January 16, 2024
I'm delighted to announce "Tolle et Lege," an initiative of the Center for Law and the Human Person at Catholic University. This is a reading group that invites (gently urges?) students to "pick up and read" classic literature in the Catholic intellectual tradition. We'll meet on selected evenings for discussion and fellowship. We have an edifying slate of reading this semester.
First, on January 29, and in preparation for Professor Daniel Mahoney's lecture on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, we'll be discussing two of Solzhenitsyn's essays, "Live Not By Lies" (1974) and his Harvard University address, rather timely again, "A World Split Apart" (1978).
Second, on March 25, we'll consider C.S. Lewis's wonderful tale of heaven and hell, The Great Divorce (1945).
All readings not otherwise available on the web are provided for free to students. Join us!
Saturday, January 13, 2024
One of the great joys of my new position at The Catholic University of America is to co-direct the Center for Law and the Human Person with the excellent Elizabeth Kirk. We have very big plans for the Center in the coming months and years.
Those plans begin with our program for the spring. We have chosen to explore the theme of freedom. We will do that in a series of lectures and conferences. Here is the schedule, which I will be writing about and detailing here in the future. Join us!
- February 7, 2024: 5:00 p.m. • Columbus School of Law
“Freedom, Moral Purpose, and Self-Limitation: The Enduring Wisdom of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn”
Plenary Lecture by Prof. Daniel Mahoney, Assumption University, and Senior Fellow, Claremont Institute
Reception to follow
- February 13, 2024: 12:30 p.m. • Columbus School of Law
Faith in Action Lecture: “The Truth Shall Set You Free: Seeking Truth and Finding Your Calling”
Fr. Dominic Legge, O.P., Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, and Director, Thomistic Institute
- March 19, 2024: 12:30 p.m. • Columbus School of Law
Faith in Action Lecture: "Top Ten Tips for Living and Lawyering Authentically"
Jennie Bradley Lichter, Deputy General Counsel, The Catholic University of America
- April 4, 2024: All day • Columbus School of Law
“Freedom & Truth”: Second Annual Spring Symposium
Speakers include: Prof. Carl Trueman, Grove City College; Prof. Catherine Pakaluk, The Catholic University of America; Prof. Gerard Bradley, Notre Dame Law School.
Wednesday, December 13, 2023
Some happy news for our Center for Law and Religion (press release here), which I co-direct with Mark Movsesian. The Center has been named after Denise and Michael Mattone (classes of 1990 and 1991 respectively) in recognition of their transformative, multi-million dollar gift. We are deeply grateful and look forward to exciting times ahead for the Center.
Saturday, December 2, 2023
I was delighted and honored to participate in a two-day conference marking the 30th anniversary of Professor Robert George's deeply important book, Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality, organized by the Project on Constitutional Originalism and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition at The Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy, and the American Enterprise Institute.
I was joined by my friends, Professors Joel Alicea and Steven Smith, with Judge Thomas Griffith moderating, on the final panel concerning constitutional theory. The recording, which I've posted below, begins at 6:49:29 and my own presentation starts at 7:06:35. But I very highly recommend all of the panel presentations and discussions. Every one is worth it.
Friday, November 10, 2023
I have review with that title that is both appreciative and critical of Professor Hadley Arkes' book, Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution, in this month's issue of First Things. A bit:
C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity famously begins with vignettes of ordinary experience. People of all ages and levels of education, Lewis observes, often say things like: “How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?” “That’s my seat, I was there first,” “Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm,” “Why should you shove in first?” “Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine,” “Come on, you promised.” This was how Lewis introduced his readers to the natural law. Our shared moral responses in cases like these, he argued, are shaped by a universal standard of right behavior. Nobody, or almost nobody, says, “To hell with your standard”; they instead try to show that their behavior in fact conforms to it. Thus did Lewis guide his audience up the Christian mountain by the gradual path of concrete common life before ascending to more difficult theological heights.
In Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution, Hadley Arkes adapts Lewis’s title and method to the natural law constitutionalism that he has developed over a lifetime of scholarship and erudition. The thread running through works such as First Things (1986, four years before the founding of this journal), Beyond the Constitution (1990), The Return of George Sutherland (1994), Natural Rights and the Right to Choose (2004), Constitutional Illusions and Anchoring Truths (2006), and others, is that the Constitution cannot be understood apart from the moral principles of the natural law that grounds it. The founding generation, Arkes has consistently argued, grasped the truths of the natural law and believed that these truths lay at the root of American constitutional government. Today, he says, we must do likewise: see beyond the constitutional text to the eternal principles of natural law antecedent to the Constitution’s ratification. What constitutional law needs is more moral argument about the natural law...
Arkes seems to be looking at our moral fractures through the wrong end of the telescope. He writes: “There has been no more common distraction over ‘rights’ than the tendency to fixate on rights to particular things, such as jobs or housing, while blocking from sight these underlying principles that mark the rightful and wrongful claims to these goods.” This is wrong, and its wrongness is illustrative of the way the book misfires. The last thing we need is more constitutional debate about high principle—about what dignity or equality or freedom or autonomy or even justice, in the abstract and divorced from ordinary life, requires of our constitutional law. In a society increasingly riven by disagreement over fundamental commitments, it is the world of the concrete, of practices, particulars, customs, habits, and traditions, that assumes ever greater importance. Or, to put it in a natural law register, we need a greater focus in constitutional law on ius—on the objects of constitutional justice—to clarify what our principles demand from our law. From the bottom up.
What we need, in a word, is a constitutionalism of things and the practices that attend them. That is what our Constitution and its law concern: voting procedures, religious observances and symbols, speech practices, families, homes, businesses, firearms, countless varieties of human relationships, schools, property and contractual arrangements, wills, government policies and programs of many kinds, and innumerable other cultural and political practices. The constitutionalism we need must shore up these practices of the past against the ruin of the present. This is why Lewis began as he did, with baby steps and quotidian cases rather than abstract principles. Seventy years after Mere Christianity, we need that approach more, not less, acutely. We are not ready—indeed, we are less ready than we have ever been—to be confronted with the empyrean of high natural law principle, which Arkes illustrates in this book with his usual verve and panache. The truths of the sky are real enough, but anchoring truths are found in the earth.
Thursday, October 12, 2023
I'll be giving a talk tomorrow with this title at the University of St. Thomas's Murphy Center, organized and directed by Prof. Greg Sisk. Please stop in if you are in town. I'll post the text of the talk sometime next week. Further details at the link.
Monday, October 9, 2023
I have posted a new essay, Establishment as Tradition, forthcoming in the Yale Law Journal Forum. It brings together two things I have been thinking about only separately to date: what binds a political community, and what fosters mutual trust and forbearance within it, in its "establishments," apart from whatever "establishments of religion" may be forbidden in our polity; and traditionalism's civic character-forming qualities. Comments from interested readers are welcome, as the piece is still a draft. Here is the abstract:
Traditionalism is a constitutional theory that focuses on concrete political and cultural practices, and the endurance of those practices before, during, and after ratification of the Constitution, as the presumptive determinants of constitutional meaning and constitutional law. The Supreme Court has long interpreted traditionally but now says explicitly that it uses a method of “text, history, and tradition” in several areas of constitutional law. Foremost among these is the Establishment Clause. This Essay examines two questions about traditionalism, both of which concern the Establishment Clause in distinct but related ways. First, why has traditionalism had special salience in this area? Second, is traditionalism more a mood or disposition than a theory, more a matter of the heart than of the head?
On the first matter, traditionalism did not materialize out of thin air in the 2021 term, and it has had unusual power in the interpretation of the Establishment Clause for decades. The question is why, and answering it has implications for constitutional theory more generally. For if some domains of constitutional law are more amenable than others to traditionalist interpretation, the same may be true of other theories. The answer for the Establishment Clause is that establishments are made up of politically foundational traditions. Political establishments are constituted by the concrete, authoritative, and enduring practices and institutions that make up the essential settlements of a polity. To interpret the phrase, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” is immediately to be directed by the text not to an idea or an abstraction, but to something solid, authoritative, and lasting—“an establishment.” This is a reading supported by the other uses of “establishment” and its cognates in the Constitution. “An establishment of religion,” therefore, is a political practice that sits outside the limits of the constitutionally permissible practices of American political establishment. Unconstitutional establishments of religion depend upon the prior existence of constitutional establishments, and those establishments are often instantiated in a people’s most powerful political traditions. More than certain other domains of constitutional law, the text of the Establishment Clause is inherently traditionalist because its meaning takes shape against a network of concrete, authoritative, and enduring institutional, political practices. And the practices of establishment are essential to fostering the civic trust that is necessary for any polity’s survival. Without them, the political community fractures. In time, it dies.
As for the second question, some critics have argued that traditionalism is not a full-fledged theory so much as a mood or disposition, and that traditions are too manipulable and insubstantial to form the raw material for a theory of constitutional meaning or constitutional law. The question matters because it concerns whether traditionalism is an independent constitutional theory in its own right or instead at most a feature of others, dependent on their methods and justifications. I will argue that traditionalism is as much a constitutional theory as any of its rivals, though that claim will depend on just what it means to count as a theory. It is, in fact, its application in Establishment Clause cases that most clearly demonstrates its comparative systematicity, generality, and predictability of application, three critical elements for qualifying as a constitutional theory. Traditionalism is, to be sure, not a decisional algorithm, but neither is any attractive constitutional theory; it acknowledges and even welcomes reasonable disagreement within shared premises, as do other plausible theories. Still, the critics are in a sense correct: traditionalism has a characterological or dispositional component that other approaches may lack and this, too, is illustrated in its application to the Establishment Clause. Its character, and the kind of disposition it develops in interpreters subscribing to it, is preservative and custodial. That is not a flaw but a distinguishing virtue. It makes traditionalism preferable to other interpretive possibilities because it makes traditionalism more than just an interpretive theory, reflecting and shaping character even as it provides a coherent framework for adjudicating constitutional cases.
Thursday, October 5, 2023
Mark Movsesian and I have a new podcast, part of our Legal Spirits series, on Tom Berg's new book, Religious Liberty in a Polarized Age (Eerdmans). Congratulations to Tom on the book! In the podcast, we ask Tom a few questions about the thesis and argument, but also (in my case, at least) review some old disagreements that first emerged at Mirror of Justice about a decade ago concerning the difference in perspective between irony and tragedy. Thanks to Tom for doing it. Listen in!
Monday, September 11, 2023
I'm delighted to announce a conference on Robert George's groundbreaking book, Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality, on the 30th anniversary of its publication. The conference will be held November 30-December 1, and is being jointly organized by AEI, the Ethics & Public Policy Center, Pepperdine University, and the Project on Constitutional Originalism and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition at Catholic University. You can see the terrific program at the link.
I'm particularly pleased to contribute something to this conference, as Robby's book was a major influence on me as I thought about an academic career many years ago, shaping the way I thought about so-called "legal moralism" and many other questions in constitutional law and theory that came to occupy me in later years. And I continue to use the book to this day in my own classes as a model to introduce some of the foundational questions of governance that it discusses.