The Personalist Project

Archbishop Chaput has an interesting article in First Things about the Magna Carta.

As I read it, I was thinking—as I always am, in at least a background way—about the seminal truth unfolding across the modern period of history, viz. the dignity of the human person as a self-conscious, self-standing, self-determining moral agent. John Crosby expresses it this way, in the opening lines of the essay on personalism at our "about us" page.

The men and women of our time are ever more aware of themselves as persons. We experience as never before the incomparable worth of each person. We are alive to our inviolability, that is, we know in a new way that none of us is ever rightly used and destroyed for the good of others. We are more sensitive than our ancestors to all the forms of coercion that threaten our personhood. We reject the ancient distinction between Greek and barbarian; we know that the birthright of a person belongs not to a select few but to every human being. This awakening of human beings to personal existence is an epochal event, a sea-change in the way we understand ourselves.

A key feature of any sea-change is that it happens gradually and almost imperceptibly, like the transformation of a child into an adult. There's no question that it's happened, and we can point to important milestones along the way; it wasn't a sudden or unaccountable event, but rather a natural development emerging across time. Which isn't to say that the progress is always smooth.

Something I learned from the Archbishop's article is that the significance of the Magna Carta wasn't fully grasped for a long time. 

Magna Carta has gone through long periods of being ignored or belittled by scholars. Designed to make peace, it resulted in civil war. In its original 1215 wording, it was poorly organized and never had the force of law. It survived only a few months and was annulled by the Pope. It’s been called a “long and disorderly jumble” focused on “petty domestic matters” that sometimes make no sense at all to the modern reader. During the Tudor period, it was largely forgotten. Yet despite all of this, Magna Carta emerged over time as the cornerstone of English liberties, grounding three other great statutes of the English system—the 1628 Petition of Right, the 1689 Bill of Rights, and the 1701 Act of Settlement. 

This reminds me of ecclesial history generally, and of Vatican II in particular. There's mess; there's confusion; there are politics and intrigue and setbacks and scandals; and yet, as the dust of all that settles, we see that something crucial has been happening. (BTW, no one elaborates this theme as it applies to the Council more convincingly than Benedict XVI in his final public address as Pope to the priests of Rome, contrasting the "false Council", the "Council of the media", and the true Council, whose real meaning and strength is only emerging now, 50 years later.)

A book I have somewhere on my shelves, but can't find at the moment, is composed of retreat talks Karol Wojtyla gave to young adults before he became Pope. In it he gives a remarkably positive interpretation of the upheavals of modernity. He suggests that they shouldn't be seen as nothing more than an nihilistic assault on the previous order, but rather as aiming at the establishment of real values—values that are important enough to be worth the risk of some losses. I think there's no question that the late Pope saw the heightened sense of the dignity of the person as just such a value. 

Its emergence has entailed some terrible losses, including the collapse of the old order, the ruination of many of its noble institutions, and horrible suffering for countless millions. And yet, even so—and trusting in Divine Providence guiding human affairs—observing with our own eyes, we can say, "good is happening." It wasn't just blind faith, I'm convinced, that allowed John Paul II to foresee "a new spring time" for the Church. It was his confidence in the potency of what he saw everywhere emerging. As John Henry Newman said, good has a force, a staying power and a fruitfulness that evil and error lack. We often feel overwhelmed by how rapidly wrong advances, and are tempted to forget that it is both a tenet of our faith and a first principle of metaphysics that good is greater than evil; it has substance that evil doesn't; it prevails in the end.

Magna Carta was a secular document. But, as the Archbishop shows, it developed out of a Christian vision of the human person and the historical exigencies of the interactions between Church and State.

Its unintended genius is this. It limited a sovereign’s power.

In a way, we can say that gradually replacing the rule of Power—the master/slave dynamic of the Fall—with the rule of Love is what salvation history is all about. It's the heart of the gospel. It's the hermeneutical key to understanding the drama of human existence.

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