In the 1940s, as much as in and through some of their legacies today, Christian human rights have not so much been about the inclusion of the other, but about policing the borders and boundaries at which threatening enemies loom.

—Samuel Moyn, Christian human rights—An introduction

*   *   *

It is a delight to be asked to contribute to this forum on Samuel Moyn’s work on Christianity and human rights. Since my first year of graduate school, Moyn has had a strong influence on how I understand Roman Catholic thought in the twentieth century. “Personalism, Community, and the Origins of Human Rights” first came to my attention when Sam shared it with me in draft form in 2009, and it was this text more than any other that convinced me that any explanation of post-1945 shifts in Catholic thought and activism must begin with the 1930s, if not indeed earlier. I therefore thank both Samuel Moyn and Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins for including me in this forum.

Because I work on Poland as well as Western Europe and on Catholic socialists as well as Christian Democrats, I often find myself sitting in workshops on transnational Christianity suppressing the impulse to step into the role of token shrill voice in the room insisting, “What about Eastern Europe?! What about the socialists and the Communists?! Western European Christian Democracy is only part of the twentieth-century story of Catholicism in Europe—let alone of global Christianity writ large!”

With respect to Samuel Moyn’s work on Christianity and human rights, these objections would be not only shrill, but indeed groundless: “Personalism, Community, and the Origins of Human Rights” carefully considers multiple geographies and ideologies, dialoguing seamlessly with, for example, historian Paul Hanebrink’s work on Christianity in Hungary through 1944. Like the rest of Moyn’s forthcoming book Christian Human Rights, the “Personalism” essay makes clear both that “Europe” is not simply Western Europe and that much of what was intellectually and politically innovative about European Catholicism in the twentieth century preceded, rather than postdated, the consolidation of power in the early Cold War by the Christlich Demokratische Union, Democrazia Cristiana and so forth.

That said, both Eastern Europe and Catholic socialism have, I think, something important to offer in conversation with Moyn’s claims about the respective importance of the “conservative” and “transwar” lenses for assessing Christianity’s contributions to the emergence of global human-rights discourse. To my mind, one of the most important claims advanced thus far by Moyn on this topic comes in the final paragraph of his essay: “In the 1940s, as much as in and through some of their legacies today, Christian human rights have not so much been about the inclusion of the other, but about policing the borders and boundaries at which threatening enemies loom.”

Until the Second Vatican Council—arguably, even since—the Catholic Church’s modus operandi was to set boundaries. This was the explicit task of many congregations within the Roman Curia, most notably the Holy Office (formerly the Inquisition). This—despite Catholicism’s declared universal mission of evangelizing the faith to promote all of humanity’s salvation in Christ. Even as early-twentieth-century Catholic thinkers began to attribute “dignity” and “rights” to the old Thomist concept of the “human person,” it was clear that this was not a universally applicable category: qualifying as a human person required conversion, baptism, catechesis. Jews, Muslims, unbaptized non-believers—these were not persons. Even the personhood of Protestants, Orthodox, and other Christians was in doubt.

Furthermore, not all human persons were equal. Converts, in particular, remained suspect. As John Connelly incisively argues in From Enemy to Brother, even for early-twentieth-century Catholic thinkers considered mainstream experts on matters of confession and race, “baptism had become not a gift to be shared or a duty of evangelization but a prerogative of blood to be protected.” As both Moyn and Connelly have established in their respective writings, Catholicism’s communitarian traditions worked precisely because Catholic thinkers had no qualms about specifying who was excluded from the community—often to the point of denigrating the very Sacraments that the Church purported to evangelize.

Yet, as Connelly points out, the twentieth century saw the coming of generations’ worth of confessional “border-crossers.” The borders that they crossed were confessional, ideological, and geographical. Mostly, but not exclusively, adult converts to Catholicism, these men and women punched hole after hole—first individually, then as growing communities of thinkers and activists—through the conservative boundaries that had been erected to “protect” the community of the faithful. It is at the crossroads of Moyn’s and Connelly’s respective writings that I see the basis for understanding why border-crossers (like Jacques Maritain, Waldemar Gurian, or John Oesterreicher) came to play a greater and greater role in shaping human person-driven Catholic rights-talk.

While Moyn is certainly correct that the “death of Christian Europe […] forced a complete reinvention of the meaning of human rights embedded in European identity” (he pegs this to the mid-1960s), that “death” was neither instantaneous nor complete. Moyn himself writes in another essay of Christianity’s role throughout the Cold War in shaping the normative content of the concept of “religious freedom” employed by the European Convention and Court of Human Rights—as having been originally defined “against communist secularism”.

It is here that Eastern Europe and Catholic socialism have the most to offer. In 1908, the Polish priest Antoni Szymański—one of the future founders and rectors of Poland’s Catholic University of Lublin—received a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Catholic University of Louvain; his advisor there had been Thomist philosopher and future Belgian cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier. In his first book written in Polish, published in 1910, Szymański wrote, “Catholicism is the most perfect imaginable amplification of the human person, whom it affords the possibility of participation in the life of God through the Holy Sacrament.”1 This was nominally a universal claim, but principally so in the sense that it was to hold universal appeal as propaganda advertising to non-Catholics their right to “participate in the life of God” as persons (via conversion). In Szymański’s mind, becoming a human person was the right of all, not a privilege of the few, but as such personhood required joining the community of the Catholic faithful.

The Polish philosopher-priest’s goal in writing these words was to convince industrial workers who had left the Church behind to support socialist revolution to return instead to the ranks of the faithful. Although his words attest to the fundamentally conservative origins of personalism in fin-de-siècle (“end of the century”) Poland, the very fact of their publication was a stepping stone toward a non-exclusionary Catholic communitarianism that would crystallize several generations later—paradoxically, during Poland’s Communist era. Indeed, its ultimate fulfillment would be the creation of the Solidarity trade-union movement in 1980-81.

Poland is not a representative case for either Europe or Christendom, yet throughout the twentieth century it consistently furnished crucial transnational motors of Catholic reform and revolution on both a continental and global scale—of whom the most visible was Pope John Paul II. By considering the Polish case alongside Catholicism’s transformation in Western Europe, one can see that, throughout the eras of collapsing hereditary empires, fascist and Communist regimes on the march, genocide, and Cold War, “Christian Europe” did not die, but rather wore a succession of dramatically different faces.

Universalistic—or, more accurately, humanistic—communitarianism did not survive the end of the Cold War even in Poland. Samuel Moyn is therefore right to invoke John Paul II’s 2003 lament about “the loss of Europe’s Christian memory and heritage, accompanied by a kind of practical agnosticism and religious indifference.” Yet the trajectory out of which both John Paul II and the Solidarity movement emerged must not be ignored or consigned to the margins based on a Western Europe-centered conception of Christian Europe’s “death.” (To be fair, “Christian Europe” died in other ways in the Soviet Bloc as well over the course of the Communist era, but reconstructing those, too, requires a more comprehensively transnational story that de-centers Christian Democracy and Western Europe alike.)

Following its reestablishment in 1918 as a state independent of its former imperial occupiers, Poland had Christian Democracy, too. However, Polish Christian Democrats did not advance a universalistic communitarianism. Quite the opposite—they consistently argued that Polish Catholics must be “masters in their own home,” forging a “nationally homogeneous state.”

Rather, it was the Catholics who were willing to dialogue with and work alongside socialists and Communists—literally, “crossing borders” between belief and unbelief, conservatism and revolutionary ideology—whose efforts over the course of generations yielded a non-exclusionary, personalist communitarianism. This, too, was a transwar trajectory, but it began in the 1910s, not in the 1930s. Indeed, the Polish trajectory recalls Philip Nord’s 1984 argument about the priest-politicians of fin-de-siècle France, with whom one can plausibly begin a history of French Christian Democracy, even though—unlike the much later Mouvement Républicain Populaire—those “first Christian Democrats” held “an amalgam of three currents of opinion of which only one was democratic and republican in inspiration.”

The point here is that conservatives can be border-crossers—and can lay the intellectual groundwork for the crossing of borders—but not all border-crossers are conservative. In considering Samuel Moyn’s arguments about personalist communitarianism and Christian human rights in broader transnational (perhaps even global) perspective, it is essential to give due diligence to progressives and conservatives alike. Granted, some of twentieth-century Europe’s progressive Catholics sounded remarkably like fascists, and some even collaborated in rapid succession with fascists (in the 1930s and 1940s) and Stalinists (in the 1940s and 1950s). This was true in both Western and Eastern Europe, with Emmanuel Mounier as an iconic case relevant to both.

Even so, ni droite ni gauche (“neither right nor left”) commitments did not preclude substantive and substantial contributions to the pursuit of a non-exclusionary Catholic communitarianism. Moyn rightly draws attention to the fact that, in the 1930s, “Catholicism in particular had celebrated victories for its social teachings in the fall of liberal democracy,” and it would return to this tone under the papacy of John Paul II. In between, however, the story was messier than has thus far been acknowledged.

By way of conclusion, then, I offer two larger claims for the forum’s consideration.

First, the genealogy of Christian human rights is neither merely “transwar” nor fixed in “Christianity’s last golden age on the Continent” (Moyn’s description of the 1940s through 1960s), but rather part of a longer arc of Christianity’s self-redefinition in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Second, the category of border-crossers, seen particularly through empirical casework examining Eastern Europeans who inscribed their region into the transnational imaginaries of “Christian Europe” and “global Catholicism” alike, both confirms the value and highlights the limitations of seeing Christian human rights as a triumph of conservatism.


  1. Antoni Szymański, Poglądy demokracyi chrześcijańskiej we Francyi, 1892-1907, Księgarnia św. Wojciecha 1910, p. 131.