When Samuel Moyn talks about Church history, it is usually not meant as a compliment. He has shaken up the field of human rights history with his pointed criticisms of the historiographical fallacies to which many of its practitioners fall prey. The worst offenders are precisely Church historians, either in a figurative (like Jonathan Israel) or literal sense, those who succumb to “the general flaws of teleology, tunnel vision, and triumphalism.” Now, with his new book Christian Human Rights, Moyn delves straight into the heart of historiographical darkness itself, challenging the pieties of Christian (as well as some leftist) evangelists. The results are very impressive: Moyn writes intellectual history on a global scale, complete with archival finds and a subtle grasp of theological concepts.

There is a great deal to praise and to admire in Moyn’s work: his fine-grained analyses uncover forgotten networks, connect seemingly disparate movements and ideas, and are woven together in a persuasive, elegant narrative. For the sake of this forum, however, I will concentrate on one point of disagreement. The main concern I have with his new project is similar to a problem that I had (along with others) with his earlier book, The Last Utopia. In his eagerness to dispel the cobwebs of Church histories, Moyn is prone to adopting a radical view of historical discontinuity, in which ideas and conceptual constructs are, to paraphrase Ovid (and Montesquieu), sine matrem createm (“born without a mother”). While Moyn’s provocative stance has the advantage of awakening human rights historians from their dogmatic slumber, it can also harden into its own kind of historiographical rigidity. To borrow a different analogy from Church history, in attacking the universalism of those historians who present Cicero holding hands with Eleanor Roosevelt, Moyn flirts with a kind of historical nominalism, in which any modification to a conceptual framework introduces an entirely new and unprecedented regime. Distinctions and transformations become radical differences; continuities disappear. Moyn himself has downplayed some of the disruptive rhetoric of The Last Utopia in subsequent reflections; my hope is that he will consider doing the same in this current project.

The particular argument that Moyn overstates in his forthcoming Christian Human Rights is the claim that the Church’s embrace of human rights in the late 1930s/early 1940s constituted “a novel and fateful departure in the history of political discourse,” given that “the Catholic Church had previously rejected the hitherto secular and liberal language of human rights” (“Introduction”). He develops this argument in the essay “Personalism, Community, and the Origins of Human Rights,” where he focuses particularly on the role of the French neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain, and more specifically on Maritain’s The Rights of Man and Natural Law (1942). It was in this book, Moyn argues, that “Maritain took the fateful step for postwar intellectual history as a whole, making the claim that a revival of natural law implies a broad set of pre-political human rights.” Why did this claim constitute such a fateful step? Because, Moyn continues, before Maritain, these two traditions had been antithetical to each other. If Maritain is a linchpin in Moyn’s argument, it is because “in either a stroke of a master, or a sleight of hand, or both,” he insisted that the natural law tradition was perfectly compatible with the language of individual rights—“as if,” Moyn adds, “the Thomist movement had not long and unanimously rejected modern rights.”

Moyn rests his case here on a series of secondary sources: Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History (1953); Richard Tuck’s Natural Rights Theories (1979); and Michel Villey’s Le Droit et les droits de l’homme (1983). He further adds that “all histories of the political language [of rights] concur that the rise of rights in political theory occurred after and because of the destruction of the Thomistic natural law tradition.”

But this is where I beg to differ. The historians Moyn cites are very controversial. All of their works are more than thirty years old (the bulk of Villey’s scholarship dates from 1940 to 1960), and have been substantially challenged. Apart from his devotees, few students of political thought take Strauss very seriously as a historian; Villey is less known in Anglophone circles, but his arguments have been vigorously criticized by Brian Tierney, in The Idea of Human Rights (1997), and, to a lesser extent, by Annabel Brett, in Liberty, Right, and Nature (2003).1 As I argue in a forthcoming article for Humanity (“Is There a Modern Natural Law Theory?”), Tuck is the historian who did the most to introduce Villey to the English-language public, and also one of the rare historians who agrees with Strauss. This group of scholars constitutes a Church of their own.

The specific argument that Moyn makes here can be traced back to Villey, and in particular his 1964 article “La genèse du droit subjectif chez Guillaume d’Occam.”2 Here Villey advanced the thesis that the individualist doctrine of subjective rights, which he claims originated with Ockham, was fundamentally opposed to the objective idea of natural right, championed by Aquinas and the Ancients, understood in the sense of what’s fair. Villey would go on to lament how this pernicious idea slowly released its venom into Western political thought, resulting in the poisonous declarations of the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. Tuck, in his book, retells this narrative in comedic, rather than tragic, genre, celebrating the emergence of subjective rights out of authoritarian Scholasticism.

This is the sort of Church history that Moyn is typically quick to criticize. What’s more, others have already done the work for him. As Tierney argued, objective and subjective concepts of right are in fact perfectly compatible, and can even entail one another (a point that legal theorists, going back to Wesley Hohfeld, had already made). Both Tierney and Brett have further shown how neo-Scholastic theologians, such as Franciso de Vitoria, Francisco Suárez, and Fernando Vázquez de Menchaca, incorporated individual rights into their otherwise Thomist treatises on natural law.

A less tendentious history of the Church’s attitude toward individual rights thus paints a much more nuanced picture than Moyn suggests. More importantly, this is precisely the history of rights that Maritain appeals to; he writes, “The idea of natural law is a heritage of Christian and classical thought. It does not go back to the philosophy of the eighteenth century, which more or less deformed it, but rather to Grotius, and before him to Suarez and Francisco de Vitoria; and further back to St. Thomas Aquinas…”

The real pivot in the history of Christian rights talk was thus arguably not 1937, but 1791, when Pius VI rejected the French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man. Up until then, the French clergy had not considered les droits de l’homme (“human rights”) to be contrary to Christian doctrine, with some, such as the abbé Grégoire, going so far as to proclaim them identical. Indeed, members of the first estate had primarily pushed for the National Assembly to declare the rights and duties of man; while this attempt failed, they did succeed in editing the preamble to the Declaration to include the mention, “under the auspices of the Supreme Being.” Leading French bishops and archbishops actively participated in drafting the Declaration.

Moyn does a remarkable job of explaining why, between 1937 and 1950, the papacy, followed by Christian Democratic parties, embraced the language of human rights. It does not take away from his findings that this adoption of rights talk was not “a novel and fateful departure,” but rather a retrieval of a pre-revolutionary, neo-Thomist tradition with venerable roots. Even if one adopts a narrow definition of Thomism that excludes individual rights, à la Alasdair MacIntyre, it remains that plenty of Christian theologians (Catholic and Protestant) had incorporated rights into their philosophy—Ockham, after all, was a Franciscan. The Church’s hostility to human rights between 1790 and 1930 was ultimately a parenthesis in its longer history of engagement with rights. Maritain had argued as much, in Man and the State, when he criticized how “this [revolutionary] philosophy of rights ended up, after Rousseau and Kant, by treating the individual as a god and making all the rights ascribed to him the absolute and unlimited rights of a god.”

Of course, Maritain is engaging here in some Church history of his own. The real reason why Pius VI opposed the 1789 Declaration was less on theological grounds, but because of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which obliged French Catholic priests to swear allegiance to the nation. For the French clergy, this amounted to a violent break with the Vatican; it was the law that, more than any other, fanned the flames of the counter-revolution. There is little to support Maritain’s suggestion that the drafters of the 1789 Declaration “treat[ed] the individual as a god.” While natural law theory, by the late eighteenth century, had been repeatedly and substantially revised since the heyday of the Salamanca school, the revolutionaries were still drawing on this same tradition.

Moyn might retort that the neo-Thomist ideas about natural rights that one finds in, say, Vitoria or Suárez, are fundamentally different than our modern conceptions of human rights. No doubt there are important differences. But the family resemblance was sufficient for twentieth-century Christians like Maritain. The Church had defended rights before; it was defending rights again. For an institution as tradition-bound as the Church, this older example is sure to have carried weight. Sometimes, Church history can be historical.


  1. Moyn himself discusses these authors in the “Bibliographical Essay” at the close of The Last Utopia.

  2. Michel Villey, “La genèse du droit subjectif chez Guillaume d’Occam,” Archives de philosophie du droit 9 (1964): 97-127.