In the years since Samuel Moyn’s essay on Jacques Maritain, personalism, and human rights appeared, he has overseen a transformation in the field of human rights history. As he put it in The Last Utopia, he sought to overcome what he calls the “Church history” of human rights, referring to those stories that view human rights “as a saving truth, discovered rather than made in history.” These stories, in Moyn’s view, parallel the uncritical view that Church historians once took of the Catholic Church, and they keep us from analyzing human rights from a critical, Nietzschean perspective. One irony of the project is that Moyn, like Friedrich Nietzsche before him, returns to Church history in a new key. The Catholic and Protestant churches are integral to his revisionist account of human rights consciousness, which, it turns out, has more to do with Christian anti-Communism and post-fascist conservatism than it does with the noble, secularist legacy of 1789.

In this post, I will argue that Moyn’s antipathy to Church history has in some ways overwhelmed his historical treatment of European Catholics and their Church in the shattering years of economic depression, genocide, and war. The vision of the Church he provides is accurate, but incomplete: the Catholic Church, ever wary of ecumenism, is difficult to enlist in any Church history apart from its own.

I’ll focus my attention here on Moyn’s 2010 essay, which argues that the Catholic Church’s turn towards dignity and human rights in the late 1930s should be linked with the Vatican’s conversion to “personalism,” as prefigured by a group of French intellectuals, most notably Jacques Maritain and Emmanuel Mounier. In the analysis that follows I will make two basic claims, neither of which contradict Moyn’s argument, but both of which reframe our understanding of modern Church history (I should say that my years of archival research on Catholic intellectual history, conducted after Moyn staked his claim, have overwhelmingly confirmed the basic elements of his story).

First, I will attempt to briefly show that the language of “rights” and “the human person” was quite widespread throughout European, especially German-speaking, Catholicism, which renders the Pope’s usage of the language less mysterious. Second, I will suggest that this minor revision frees the French personalists from bearing much historical burden, allowing us to recuperate them as bearers of a surprisingly radical, yet illiberal, form of rights discourse. In an age of Moral Mondays and Pope Francis, the progressive potentialities of Christianity are again rearing their head. Church history can show us that, while the Church is more bound up with liberal capitalism than we might think, it also provides moral and philosophical resources against it.

To begin, it is not quite true, as Moyn claims, that the Church “treated the notion of rights with vituperation for the entire modern period.” Catholic writers like G.K. Chesterton claimed as early as 1926 that the Catholic Church “really believed in the rights of men,” while Hermann Bahr, an Austrian Catholic, implored at the same time for the “rights of the individual against state power” (this in Hochland, one of the most prestigious Catholic journals on the continent).1 They could rest on the rock solid ground of the encyclical tradition. Ubi Arcano Dei (1922), one of the most reactionary papal documents of the period, defended “the inviolable rights of conscience,” and Quadragesimo Anno (1931) likewise worried about “protecting private individuals in their rights.” True, Catholics were normally more concerned with the rights of groups (workers, parents) than individuals, but the notion of rights-bearing individuals was not foreign to mainstream Catholic thinking in the 1920s and early 1930s.

The slippery notion of the “human person” also has wider, and longer, resonance than Moyn implies, including most notably a German tradition stemming from the great Catholic philosopher Max Scheler (this tradition is more likely the one that made its way into Mit brennender Sorge, the papal encyclical on the dangers of Nazism, drafted primarily by German bishops who would have encountered the “person” in Hochland and elsewhere). Reactionaries and progressives alike adopted the term as Catholic shorthand for their notion of the citizen-subject by the mid-1930s. The connection of the person with “rights” was reasonably widespread, too. Bishop Alois Hudal, an Austrian notorious for his philo-Nazism, could write in 1935 of Rome as the “cradle of human rights and the personality.”2His book, German Nation and Christian West, participated in a transnational Catholic political discourse that linked together Roman law, the Christian West, and the rights-bearing human person. Martin Stanislaus-Gillet, master of the Dominican Order in France, published a very similar work called Latin Culture and Social Order in the same year, and he too wrote of “the enduring rights of the human person.”3

These quibbles do not fundamentally alter Moyn’s argument, whose basic structure is probably strengthened by this sort of evidence (most of his postwar evidence comes from Germany, after all). But they do alter our focus somewhat. The turn towards rights, dignity, and the human person did not require the sudden victory of previously marginal Catholic discourse, but was quite in keeping with long gestating Catholic theories, present in mainstream Catholic publications across the continent, as well as in the papal tradition and the writings of Church leaders. The late 1930s surely were a moment of crystallization, which can best be explained, as Moyn does, as the Church’s attempt to mobilize and organize pre-existing Catholic tropes to gain traction, especially with the Atlantic powers, in a highly unpredictable and frightening moment for the Church. In a sense, this revised version of his claim makes his new rights genealogy even more provocative: the papacy’s turn towards dignity and human rights, it seems, was fully in keeping the reactionary, fanatically anti-socialist tenor of Catholic thinking in the interwar years more broadly.

At the same time, a renewed focus on the broad, largely German, tradition of Catholic personalism and rights talk frees us to encounter French personalism on its own terms. More, perhaps, than any other intellectual circle, the poor personalists have been pulled into the maw of “Church history” in the pejorative sense. Esprit, their main journal, only had a circulation of a few thousand in the thirties, and throughout the decade its main writers struggled to earn a decent living. And yet their malnourished shoulders have been forced, time and again, to bear an enormous historical weight. Zeev Sternhell is convinced that they represent a homegrown form of French fascism, while Seth Armus has placed them at the center of his narrative of French anti-Americanism. Tony Judt has cast Emmanuel Mounier, the leader of Esprit, as a villain from a different direction, castigating him as a Soviet fellow-traveler. Moyn now seeks to tar the personalists circle with the brush that is, in some circles at least, the most damning of all: Christian Democracy and human rights!

These invocations often involve a studied neglect of the actual content of their Third Way styles of thinking, linking them instead with political movements that they manifestly and repeatedly rejected: Soviet Communism, Nazism, or Christian Democracy (while I will focus here on Mounier, a similar story could be told for Maritain, who likewise kept his distance from Christian Democracy). Another way to look at Mounier, Esprit, and the personalists in general might be to take them at their word: as innovative theorists who sought to move beyond conventional political categories in the name of a post-capitalist, anti-secular, illiberal form of human flourishing that would simultaneously avoid the debilitating logics of anti-Semitism or confessional chauvinism that such gestures usually entailed. The many attempts to fold Mounier into political movements that he rejected might keep us from reading him, and the radical tradition he represented, in ways that might be useful for us today: after all, the Catholic Worker was far more devoted to Mounier than were the high priests of liberal human rights.

While Mounier was in some ironic way a predecessor of postwar human rights discourse, he can more profitably be read as the proponent of his own radical, and heretical, rights project. He was certainly a great opponent of liberalism, but he was not, as Moyn contends, antagonistic towards “individual rights” as such. “The first right of the economic person,” Mounier writes in Manifesto in the Service of Personalism, is “the right to a living wage.”4 In line with the very first declarations of rights, from the eighteenth century, as well as the more recent Soviet Constitution, Mounier affirmed that “the right to work” is “an inalienable right of the person.” The manifesto presents a cacophony of surprisingly progressive rights claims: women should have not only the right to equal pay for equal work, but the “right to a household salary” for housewives to be deducted from their husbands’ paychecks. He derived a robust anti-colonialism, and even a politics of indigeneity, from his illiberal theory of rights: the person’s “natural right to fulfill himself in the community of his choice overflows the bounds of both nations and races,” leading to a recognition of “the rights of the first occupants” against “capitalism imperialism” and its “rational exploitation of the globe.”

Again, none of this discredits Moyn’s argument that the history of human rights in the mid-twentieth century is very largely the history of the Catholic Church’s reckoning with the ideological and political transformations of the period. It is a question, though, of how to read this—of how to write the history of the Church without indulging in Church history. Viewed from the perspective of the Christian Democrats’ successful, conservative appropriation of human rights discourse after the war, the 1930s Church is important for taking some of the first intellectual steps in that direction. But if we take the 1930s Church seriously in its own right, without extending its reach forward into a Christian Democratic movement that neither French personalists nor the Vatican ever much liked, the story looks a bit different. We see a Church that was attempting to cozy up to Atlantic powers at a very frightening time, using a well-established Catholic language that seemed to rhyme with established liberal commitments. And on the ground, we see another, and more heretical, version of Catholic rights talk, tied to an interconfessional, non-secular, and illiberal vision. Church histories turn out to be histories of heretics, too. And while sometimes heretical ideas languish in obscurity for centuries, they can also be revived and vindicated. For unlike the flesh, they don’t burn.


  1. Hermann Bahr, “Chalres Maurras,” Hochland 24, 1 (1926-7), 452-61.

  2. Alois Hudal, Hudal, Deutsches Volk und Christliches Abendland (Tyrolia-Verlag: Wien, 1935), 28.

  3. Martin-Stanislaus Gillet, Culture latine et ordre social (Paris: Flammarion, 1935), 234.

  4. Emmanuel Mounier, Manifeste au service du personnalisme (Paris, Fernand Aubier. 1936).