Of Many Things

You might expect a 92-year-old man who has lived through the worst of the 20th century to have a certain gloomy angst about the future of humanity. Not so with Ladislas Orsy, S.J., a world-renowned professor of law at Georgetown University and a frequent contributor to these pages. A couple of years back, I had the good fortune to attend a series of lectures Father Orsy gave at Oxford University on the thought of Francisco de Vitoria, O.P., and the origins of international law. Father Orsy, mind you, is no naïve idealist either. He has spent much of the last 20 years contemplating the 16th-century clash between European powers and the indigenous civilizations of the Americas.

The conquistadors, according to Orsy, did not think of themselves as brutish or ungentlemanly. The conquest of the Amerindians, in their minds, had rock-solid philosophical, legal and theological justifications. The gist of their excuse, of course, was that the Indians were neither rational nor responsible and were therefore not really people; they were no-ones. Since “no one” owned the land, the Spanish imperialists felt justified in claiming it for their king. Francisco de Vitoria, the 16th-century Dominican, thought that all the conquistadors’ justifications were just so much pap. “Vitoria,” said Orsy, “affirmed that the Indians were no less rational and free human beings than the Spaniards, and they were therefore protected by the jus gentium, the law of nations.” Vitoria “then elaborated on the norms and demands of such an international order, advocating universal freedom of religion.”


In addition to looking at what Vitoria taught, however, Father Orsy says we must also look at how he reached his conclusions, because his method reveals something equally important. Vitoria began his work, according to Orsy, not with ethereal philosophical concepts, but with empirical observation. To borrow a phrase from Christology, Vitoria’s analysis proceeded “from below.” He looked first to the individual human person and then to the political community; then, through rational reflection on both, he drew conclusions and formed concepts. What is important about this method, according to Orsy, is that Vitoria’s analysis, even at its most conceptual, was never divorced from human experience, particularly the experience of those most closely affected by his ideas.

That is similar to the methodology that John Langan, S.J., employs in this issue. Father Langan would be the first to point out that he is no Vitoria, and no one is comparing 21st-century gay people with 16th-century Amerindians. Still, there is an echo of Vitoria’s method in the way Father Langan describes how the church needs to consider the experiential as well as rationalistic dimensions of its stance toward homosexuality. We need to place the person, in other words, at the heart of the question. In a certain sense, that is precisely what the pope has also been asking us to do.

In Orsy’s judgment, too many modern philosophers and legal scholars tend to philosophize “from above” and in their pre-occupation with the internal coherence of their ideas or the narrow grammatical exegesis of law, they lose sight of the very reason law exists in the first place: to safeguard the rights and dignity of the human person, not as he or she exists in some imagined platonic form but in the real world.

Here is where Orsy’s mildly astonishing optimism shines through: In the face of staggering injustice and violence, Orsy, like Vitoria, still has some faith in the power of human reason, married to empathy, to formulate moral and just positive laws. In the main, I tend to share this optimism. But it does invite an unsettling question: If we can do it, why so often do we not?

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Bruce Snowden
4 years 10 months ago
I’m still trying to grasp what Alison proposes in “The Joy Of Being Wrong,” based on Girard’s Mimetic Theory, wherein along with very much more Girard says, “Human desire is not linear. All desire is triangular” curiously a Trinitarian symbol! He says further, “What I really want is that you should want me.” And “We desire according to the desire of another.” Speaking of “desire” once Jesus said with some anguished anticipation of his Passion, “With great desire I have desired to eat this meal (in the upper room the night before he died) with you!” I find that interesting. Coming creatively from the hand of God, as we have, has led me to wonder if the Triune God (the Triangular God) is also mimetic. We are told that God wants us to want him and in turn we desire according to the desire of another, GOD, freeing us up to love as he first loved us. Jesus did say, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Or as Augustine put it “We are restless until we rest in God.” This speaks to me of imitation, of sharing, of being mimetic. Granted, coming creatively from the hand of God we are mimetic people. Since no one (in this case God) can give what he does not have, may it be said that, the Father is mimetic to the Son and the Son mimetic to the Spirit and the Spirit in turn is mimetic to the Father each in Divine mimicry one to the Other, without beginning, without end? And in a sense is all creation, not just humanity mimetic as God is mimetic? Assuming this to be true, I venture a further “certainty” that Divine Mimetic is, obviously (contrary to humanity) not imposed, or granted, but chosen, wherein righteousness is found and chosen, not found in the sense of someone having put it there, or chosen as a first or second thought, but rather found and chosen because it was always there, as is God in all freedom has always “been. Humanity inherited God’s innate disposition to be mimetic. But often the human choice to exercise mimetry unlike God, is not righteous. It is flawed. Thus, venturing an answer to Fr. Malone’s insightful "Of Many Things" and musing about Fr. Orsy’s decision to choose optimism in place of pessimism “in the face of staggering injustice and violence” also prompting ”Fr. Malone to ask, “If we can do it, why so often not?” Why? ’ I suggest , because it is a matter of human choice, sometimes culpable, even malicious or related to the Capital Sin of Sloth and sometimes less loathsome by reason of moral weakness. Humanity chooses not to be righteous, not to always choose the right thing for one reason or the other thus the Decalogue and Jesus’ invitation, “Be perfect …” offering to broken vessels of clay, some more broken than others, but all fixable in the Redemptive Blood of Jesus, good reason for optimism! At least that’s how I understand Fr. Orsy’s buoyancy no matter what, as in my little Sailboat on the turbulent “Sea of Allison” and facing the "saline gales of Girard" I have tried to fathom and continue to do so, “The Joy Of Being Wrong” which I often am!
Cecilia Francisco-Tan
4 years 10 months ago
O how I give thanks for the insights and work of Bernard Lonergan SJ as well!
Andrea Campana
4 years 10 months ago
I wonder what Fr. Ladislas Orsy, S.J. would say of his fellow Jesuit, John Floyd, the late 16th-early 17th century philosopher and theologian, who, like the 16th century Dominican Francisco de Vitoria, commented on the conquest of the Amerindians. Unlike Vitoria, who espoused tolerance and freedom of religion, as Fr. Orsy pointed out, Floyd blamed the inability of English Protestant conquerors to Christianize the natives on the failure of colonists to bring the certitude of the Catholic faith to the New World. While the stance of Vitoria may resonate in today’s politically correct world, and that of the Jesuit may seem passé, it was Floyd who risked his life in England to outspokenly defend the doctrines of the Catholic Church, at a time when Jesuits were being routinely executed on trumped up charges of treason by the new Protestant state.


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