Religion and Reactionary White Politics by Damon Berry

October 29, 2018

Race, religion, and politics have long shared a space in American discourse. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) took advantage of popular xenophobia to form a white fraternity organized to defend Anglo-Protestant America. In so doing, they developed a gospel of their own to support a unified political and social movement. But in less than 10 years the Klan was suffering from scandals and infighting that cost the organization its previously held national influence. Although the Klan of the 1920s declined in the 1930s, it left its mark in its ability to gather popular support for the racialized immigration restrictions of the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 and in a rhetoric of religious and racial nationalism that long outlived it.

The alt-right has been compared to the KKK, often with less attention to the differences in the way the respective movements regard religion. Both movements now indelibly represent a perennial reactionary racism that speaks of white Americans as the true American species under threat from the alleged prolific breeding and predatory criminality of non-whites. But while the Klan of the 1920s was a national organization with established leadership, the alt-right is more of a milieu—decentralized, complex, and diverse. And while the Klan saw itself as a Protestant organization defending white America, the alt-right is not identified with any single religious perspective. In fact, the issue of religion is often handled carefully among those affiliated with the alt-right as a discourse that resembles that of secularized religious tolerance.

Beginning in the late 1960s, the most significant articulators of a new form of white racist activism that came to be called white nationalism have critiqued Christianity as fundamentally anti-white and therefore existentially dangerous to the white race. The fact that Christianity has its roots in Judaism was of course a source of contention, but more importantly, Christianity was seen by them as an alien religious ideology that had poisoned the racial consciousness of Europeans.

Intense debates ensued over the following decades between advocates of new racial religions, and even those who advocated for no religion at all, and racial activists who still held to racist and anti-Semitic forms of Christianity. In time these divisions over religion came to be seen by a new generation of white nationalists as endangering the larger project of securing the existence of their people and a future for white children. By 2010, some white nationalists were arguing that such schisms were counterproductive in pursuing the political goal of establishing an all-white homeland in North America. In addition to this concern, some worried that outright opposition to Christianity would alienate white conservative Christians who might be convinced to join white nationalists in common cause. But if white nationalists were to “red pill” those conservatives they had to present themselves as at least welcoming to those Christians.

More recently, conversations about accommodating racially conscious Christians have continued within the white identity sectors of the alt-right. For example, in a 2017 webisode of Radio 3Fourteen, Lana Lokteff, one of the leading women in the alt-right who identifies as pagan, interviewed Adam and Mary Grey, the hosts of a what they describe as a “pro-white, Christian podcast of the alt-right” titled Good Morning White America. Ms. Lokteff stated at the beginning of the episode that their conversation was making a “middle ground” between racially conscious pagans and pro-white Christians. At the conclusion of the episode she went on to say that debates about the esoteric are “futile at this time,” and that “it’s best to avoid arguing with anyone on our side about their spirituality.” Rather, she argued, the Alt-Right should “seek a happy medium.”

Two points emerge here. First, religion is not secondary to the ongoing development of the alt-right and white nationalism more broadly, but rather an important element in its political strategies. Understanding how various sectors of the alt-right are negotiating this topic is crucial. Second, regarding the longer trend, white Americans have been embroiled in the drama of race, religion, and reactionary politics in many ways throughout American history. Much of the academic work on this topic will need to be historical to make sense of the alt-right—the alt-right is likely history already. But what we need to consider is what form of white nationalism lies ahead of it and what role religion will play in its development and public presentation.

Damon Berry is an assistant professor of religious studies at St. Lawrence University

This post originally appeared on the Berkley Forum, a blog by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The post is a response to a recent conference, co-sponsored by Religion and Its Publics and the Berkley Center, entitled Christianity and the Alt-Right: Exploring the Relationship. Full video of the conference, broken into three panels, is available from C-SPAN here: Christianity and the Alt-Right in the pastChristianity and the Alt-Right in the present, and Christianity and the Alt-Right in the future.

The Orthodox Crisis: How Long will the Hostilities between Moscow and Constantinople Last? By Sergey F. Dezhnyuk

October 19, 2018

Lenin once quipped that Russia without Ukraine is a body without a head. Zbigniew Brzezinski echoed the same theme by insisting that Russia ceases to be an empire without Ukraine. Although recent developments in the world of the Orthodox Church cannot be reduced to mere geopolitics, they do reflect the overall applicability of this theory.

On October 15th, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) announced that it is severing Eucharistic Communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (EP), the “primus inter pares”  – or first among equals – of the Orthodox Church, after the latter granted Ukraine’s Church independence from Russia. According to the ROC synod, the EP’s decision represents an “encroachment of the Patriarchate of Constantinople upon the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church,” and was objected to on these grounds. The ROC also objected to the EP’s decision for more technical theological reasons, claiming that it allows “schismatics” to take communion. (More on this in a moment.)

The Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, is generally viewed as the leading authority for the world’s 300 million Orthodox believers. But the Russian Church is its most numerous, powerful and wealthy global member. The implications of the EP’s action are profound. But reports of a schism in the Orthodox Church are premature.

Four days before the ROC’s October 15th announcement, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, based in Istanbul, revoked its decision, made in 1686, to give Moscow some rights over Ukrainian ecclesial territory. This move severely weakens Moscow’s hold on the Ukrainian Church. The EP also satisfied petitions from Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and Metropolitan Makarii of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) to restore them to full communion with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Members of the UOC-KP and the UAOC, now able to take communion in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, are the “schismatics” that the ROC synod refers to.

The history of the three major Orthodox churches in Ukraine is complex. Filaret had once been a leading candidate for the position of the Patriarch of the ROC. He lost. As the Metropolitan of Kiev, in 1992, Filaret orchestrated a split within Ukrainian Orthodoxy and established the UOC KP, which now claims to be the largest – by number of faithful – Orthodox Church in the county. For that, Filaret was anathematized by the Russian Church. But that anathema no longer stands after the EP’s October 11th pronouncement.

The story of UAOC is even more complicated. Its existence reflects the long-held desire of a vast number of Ukrainian Orthodox for their own independent (“autocephalous”) Church, which is why they resisted joining the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, whose full name is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) is composed of those who decided to remain within the ROC in 1992, and although technically autonomous, the UOC (MP) was largely subordinated to the ROC, especially under its current head, Metropolitan Onufriy. This is why the UAOC kept its distance from the OUC (MP).  Now that the UOC (MP) is independent, the separation between it and the UAOC makes less sense, and because of the EP’s recent pronouncement, they are now in full communion with one another.

So, the Russian annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Eastern Ukraine in 2014 intensified the process of seeking autocephaly, but it did not initiate it.

The political dimensions and geopolitical implications of these developments are now in the open. Ukrainian president Poroshenko has long advocated for a united Ukrainian Orthodox Church as a means to counter Russian aggression, which was often openly supported by the ROC and by some hierarchs of UOC (MP).

After the Ecumenical Patriarchate granted the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the UOC (MP), independence from Moscow, the Kremlin immediately vowed to “protect Orthodox believers in Ukraine.” President Vladimir Putin quickly called a Security Council meeting on October 12th with an agenda dedicated solely to issues of Ukrainian Orthodoxy. After all, Ukraine is an integral part of Moscow’s – both ecclesial and political – neo-imperial ideology of “Russkij Mir\Russian World.”

What are the ramifications of these developments?  Contrary to some recent headlines, there is neither “split” nor “schism” between Moscow and Constantinople along the lines of the one between Christian East and West in 1054. First, the ROC did not anathematize the EP; there is no charge of “heresy.” Second, the EP did not reciprocate the ROC’s decision to sever Eucharistic Communion. The ROC clergy and faithful are still welcome in the EP parishes.

The history of the Eastern Orthodox Church is full of similar acts that were healed in time. The ROC itself was out of communion with Constantinople for a century following the events of the Council of Florence.

In Ukraine, existing Orthodox Churches will have to dismantle their administrative structures to establish a new one. It is expected that most Ukrainian Orthodox churches will join a new pan-Ukrainian Orthodox Council. Those who do not join the new unified body and choose to stay faithful to the ROC will be able retain their church property, contrary to Russian propaganda designed to scare people into thinking otherwise. When the structures of the unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church are established, which could and probably will occur by the end of 2018, Patriarch Bartholomew will grant this body the Tomos, a founding document for any autocephalous church.

When the dust settles, this move will re-arrange the global balance within the conglomerate of 15 autocephalous Orthodox Churches. Instead of the current bipolarity (Moscow-Constantinople), a new order will emerge. The ROC will probably still be the largest member, closely followed by the unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The Romanian Orthodox Church would then be the third largest, and this status might have powerful ramifications for the ROC’s current modus operandi in the West, the Romanians themselves, and the EP.

There is some indication that in time the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC), which currently holds the status of Exarchate under the ROC, would also seek autocephaly. If that occurs, the unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church will become the largest Orthodox body.

With the realization of its long dream to become one, united, canonically recognized Ukrainian Orthodox Church, there come dangers. There is still open armed conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Bullets fly every day and soldiers from both sides are buried in Ukrainian and Russian soil. In the context of elevated national loyalty, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church could become the de facto State Church. This could closely mirror the role the ROC plays in Russia, where Patriarch Kirill is a close ally of President Putin.

Besides the political implications of this, there is strong evidence that ethnophyletism would reemerge in Ukrainian Orthodoxy, which was proclaimed to be a heresy by the Orthodox Church in 1872.

Regardless of what happens, something is beyond dispute: Russia could conquer Ukraine by neither bullets nor “hybrid war.” Its use of the Russian Church to keep Ukrainian Orthodoxy in check has failed. Russia, now without Ukraine, is no longer an empire.

Sergey F Dezhnyuk is a Ukrainian-American theologian and vice-president of Independent American Center of Political Monitoring. He teaches philosophy and religion at Tulsa Community College.

Reasons Without Truth by William Wood

September 24, 2018

Towards the end of his bold attempt to write a history of reason itself in just a little over 150 pages, Martin Jay describes a paradigm shift in “our” concept of reason:

“It might be said, or at least plausibly hoped, that both the Enlightenment Age of Reason and the Counter-Enlightenment Age of Reason’s Other have been left behind, and in their place is dawning a new Age of Reasons. Here [“the space of reasons”] is becoming more than just a metaphor, but being given increasing institutional embodiment in the political, cultural, legal, scientific, and other public spheres of modern life.”

I find it impossible to read this passage as anything other than a dispatch from a vanished world. Perhaps in 2012, when Jay first delivered these words, we could plausibly hope that what philosophers call “the space of reasons” might become coextensive with the institutions of the public sphere. That hope now seems quaint at best, delusional at worst.

In Reason After Its Eclipse: On Late Critical Theory, Jay critiques some ancient, modern, and post-modern accounts of reason and defends Jürgen Habermas’s theory of communicative rationality as a better alternative. To say that rationality is “communicative” is to say that the norms of rationality emerge from the norms of human discourse. We cannot communicate with one another at all unless we accept, at least implicitly, certain rational norms. For example, when we assert a claim—any claim whatsoever—we imply that the claim is based on reasons and evidence. We also commit to sharing our reasons and evidence when others call these claims into question. Rationality is formal, pragmatic, and linguistic.

When we communicate with one another we enter the space of “reasons,” in the plural, and not “reason,” in the singular, because the history of philosophy shows that we must give up the quest for any overarching, substantive notion of Reason, whether handed down by God or deduced by Kant. There is no Reason itself, only individual reasons, shared by individual people who reason together while they communicate.

Habermas offers the best non-theistic account of rationality available, and, although I do not endorse it, I find it sufficiently plausible to worry that it is correct, and that there really is nothing more to say about the nature of reason. For what would it mean, in 2018, to endorse the idea that the norms of rationality emerge from human discourse? Our culture no longer seems to value reasoned discourse very much at all. This seems obvious when it comes to our politics, but it is becoming increasingly true in other spheres too, including the contemporary consumerist university.

Suppose that the norms of reasoning do emerge from the broader patterns of communication that prevail in a culture at large. So what happens when the culture at large treats reason-giving as unimportant, and is content even to efface the distinction between truth and falsehood? Unless we have some further story to tell about what gives reason its normative force, then we might find ourselves with no way to critique those who insist that might makes right. If that were to happen, the light of reason would not just be in eclipse, it would be extinguished altogether.

William Wood is a Fellow and Tutor in Theology at Oriel College, Oxford.

A Catholic House of Cards by Jane Little

Jane Little was the founding Religious Affairs Correspondent for the BBC World Service and is currently the Associate Director of Religion and Its Publics 

September 18, 2018

The Pennsylvania Report in mid-August managed to shock even us journalists who had covered the Roman Catholic Church scandal of child sexual abuse and its cover-up since 2002.

The hideous details, the staggering scale, the neat and accurate description of the hierarchy’s “playbook for concealing the truth” were there for all to see. And they served to usher in a spate of further revelations, the latest, as of this writing, being that over half of the bishops in the Netherlands were involved in a cover up or of abuse themselves.

The scandal of child sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church and the heinous cover up by its leaders has shaken the church to its foundations.

I feel as though I’ve said those words before, indeed on multiple occasions since 2002, when the scandal first erupted in the Boston Archdiocese. And now other phrases I used on air, such as “worst crisis for the church since the Reformation,” sound almost quaint.

It’s hard to find the words to capture the catastrophic situation facing the church leadership whose authority has been all but destroyed at its own hands. There may be many safeguards in place to protect the vulnerable these days, but the leadership hasn’t scratched the surface of the cover-up. And for many survivors I interviewed over the years, it was the cover-up – the second crime – that was almost worse than the original one.

The trampling of trust and squandering of moral authority is now almost complete. And how can the church recover when the very men who refused to see and take action are now tasked with cleaning up their own acts? Or failures to act?

Pope Francis may have done a better job than his predecessors of facing and articulating the enormity of the sins and crimes against vulnerable children. But yet again he’s undermined his own efforts (as he did with his initial response to the Chilean Church crisis when he appeared to side with bishops accused of cover up) with a homily that makes the secular world wince.

In it, Pope Francis blamed the devil, though not for being behind the abuse or its cover ups. Instead, he appeared to blame Satan for exposing the cover ups.  Using the term the Great Accuser, he said “the great accuser has been unchained and is attacking bishops.”

There was some ambiguity there. Could he have been referring to Cardinal Carlo Vigano, former papal nuncio to the United States, who had accused the Pope himself of knowing about the allegations against disgraced former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick for five years and ignoring them? Whatever he meant, he explicitly claimed that Satan “tries to uncover the sins so they are visible in order to scandalize the people.”

Even if the pope meant something deep and subtle and spiritual (he called on the bishops to pray), it is surely not the time to suggest that it is a dark power at work targeting the poor bishops who are the victims. Yet again such an implication reveals a tone deafness at the top, particularly when so many inside and outside the Church see the exposures as a good thing – a sign that the light is getting in and exposing the darkness, not the other way around.

All of this takes me back to my first foreign trip as Religious Affairs Reporter for the BBC World Service. In the spring of 1998, I went to Rome and interviewed a group of Catholic nuns. In my naivete I thought they would be humble, self-effacing types, deferring to the authority of the male clerics. I was wrong.

Instead I met revolutionaries. When I asked what the church leadership needed to reform itself and meet the challenges of the time (and this was four years before the sexual abuse crisis hit) one sister from Australia said, “Oh that’s not possible. We need to demolish the current leadership.”

“Yes,” said a sister from South Africa, “we need a committee of women to run the church.”

They all laughed.  But they meant it. And now, in the #MeToo era it seems so prescient. And perhaps not so unrealistic.

Women and, as the Pennsylvania report suggested, lay people may need to take the lead and carry out a root and branch reform. And perhaps an end to an all-male hierarchy – which Pope John Paul II suggested is infallible doctrine and Pope Francis appeared to confirm – may finally be on the horizon?

Review of David Tonghou Ngong’s Expansive New History of African Christian Thought by Tim Hartman

September 14, 2018

In A New History of African Christian Thought: From Cape to Cairo (Routledge, 2017), David Tonghou Ngong has curated and offered insightful contributions to a much-needed new history of African Christian thought. The defining and unifying claim of the volume is that African Christian thought is geographical. As Ngong writes: “This book sees African Christian thought as Christian thought that has been generated through African engagement with the Christian faith from antiquity to the present. The purpose of doing this is to maintain clear geographic unity of the continent.”

To this end, Ngong challenges alternative definitions that suggest that African Christian thought can only be written by black Africans living south of the Sahara Desert and north of the Limpopo River. He expands the geography to include the region of North Africa and the country of South Africa (hence the subtitle of From Cape to Cairo), and he also enlarges the historical period to cover the patristic era, thereby including Augustine, Tertullian, and Origen among the early pioneers of African Christian thought.

Ngong began this project because he could not find an appropriate text for his introductory course in African Christianity. This volume fills that gap and I highly recommend it for anyone seeking an introduction to Christianity in Africa from theological and historical perspectives. With chapters on early Alexandrian theology, St. Augustine, inculturation theology, liberation theology, evangelical theology, and homosexuality, Ngong’s work is useful for readers with a variety of interests.

Overall, Ngong’s book is a careful work of scholarship with readable prose and carefully constructed footnotes that allow for further exploration.  Among chapters of varying quality, Ngong’s own contributions are particularly significant. The introduction, the first chapter on the theological significance of Africa and Africans in the Bible, and the fifth chapter on Africa and the Christian Doctrine of God, all written by Ngong, offer a useful assessment of the historical and theological developments within Christian thought on the African continent. Other important chapters by Laurenti Magesa, Gerald West, and Rothney Tshaka demonstrate the diversity of the contributors: historians, theologians, and biblical scholars, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, from southern Africa, East Africa and the diaspora.

The main shortcoming of the book is an omission that Ngong notes in the introduction: the lack of any essays on African Women’s theology or African Pentecostalism. Fortunately, there are many authors within the Circle of Concerned African Women who have written on the numerous contributions of women to African theology. Esther Mombo’s “Women in African Christianities” in Routledge Companion to Christianity in Africa provides a good recent overview of some of these contributions. For those looking to supplement their understanding of Pentecostalism, the fastest growing segment of Christianity in Africa, Kwebena Asamoah-Gyadu’s books are highly recommended, especially Contemporary Pentecostal Christianity: Interpretations From an African Context, which builds on Ogbu Kalu’s important book African Pentecostalism.

Ngong is to be commended for the foresight of this book and his significant contributions to it. Anyone with a specific interest in the development and growth of Christianity in Africa or anyone with a general interest in Christian thought would deeply benefit from this informative and perceptive book.

Tim Hartman is Assistant Professor of Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary

The Evolution of Dignity by Kyle Nicholas

August 20, 2018

On August 2, 2018 the Vatican announced that Pope Francis approved a new change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The death penalty is now “inadmissible” in all circumstances. As in any development in a tradition, this move is both novel and yet not discontinuous.

Pope John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, argued that only in cases where public safety from the offender could not be guaranteed was the death penalty permissible. Since this is a near impossibility with modern techniques of confinement, it means the death penalty is a near impossibility. Pope Benedict XVI continued this line of thought and committed his own papacy to working with other countries to abolish the death penalty.

Pope Francis joins this push by connecting opposition to the death penalty with human dignity. I am particularly interested in one statement in the new Catechism, which reads, “today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.” What is this “increasing awareness”? Like any concept, dignity has a history. Pope Francis’s decision is the continuation of a certain trajectory within the history of the idea of dignity — a history not limited to Catholicism.

We use the word dignity in all sorts of ways. Some actions are undignified — like wearing a Chicago Cubs hat to dinner with the Queen. Or, we think some ways of disrespecting individuals transgresses against their dignity — such as in the case of annual dwarf-tossing contests. The philosopher Friedrich Schiller thought dignity was the ability to stand up straight and remain composed and resolute in the face of hard circumstances. Some, like the Catholic Church and conservative bioethicists, love talking about dignity. Others, like Ruth Macklin and Steven Pinker, dislike the concept.

These different ways of characterizing dignity come from an impressive discussion of the ins and outs of the concept by the philosopher Michael Rosen. His history shines light on Pope Francis’s decision.

One way to characterize dignity is as rank within a certain natural order. Starting with Cicero and continuing through much of the Latin Christian tradition, dignity was understood as rank. Because humans share a sensitive nature with the animals, and yet our rational capacities lift us above them, we can rise in contemplation to the divine or sink into animality and brute instincts. We were created, in the words of Psalm 8, “just a little lower than the angels.” When dignity is equated with rank, humans have less dignity than these angels, but more than animals. Humans also might vary in nobility from one to the other. Yet, since this idea was connected with certain capacities, and we are marred by sin, dignity becomes unstable. Since it is a rank we inhabit, then it is something we can lose. Anybody who lowers themselves too far might be put to death.

The second way to characterize dignity is as inherent worth. This is a relatively modern version of dignity, often traced to Immanuel Kant. Because of the use of dignity in modern political documents such as the German Grundgesetz and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and because of certain developments in Catholic and Protestant thought about the person, this is the idea of dignity we are most familiar with today.

Dignity here is intrinsic to the person and is not reducible to material circumstances or decisions. This is what John Paul II calls the “transcendent dignity” of the human person and the secular philosopher George Kateb calls dignity as an “existential” and not merely moral value. With the idea of an intrinsic worth that transcends circumstances and decisions, we see how something like the death penalty becomes at the very best problematic. To punish even a heinous crime with death would be to extinguish the transcendent aspect of the person for material transgressions — this is the definition of disproportion. This move from rank and order to existential or transcendent worth is why Catholic and secular views can overlap, and why the inclusion of dignity in several founding charters remains so fruitful for politics and law.

How did we make this transition? Is it a legacy of the Enlightenment, as secularists might believe, or of Christianity, as apologists argue? The answer is both: and to some extent neither. Or so argues the German philosopher and sociologist Hans Joas. Joas is interested in why in the modern age we moved to place more emphasis than ever upon the inherent worth, and subsequently individual rights, of the person.

Joas develops his account in contrast to two “myths”: the myth of Christianity and the myth of the Enlightenment. The “myth” is that either is fully responsible for our present concern with individual worth.

Christianity did endow the human with unparalleled worth; it was a moral revolution. In some early stories, Christians plucked discarded children from the trash and raised them, shared all their possessions in common, and broke down distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, and male and female. Yet, for Joas it is one thing to start a moral revolution and another to unweave the full implications without falling into distortions. Christianity often fell woefully short of its teachings on the worth of the person. In addition to Crusades and the persecution of heretics and the Jews, we can take a look at this infamous gem of misanthropy: a late 12th century treatise by Pope Innocent III, entitled On the Misery of the Human Condition.

“For sure man was formed out of earth, conceived in guilt, born to punishment. What he does is depraved and illicit, is shameful and improper, vain and unprofitable. He will become fuel for the eternal fires food for worms, a mass of rottenness… Man was formed of dust, slime, and ashes; what is even more vile, of the filthiest seed. He was conceived from the itch of the flesh, in the heat of passion and the stench of lust, and worse yet, with the stain of sin. He was born to toil, dread, and trouble; and more wretched still, was born only to die.”

The second myth is the Enlightenment myth. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment did add value to the person in a way that was both continuous and novel to the Christian tradition. As much as we point to Pico della Mirondola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (1496) or Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments (1764) as freeing us from the “dark” ages, however, these centuries of thought are tangled up in colonialism, chattel slavery, racism, nationalism, and the mechanized slaughter of the 20th century.

The real change, Joas argues, is the rise of the idea of the “sacredness” of the human person from both Christian and Enlightenment traditions. Think about the worst crime in modern society: homicide. This wasn’t always the case. For a long time the worst crime was blasphemy (against the sacredness of God) or attempted regicide (against the sacredness of the King). Browse through a medieval penitential, and you’ll often be surprised that even some sexual activities require greater penance than homicide.

Our present condition then is marked by a centuries-long migration of sacredness from God and king to the core of the individual person. Avoiding atheism, this is what one tradition in modern Christian ethics came to call “personality” and it played a fundamental role in the social ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr. For King, according to social ethicist Gary Dorrien, personality is an analogous repetition of the divine in the soul of each human being, and as such is the most sacred thing in the universe.

While Joas shows that a certain de jure recognition of the sacredness of the human person exists today, he warns us that we must remain vigilant to the ever-present possibility of its de facto destruction by other institutions and ideologies. Sacredness can migrate from its proper place in an individual person to an institution or ideology: to the Party, say, or to the “white race.”

The sacredness of the person over all institutions and ideologies is one part of what we today call dignity. Some Catholics will take issue with Pope Francis’s decision, especially with regard to the consistency with past teachings about the natural law. Yet, for those who accept the story I recalled here, Pope Francis’s decision must be regarded as nothing short of inspired.

Kyle Nicholas is a doctoral student in Theology, Ethics, and Culture at the University of Virginia.