Harold James is a history professor and practicing Catholic. He also serves as director of the University’s Program in Contemporary European Politics and Society.
Robert George: Harold, you are a convert to the Catholic faith?
Harold James: Yes.
RG: Had you been a Christian of some denomination before becoming a Catholic?
HJ: Yes. At school in England I was a member of an Anglican group. But the Anglican Church was in great difficulty. I remember the religious dean of my college in Cambridge, an Anglican minister, saying to me, “You know, the Catholics are just like us; the only difference is they really believe it.” That was a rather characteristic statement, I’m afraid, of some members of the Anglican Church in England at the time.
RG: Who influenced you toward Catholicism?
HJ: There were a number of influences. Dermot Fenlon, an early modern historian who taught me in Cambridge, was a very inspirational man who was a Catholic from Ireland, University College Dublin. Soon after I graduated from Cambridge, he left the university and went to Rome and became a priest. He was a very impressive person; there was something of the otherworldly about him. After that, a series of things happened that look as if they’re remarkable coincidences in retrospect. I was in Poland quite a lot in the middle of the 1980s. And I was tremendously impressed by the belief of the population and the strength that this gave to people.
RG: So you saw the Polish faith in action culturally and politically?
HJ: Absolutely. The message of the Polish Pope, “Be not afraid,” was central, as indeed it seems to me also to be an encouragement at this present time of great economic and social crisis. At that time, some hotheads were disappointed that the Pope was resolutely opposed to physical resistance, but the outcome in 1989 only showed how right his message was. I also saw the enormous shrines that were made in a relatively poor church in the north of Warsaw to Father Popieluszko.
RG: He was one of the leaders of the Polish resistance to the Soviets, right?
HJ: Right. He was murdered by the secret police. I had a particularly striking experience: I went to Krakow on a hot summer’s day. The atmosphere was extremely tense because of this impending thunderstorm. There was a big religious procession that was going on in the old square in Krakow. An enormous number of people were going from one wooden altar to another and then ending up crammed into Saint Mary’s Church in the central square. And all the time that this procession had been going on, also, there was a display of folkloric dancing that the government had arranged as a kind of counter-demonstration to the religious procession. The authorities obviously felt they couldn’t ban the religious precession. But they wanted to disturb and weaken it by having powerful, amplified music of this folkloric group constantly intruding. And then, just as the last people came into the church, there was an enormous flash of lightning that struck the electronic amplifying equipment of the government-run counterdemonstration. And the whole thing exploded in this fantastic flash. And everybody said, “Jest cud,” “It’s a miracle!”
RG: How about other Catholic influences in your life?
HJ: I have to say, my wife is also an influence.
RG: She herself comes from that Polish-Catholic culture that you found so impressive when you visited?
RG: One observes that many, many intellectuals over the decades and centuries have been converts to the Catholic faith. In England, for example, one thinks of John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton — the philosophers Elizabeth Anscombe, Michael Dummett and Peter Geach. In your field of history, one thinks of Christopher Dawson and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Here at Princeton, there is our colleague in philosophy Bas van Fraassen. Just this week the eminent political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago became a Catholic. There is Alasdair MacIntyre, and so many more. Have you thoughts on what it is that seems to draw intellectuals such as yourself and these others to Catholicism?
HJ: People are clearly looking for a rational kind of argument in favor of faith. And then, at the same time, people today are thinking about what it is that makes arguments valid in the cacophony of voices. How does one work out what is valid? What is right? It seems to me that institutions, and in this particular case the Church, have a way of filtering this kind of cacophony of noise. That is part of its strength.
RG: Catholicism itself, in its ethical teaching and its other dimensions, seems to place a high value on reason and arguments. It does not view the Fall as so catastrophic that it wipes out the truth-attaining power of reason. Faith and reason are seen as mutually supporting. John Paul II begins his encyclical on the subject by saying that “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit ascends to the contemplation of truth.” Of course, some religious traditions, including some Christian traditions, take a different view. Faith is understood to be more like a leap into the dark. Reason is sometimes held in suspicion and distrust. Does Catholicism’s more elevated view of reason have something to do with its appeal to so many intellectuals?
HJ: Absolutely. And clearly it’s something that John Paul II reflected on a great deal. But it’s also deeply built into the structure of the way that the Catholic Church thinks and thinks about itself. It’s very striking in the decorations in the Vatican, whether it’s the Sistine Chapel or the Papal Apartments, that you see depictions of the Greek philosophers on one side of the room and the sacrifice of the Eucharist on the other side.
RG: If I could shift, Harold, to your professional work and its relationship to your faith, the Catholic tradition proposes a teaching about social life, including economic life. It seems to resist neat classification into familiar categories. It rejects socialism and affirms the importance of private property. Yet it’s not libertarian or individualist.
HJ: It was a wonderful line the other day that an Anglican clergyman had when he said, “There’s no reason to think that being ordained as an Anglican priest makes you any more qualified to solve the Euro crisis than anybody else.” I think you have to recognize two issues. One is that Christianity is inherently a social religion. We, after all, don’t just have a relationship with God. We have a relationship with God as God became man and with other men and women. The requirement that we see Christ in others is an absolutely central teaching of the Christian faith. But the second issue is how we deal with this institutionally and politically. There are dangers in trying to translate the teachings about love into concrete economic policy, for example. That, I think, is where, sometimes, Christian writers have gone into error.
RG: What do you make of the merits of the tradition of Catholic social thought, with its criticisms of both collectivist and pure laissez-faire doctrines?
HJ: It really is a significant attempt to overcome the polarization that you have between market economy views and socialist views. The tradition began in the late 19th century with the encyclical Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII. He wrote during a moment of immense polarization and class conflict. The Industrial Revolution was producing an enormous amount of misery. Many people were being treated in degrading ways and lived in terrible circumstances.
RG: Understandably, economists are centrally concerned with efficiency, with production, with material well-being. But is there a problem, in your view, with a tendency toward materialism and utilitarianism in economics?
HJ: I think there has been this kind of discussion in economics itself. There’s recently, for instance, been an enormous amount of interest in how to measure happiness. Consider the short-term, euphoric sentiments that we get from, say, a purchase. It doesn’t make us happy for a very long time. You buy a new car, and you feel better for a bit. But quickly you’re bored with that, and you want some new stimulus. That, I think, is an interesting contribution to the debate. But it’s also helpful to try to think of the ways in which long-term contentment and well-being differ from short-term euphoria. In Latin, if you’re content and you have a long-term vision, you’re beatus. And if you’re happy in the short-term, well, you’re felix. Now these complexities are difficult to calculate in those happiness studies.
RG: When you talk about long-term happiness, especially if by happiness one means not simply a psychological state but all-round well-being or flourishing — what Aristotle called eudaimonia — it looks like something that philosophers and theologians are concerned with.
HJ: Sure. And I think economists recognize that. They actually don’t claim to have any particular insight into how particular preferences have formed. But it’s just the interplay of collective preferences that they’re interested in. In that sense, it’s a more partial analysis of the problem of human interaction.
RG: Early on, Catholicism incorporated aspects of the philosophical tradition of natural law theory, which began with Plato and Aristotle. You have written on natural law and economics. What led you to do so?
HJ: I wanted to explore this as an outcome of some thinking I was engaged in since the 1990s about whether different philosophies of economic life are compatible with each other. There was a big moment 15 years ago or so when people said that there’s a different kind of American economics from European economics from Asian economics. And I wanted to see whether there wasn’t something that really everyone had in common.
RG: Having done some of that work, do you conclude that there are aspects of the tradition of natural law theorizing that have something to contribute to economics?
HJ: I think it’s not really a contribution to technical economics. But it’s a contribution to the way that people think of political and social order.
RG: What is your experience as a person who is known to be a religious believer in the academy?
HJ: I find the academy, at least here in Princeton, to be a pluralistic, open, tolerant kind of place. It’s not like what one encounters in some places in Europe.
RG: There are horror stories from religious people at universities in Europe and also sometimes in the United States. It makes me think we’re blessed to be at a place like Princeton.
RG: Where else do you find that being a Catholic makes a difference in your life?
HJ: The idea is important to me that there’s something really inherently flawed about humanity but that we are not helpless in the face of those flaws.
RG: The drama of original sin and redemption?
RG: Finally, it is a central Catholic teaching that there will be things the believer must stand up for against the tide. One thinks today of the Church’s stand on the sanctity of human life, on the defense of marriage as a conjugal union. John Paul II called it being “a sign of contradiction.” It’s not easy. Relationships and career enhancement can be put in jeopardy. What do you make of this dimension of the Christian vocation?
HJ: People who oppose the death penalty are often characterized as being on the left. People who oppose abortion are often characterized as being on the right. But it seems to me that really the call is to be consistent, to think about what is involved in upholding the dignity of life. Human beings really shouldn’t ever have to make a decision on the worth or the lack of worth of another human existence. To do that involves a responsibility that is so heavy that it’s actually destructive of the personality.
RG: So are faithful, consistent Catholics destined to be regarded as right-wingers by the left-wing and as left-wingers by the right?
HJ: Right. So I think you’re correct that we need to question conventional categories. But that vocation to question is actually a vocation that intellectuals should have in general.
The next installment of “Keeping Faith” will run on Wednesday, Nov. 23.