Summer 1990, Vol.42 No. 2, pp. 101-110.

John T. Noonan, Jr.: Stars of the Order
     Brilliance, Diversity, Reflecting and Reflected Light

From Raymond of Peñafort to Père Lagrange, ten Dominicans, some of them canonized saints of the Church, balanced enthusiasm and doctrine, tradition and originality, to become moral models and examples of human transcendence.

The Honorable John T. Noonan, Jr., is Judge of the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. A well-known lecturer and author, he has written a variety of books on the history of moral ideas, including Bribes, Contraception, and Power to Dissolve.

ON this auspicious and celebratory occasion it seemed to me that nothing could be more fitting than to invoke those individuals who have made the order of St. Dominic celebrated. Dante places the souls in Paradise on stars, and I call stars these persons whose lives illuminate with their light. My only problem has been how to choose. I have adopted a subjective approach -- to call to mind those stars whose light has fallen on subjects on which I have worked. As to them I can testify from personal influence what they have meant to me. I propose to present ten -- a kind of minyan of Dominicans, canonized and uncanonized or not yet canonized -- who not only could teach us today, but might pray for us as well.

Proceeding chronologically, then, I begin with Raymond of Penaforte, the third master of the order and the reviser who put its constitutions in legal form, but most famous as the canonist who compiled and ruthlessly edited the papal decretals that became, with Gratian, the heart of the canon law. An astute moralist, a very able lawyer, a superb editor, Raymond was also an outstanding legislative draftsman. When he encountered a problem yet untouched by a papal decree, he was capable of drafting a solution, proposing the solution to the pope, and persuading the pope to issue Raymond's solution in the form of a new papal decretal, announced in the formula "Pope Gregory to Brother R; i.e. Brother Raymond. Notably, the most important of canons in the field of marriage, Si conditiones, was crafted in this fashion and established in canonical form the basic goods -- offspring, fidelity, indissolubility -- whose denial by agreement of the couple was the destruction of the substance of their marriage.(1)

Next in time comes Albert the Great -- great in intellect and spirit and comprehensiveness of mind. I have valued him in particular for his humane analysis of marriage and for the impartial and encyclopedic spirit in which he recorded the contraceptive properties of plants. He condemned contraception, but as God had created plants with contraceptive qualities he would not censor God's creation and omit from his scientific description either the plants or their distinctive attributes. 2 As a scientist, he saw it as his duty to give all the facts; as a moralist he would say what should be done with the facts. The seeker of truth about nature was not to be denied the full range of information Albert possessed; the seeker of truth about morals was not to use all the information he could put to use.

Third, there is Albert's pupil, Thomas, -- the pupil greater than the master, but perhaps reaching that higher level only because of his master. Out of the rich store of Thomas' teaching, what shall I single out? Three things: First, his distinction between esse and essentia, that distinction that Étienne Gilson has shown to be the foundation of a true existential metaphysics culminating in the acknowledgment of the existence of God.(3)

Secondly, Thomas' celebration of marriage as maxima amicitia, maximal friendship. No higher or more perceptive valuation of the possibilities of marriage has been made by any philosopher or poet.(4) Thirdly, his own poetry, of which Tantum ergo is the splendid climax. Whatever predecessors he had in composing the Corpus Christi liturgy, only Thomas was capable of the taut, theologically-packed, untranslatable lines that compose the great hymn.

In the next century, my favorite is John Bromyard, Englishman and preachers' preacher -- that is, the collector of topics and treatments of topics for preachers, all assembled, from A to Z, in "The Preachers' Summa." On corruption of all kinds, but especially corruption in the courts, Bromyard is a cornucopia of examples and analyses. Before Chaucer, John Bromyard is the moral satirist of clerical life and, broader in range than Chaucer, he subjects lay as well as clerical institutions to his sharp sting. One must be struck by the modernity of his fourteenth-century complaint that schools of divinity are deserted because everyone wants to make money and so everyone is going to law school.(5)

Later in the century appears a lady who if she were alive today almost certainly would be at a law school, but who in her own day could not read or write and yet dictated some of the most marvelously persuasive letters ever penned -- I mean of course Catherine of Siena. "If a wound in need is not burnt with fire nor cut with steel but only ointment is put on it, not only does it not heal, it festers completely .... Sweetest daddy, this is the cause that your subjects are all corrupt."(6) So she wrote Pope Gregory XI. A woman who could call the Pope "Daddy" and then tell Daddy what he ought to do to clean up his pigsty of a papal court, she is the forerunner of every woman who has brought an uncompromising sense of integrity to bear on the dirty business of politics.

Not everything turned out the way she thought it would. It never does. All the consequences are never anticipated or controllable. In Catherine's case, ending the Babylonian Captivity in Avignon set the stage for the disaster of the Great Schism. But conscience, not consequences, is what counts. Catherine had acted rightly. With a faith in God, reinforced by a mystical piety, she could not be dismayed or deterred by what happened after she had rightly gotten the Pope back to Rome. Patroness of Italy, she is the patron of everyone seeking to root out corruption in public life.

In the fifteenth century, one light shines with special brightness -- Antoninus, archbishop of Florence. Antoninus was the founder of that gem of Florence, the convent of San Marco, and -not only of the convent but of its library -- a library that he opened to all scholars and so made the first public library of Europe. Antoninus is known even better as a master moralist, the acute analyzer of moral duties in terms of trades and professions, the dispassionate but sensitive observer of sins, who knows what is done and refuses to let what is done be the measure of what should be done. For example, a defender of exchange banking, the prevailing form of international finance, observes that it is practiced by members of the Roman curia: hence it cannot be stained with the sin of usury. Antoninus replies: the curialists keep concubines, too; their practice does not make it right.(7) Such stubborn realism, such stubborn refusal to bend morals to lifestyles has characterized the great Dominicans.

At the time of the Reformation two stars beam with particular intensity. One, Thomas de Vio, Cardinal Cajetan, directed his light against Luther, but to my mind is even more justly celebrated for his intelligent analysis of the morality of exchange-banking and for his firm articulation of the principle that God's moral commands are for our happiness. "God," Cajetan writes -- he is speaking of the command against fornication and justifying the command -- "does not envy human beings."(8) The command is rational, made for our good. With equal firmness Cajetan asserted the principle that each merchant is entitled to seek profit suitable to a state of life commensurate with his abilities -- a dynamic view of the morality of commerce completely contrary to the familiar Weber-Tawney doctrine on capitalism. (9)

The contemporary of Cajetan, battling in very different causes, was Bartolomé de Las Casas, the champion of the Indians against colonial exploiters who were his countrymen. His was a late vocation to the order: at least he had had much experience elsewhere when at the age of forty-eight he entered. But he had forty-four more years to serve as a Dominican. It was the refusal of a Dominican confessor to absolve him that led to his radical moral conversion in Cuba, that turned him from a priest-landowner using the labor of enslaved Indians into the moral theologian who was to insist, in accordance with established doctrine, that no Spanish landowner could be absolved until he made restitution to the Indians of the property and labor taken from them, and no Spanish conquistador could be absolved until he made restitution for the mutilations and killings and rapes and enslavements that the unjust wars of Spain had inflicted on the Indians.(10) Moreover, it was the eleven years of study spent after his entry into the order that gave him the immense learning in Scripture and theology that he was able to draw on, as from an arsenal, in his strenuous efforts to obtain justice for the Indians.(11) And it was the order that conserved his library and his yet unpublished manuscripts -- one of them, The Only Way of Attracting All Pele to the True Religion, put into print for the first time in 1942.(12)

The "one, only, and unique way," he did not cease to insist, was "to persuade the intellect by reasons and to allure the will sweetly."(13) And the Indians, as much as any European, were to be reached by this sweet and rational persuasion. Force was out.

Las Casas was the first priest to be ordained in the New World. His style, a Mexican author observes, is the style of the continent.(14) He was an anthropologist who studied and recorded the customs of its natives. He was an historian who, with moral passion, recorded their destruction. He was a moralist who passed from preaching to the diplomacy and politics, legal argument and legislative lobbying necessary to put moral doctrine to work.(15) Breaking into a faster stride in his seventies, a model for octogenarians, he continued his activities until his death in his nineties. Although like Catherine he found that some consequences of his ideas were unanticipated and undesirable, he had a measurably beneficent impact on the Spanish court, the laws of South America, and Spanish imperial conduct from Chile to the Philippines. He was a Don Quixote only if Christ was a Don Quixote. Is there any nobler critic of organized human cruelty and bureaucratic inertia? Las Casas is rightly invoked today in a Latin America that still needs his spirit, his courage, and his refusal to acquiesce in injustice.

I skip now to the century succeeding the sad events of the French Revolution and the suppression of the Dominicans in France, and to their restorer, Jean Baptiste Henri Lacordaire. A lapsed Catholic as a young man, then a lawyer, he like Las Casas came late to the order, aged thirty-seven.(16) Before that he had been associated with the Catholic prophet of religious liberty, Felicit de Lamennais, and his journal L'Avenir (The Future). When in 1832 Pope Gregory XVI condemned the bold new theories and Lamennais revolted, Lacordaire found himself in crisis. "Everything, he recalled, "was cracking up around me."(17) He even thought of abandoning France for the United States. But the end result of his crisis, as for Las Casas, was his entry into the Dominicans and his resolution to re-introduce the Dominicans to France. To restore the Dominicans, he argued, was not to return to the past but "to turn to the pole of the future." The religious vocation of France, he saw, depended on the reestablishment of the religious orders.(18)

Lacordaire received the habit in Rome at the Minerva and with a handful of collaborators returned to Paris. A voice crying in the urban wilderness from the pulpit of Notre Dame, he found a few generous responses. The province formed again, although not exactly as he would have wished. But the Dominicans were back. And he did not forget the cause of religious liberty, a cause that was to be fully recognized only by the Second Vatican Council. Belgium was the Catholic country that had led the way in recognizing freedom of conscience. Ireland was the Catholic country that would benefit from its acceptance. Preaching the funeral sermon of Daniel O'Connell, Lacordaire said bluntly, "Catholics, understand this: If you want freedom for yourselves, you must want it for all human beings, and under every sky."(19) Tocqueville had presented to European Catholics the model of religious freedom in his Democracy in America. By the happiest chance, Lacordaire succeeded to Toqueville's place in the Academie Française and so, according to custom, spoke on his remarkable predecessor; and what Lacordaire saw as most significant in Tocqueville's work was its recognition of the union in America of religious freedom and a religious spirit; that, as Lacordaire saw, was l'avenir, the future. (20)

On the centenary of the reestablishment of the order in France, Fran ois Mauriac said to the Dominicans of his day, "Father Lacordaire has conquered death in this world, since you are there, Reverend Fathers."(21) In the continuity of the community his existence had been prolonged. He was with them in prayer. He was with them as example. He was a moral model for them.

Later that century in France, one of those who responded to his call was a man as much of our century as his -- another man who began life as a lawyer but who entered the Dominican Province of Toulouse and in 1890, in an abandoned abattoir, started the École pratique d' études bibliques in Jerusalem. Christened Albert Lagrange,(22) he carried in religious life a name in honor of her he especially cherished. With him, Marie-Joseph Lagrange, modern Catholic biblical scholarship began. With him a center for research in the text and in the context of Scripture took permanent form. With him a journal of the highest calibre, Révue biblique, came into existence. The Catholic Church began to catch up with the biblical criticism that for over a century had gone on under Protestant and then rationalist auspices. Lagrange's center made possible the very high standards we have achieved today.

Like Thomas, like Lacordaire, Lagrange had opponents within, as well as without, the Church. Easily suspected at the time of the Modernist crisis in the first decade of the century, his work finally fell a victim to the defensive reaction in Rome. In September 1912, at the age of fifty-seven, after twenty-two years of unremitting devotion to the work of his school, Lagrange was summarily removed from it and ordered by telegraph to return to France. He at once obeyed. He had, by this date, written over one thousand reviews, articles, and books. He gave up all this activity. A soldier, he told his colleagues, does not discuss orders. If God wanted the work to live, it was God who would make it live. "As for recrimination," he wrote the Master, "I dare to say that that is not in my character."(23) Within the year he was restored. His obedience, his faith were justified; and the brilliance of Catholic biblical scholarship was assured.(24)

All, all of them were brilliant -- canonist-editor-legislator; philosopher and theologian; philosopher, theologian, and poet; preacher and essayist for preachers; letter-writer and mystic; moral theologian and archbishop; cardinal and controversialist and moral analyst; anthropologist and lobbyist and defender of the Indians; restorer, preacher, and champion of freedom; exegete and editor and father of orthodox biblical criticism. Their diversity is equally manifest, although most were male priests and only one a woman. Spanish, German, Italian, English, French, they were among the flower of Western civilization.

Religious thought has a Scylla and a Charybdis -- emotional unreason and iron logic. Succumbing to one or the other is the root of spiritual tyranny. These persons kept the balance and avoided the perils of excessive enthusiasm and excessive dogmatism. They revered authority but there is a refreshing freshness in their work: in this respect, too, they kept a balance between tradition and originality. They acted within the context of the constitution of the order. They knew the restraints of rules, the confines of community, the shaping of structure. Rules, community, structure did not stultify or stifle them, but gave them firm foundation, buoying them as they engaged in difficult and contentious enterprises. In the context of community they achieved that most demanding balance of all -- that between action and contemplation, between study and human engagement, between prayer and intellectual and moral endeavor.

Sometimes lawyers by training, nearly all of them employed the methods of legal argumentation, Thomas the poet and Catherine the mystic not least. But they did not stop at the law. They sought what is beyond legal argumentation, what is reached only in the free response of the human conscience: the Truth; and responding to the Truth they were creative in marvelously diverse ways. Doing so, they are all moral models for us. They are moral models for us, but not merely moral models.

George Steiner in his recent work, Real Presences, observes that the world today uses the term "God" as the world refers to the sun rising and setting -- a convention still maintained while belied by modern science. Steiner writes against the usage, arguing that the real presences of literature, art, and music testify to a transcendence which is only guaranteed by a living God. So, too, these real presences of the Dominican past point to human transcendence. Their brilliance is not of themselves and is of course made visible only by the less visible cooperation of their brothers and sisters. But what that brilliance reflects is God's light. Without that source of energy, they are nothing. They have reflected on that light. They reflect that light. And that light, which is the light of the world, reaches us, reflected by their radiance.

  1. Gregory IX, Decretales, Corpus iuris canonici, ed. E. Friedberg, (1879-1881), 4,5,7.

  2. See Noonan, Contraception (1965), pp. 205-06, 247.

  3. See Étienne Gilson, L'être et l'essence.

  4. See Noonan, Maxima amicitia. Atti del Congresso di S. Tommaso D'Aquino (1976).

  5. John Bromyard, Summa praedicantium (Venice, 1586) at "Advocatus."

  6. Epistolario di Santa Caterina di Siena, ed. E. Dupré Theseider (1940) p. 214.

  7. Antoninus, Summa sacrae theologiae (1581), 3, 8, 3.

  8. See Noonan, Contraception (1965), p. 355.

  9. Cajetan, De cambiis, Scripta philosophica: Opuscula economica-socialia, ed. P. Ammit (1934).

  10. Las Casas, Historia de las Indias, Obras escogidas, ed. J. Perez de Tudela (1957-1958) 2, pp. 356-60.

  11. George Sanderlin, "Introduction," Bartolomé de Las Casas: A Selection of His Writings, (1971) p. 11.

  12. Las Casas, Del Unico modo de atraer a todos los pueblos a la aeradera relígion (1942).

  13. Ibid., c. 1, p. 6.

  14. Augustin Yanez, quoted in Sanderlin, op. cit., p. 25.

  15. Lewis Hanke, Bartolomé de Las Casas: Bookman -- Scholar -- Propagandist (1952), pp. 38-40.

  16. Marteau de Langle de Cary and J. Monnert, Prophete en son Pays: Lacordaire (1961), pp. 11-38.

  17. Lacordaire quoted in M. Foisset, Vie de R.P. Lacordaire (1870) 1, p. 231.

  18. Lacordaire, Mémoire pour le rétablissement en France de l'Ordre des Frères Prêcheurs (1839), p. 225.

  19. Lacordaire, loge funèbre de Daniel O'Connell;' in Lacordaire, Oeuvres: Notices et Panegyrigues (1872).

  20. Lacordaire, Discours de Réception à l'Académie Française, ibid., pp. 327, 331.

  21. F. Mauriac, R. Garric, R. Motte, and P. Gillet, Lacordaire et Nous (1940), p. 12.

  22. F.M. Braun, O.P., L'Oeuvre du Père Lagrange (1943), p. 3.

  23. L.H. Vincent, "Père Lagrange," Révue Biblique 47: 330-44.

  24. Braun, op. cit., pp. 126-27.