Event Recap: James Stoner on Catholicism and Constitutionalism

Author: Center for Citizenship & Constitutional Government

Dr. James Stoner delivered a lecture titled "Catholicism & Constitutionalism: An American Perspective" on Thursday, Feb. 16. Dr. Stoner is the Hermann Moyse, Jr., Professor and Director of the Eric Voegelin Institute in the Department of Political Science at Louisiana State University. 

Stoner has primarily focused his research on American constitutionalism and on its underlying political philosophy. After studying at Middlebury College, Dr. Stoner went on to teach first at Gaucho College and then at Louisiana State University, where he has been since 1988. 

“I went to college when I was 18, and I've never left!” Dr. Stoner quipped. 

Dr. Stoner also served on the National Council for the Humanities under the George W. Bush administration.  

Dr. Stoner’s lecture was about the intersection of Catholicism and the U.S. Constitution. “There is no gainsaying that liberalism has been influential in American political development,” Dr. Stoner said. The role liberalism played in the drafting of the Constitution can be observed through the Catholic principles of religious toleration and pluralism, which, as Dr. Stoner noted, were propagated especially by Catholics in colonial America.

Dr. Stoner argued that, although the Constitution was profoundly influenced by early modern liberalism, it is the product of a mixture of two legal traditions: early modern liberalism and English common law. This is a unique fusion because it arises from two systems of thought that are, to an extent, at odds with each other, he said. After all, the early liberal philosophers were explicitly critical of the common law. Regardless, the common law was very influential during the creation of the United States. 

Dr. Stoner explained that common law is the customary law enforced in English courts of law. It originated with the settlers who first came to America; they were predominantly Christian and brought the common law with them. 

The common law is a profoundly Catholic influence on the U.S. Constitution because it can trace its roots back to pre-reformation England. According to Dr. Stoner, the common law can be considered “a carrier of Christian ideas.” Within the common law, nothing against natural law could exist. Furthermore, the common law is influenced by the belief that the determinations of matters that natural law left open are tried by juries of citizens. 

In this way, according to Dr. Stoner, “the common law presupposes a Catholic anthropology, often enough lending matters to the individual's conscience.” As Dr. Stoner stated, religion — and specifically Catholicism — is a safeguard of the faculty of  reason, which is necessary for an individual to understand and accurately interpret matters of the common law.

Dr. Stoner is currently writing an extended essay on the meaning of legislative power and how it has been ignored in favor of the courts and the administrative state. He is also jointly working on a project analyzing the profound influence of Aristotle on almost every field study pursued in the modern university.

Article contributed by CCCG Writing Fellow Luca Fanucci

Originally published by Center for Citizenship & Constitutional Government at constudies.nd.edu on March 06, 2023.