I am a lawyer by training. In the U.S., this implies a certain belief in (or at least acceptance of) the value of precedent: that evaluations of disputes (and even of the meaning of the text of laws) should take into consideration how previous courts have interpreted those same texts, or held in related disputes. This is, at one level, an odd and overly conservative idea. Why should your ability to mount a satellite dish on the top of the condominium building in which a dozen families reside be affected by a 19th-century Appalachian judge’s determination of a deer hunter’s right to pursue a wounded animal onto another’s land? The judge may likely not have crafted his interpretation of that dispute in anticipation of particular new technologies, and all of the disputants in the original case are long-dead. I believe the answer hinges on an understanding of how society and expectations are created; not as a set of individual negotiations or one-off interactions, but rather as a collective indication of values and patterns. Even (and perhaps especially) in the absence of a precisely similar previous occurrence, by extrapolating and interpreting new issues in a manner that is at least generally consistent with previous decisions, increasing predictability. On the other hand, this means that societal changes in attitudes will nearly always occur before the law (or other precedential institutions) catch up. If it requires (at least) a majority vote to change our laws, they will lag changes in opinion, and eventually, perhaps, risk being seen as a reactionary force, rather than the instruments of justice in our society.
Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition was not the quickest or most engaging read of this project thus far, but it presented the Catholic Church’s changes at the Second Vatican Council as a change consistent with precedent. Maybe this just feels like terminological finesse, or even hypocrisy, but if that nod to precedent allowed Catholics to better engage/interact with other Christians (and non-Christians), surely such hypocrisy would be viewed as a “net good.” I personally appreciated the end to explicitly anti-Semitic teaching, but the formal statement that “Christ’s death was more due to our sins than the Jews” is not exactly a full-throated ownership of the pogroms and religious violence done in the name of avenging Christ. In general, I got the impression of a Church trying to examine itself and improve, but highly reluctant to admit the change. This can be a challenge for me personally as well; I viscerally want to defend my previous actions, whatever they were, as correct (or at least understandable/well-motivated) rather than focusing my attention on the improvement. In an era when so many of our previous statements (and even actions) are permanently memorialized online, perhaps we will become more comfortable admitting and owning our mistakes. I have said and done things that I now no longer believe. Not because the environment has changed, but because I have changed, sometimes voluntarily as I’ve grown, and sometimes only when I’ve been confronted by someone else.
According to Arthur White’s Plague and Pleasure: The Renaissance World of Pius II, Pope Pius II may have had such an evolution in his own life. Born Enea (Aeneas) Piccolomini, he was a well-educated man, and served as an envoy/secretary to nobles in his early adulthood, traveling around Europe (and fathering children with multiple women). He did not take orders until in his 40s, and seems to have genuinely reformed his sexual behavior upon his entry into the clergy. His adoption of the name “Pius,” however, is a bit of a pun and a nod to his education in the humanities: in Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas is often referred to as “Pius Aeneas,” so in choosing that particular name, Pope Pius was, perhaps, not fully replacing his given name, but rather emphasizing his evolution (maybe even consistent with his previous character). White uses Pius’ life to illustrate the chaos and tragedy of Renaissance Italy. Plagues and war were near-constant throughout the 15th century, and White contends that the Italian Renaissance focus on the arts (and gardens, and literature) may have been driven by escapism, rather than simply a spirit of discovery or love of learning. He certainly describes the environment grippingly. Pius’ own family, the Piccolomini, were feuding with the Malavolti and stabbed one of them to death in their courtyard. I was struck throughout the book by the extent to which Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was reflected in the real activities of the era (other than the love story part, as far as I know). Feuding families, princes struggling to maintain order and peace, and plagues disrupting everything, adding a sense of urgency to all activities. Pius himself was fixated on leading a crusade against the Ottomans, but failed to launch it, and the armies evaporated with his own death; his most lasting contribution to the world may have been his reconstruction of his hometown in Siena, Corsignano. Besides, perhaps, hope that the challenges of this pandemic, climate change, and other globally chaotic events may spur works of art, I take three personal lessons from Pius’ life: first, that radical change in our lives is possible, secondly that developing diplomatic skills can take one unexpected places, and lastly, that no matter how important we think a fight may be, it’s better to focus on building up than on fighting.