XLIV annual symposium of “Instaurare omnia in Christo”. Interview with Prof. Miguel Ayuso.

Held on 18 August last at the Sanctuary of La Madonna di Strada in Fanna was the XLIV annual symposium of  “Instaurare omnia in Christo”, a Catholic periodical headed by Danilo Castellano, professor of the Faculty of Law at the University of Udine.

Present among the speakers was the Spaniard Miguel Ayuso, president of the International Union of Catholic Jurists, who delivered a talk on “The Protestant Matrix of Modern Political and Juridical Culture”. We asked Prof- Ayuso a few questions about the relationship between Martin Luther and modernity.


Coming to mind immediately when thinking about Luther is the issue of liberty, or rather the paradox of liberty. Why has modernity placed liberty at the center, especially after Luther had spoken about “servo arbitrio” (the bondage of will)?


First of all, let’s make one point clear. I don’t think it is correct to say, as we often hear, that modernity used Luther, used the modernity of Luther. And therefore there is no modernity without Luther. Luther is present at the very roots of modernity. In my opinion, this clarification is an important one because it has to do with the selfsame essence of modernity. What happened? On one hand I think there was a certain “heterogenesis of ends”. In other words, at times it seems that an idea should lead to one conclusion, but actually reaches just the contrary of that expected conclusion. Nonetheless, I do not believe this explanation suffices.

It would also be possible to expand on this. Regarding “servo arbitrio”, we also have to consider that Protestantism begins from the nullification of metaphysical being, order and created reality. And when we free ourselves of ‘being’, all we have left is pure will, which in itself acknowledges no limits. Therefore, this negative liberty (negative in the sense of liberty from natural and supernatural law ndr) proper to modern ideological thought issues forth from the destruction of order ensuing from a limitless will.

It is also necessary to specify that the sense of negative liberty is liberty understood as liberation, as a freeing self of everything. It is clear that if we free ourselves of everything – being, reality, nature – all that remains is pure will, which is the essence of negative liberty. Liberation implies ‘reasoning’ in addition to ‘being’. This is why the Lutheran “servo arbitrio” which might seem the theorization of servitude, actually leads to liberation from everything.

Insofar as nihilistic, this liberation leads to servitude and does not liberate, because in the final analysis someone with power imposes himself and wields this power with neither rules nor limits. Therefore, servitude is present in modernity: thrown out by liberation, it returns by way of another route.


It seems modernity is born on the basis of a contradiction. . .


Present in Luther are both absolutism and liberalism. Absolutism imposed itself in Europe in the XVI century, and at its origin we find Luther. But we also find Luther at the origin of liberalism. These are not really exact opposites, but two erroneous readings of reality originating in one and the same mentality.


You spoke about the Protestant matrix of modern political and juridical culture. Could you clarify your thoughts?


I argued that political and juridical culture and modern ethics developed out of Protestantism, and to demonstrate this I availed myself of a few specific issues. The metamorphosis from medieval Christianity to Europe, secularization, the birth of the modern state, subjective right and human rights, capitalism.

Regarding the first issue, prior to Luther people spoke not about Europe, but about Christianity, because the religious factor was the effective cause for the union among peoples on our continent. Moreover, a European Christian had no substantial differences compared with a Christian in America. After the advent of Lutheranism, and even more so after the Peace of Westphalia [1648, marking the end of the Thirty Years War ndr] people began talking about Europe and the European concept of states and nations. From this political angle, Europe saw the light of day as the secularization of Christianity. Nowadays, people would even venture to speak about the West, in the sense of Americanism, that being a sort of self-regulated civic society alongside the Throne (political authority) and the Altar (religious authority); in other words, political and religious fragmentation.  

Spanish traditionalists were wont to assert that surviving the collapse of the Christianitas maior was a Christianitas minor corresponding to the Spanish monarchy as an example of something real that resisted the best to the onslaught of secularization. France, on the contrary, remained Catholic, but with massive Calvinist influence among its élites, who often took a stand against Christianity.


In this way, however, the first argument now links us with the second one. . .


In his Summa Theologiae St. Thomas of Aquinas asserts a Catholic principle anew: “grace perfects nature and does not destroy it”. There is therefore a profound and articulated connection between grace and nature. An argument of utmost magnitude: during the time of the Counter Reformation even the debate between Jesuits and Dominicans had to do with a certain interpretation of this pair. One of the major problems of Catholic culture from the XVI century to the XX century was the understanding of the true relationship between nature and grace. Conversely, the nature-grace pair was totally disrupted with Protestantism.

In brief, Luther creates two separate worlds. Skipping from theology to culture, the kingdom of the Gospel is imposed on one hand, and the kingdom of man on the other: this separation generates secularization. Literature at large, and not limited to Catholic sources, extensively illustrates the degree to which secularization is a concept linked to Protestantism.  Secularization, therefore, is not confined to an historical event or period, but has a Protestant matrix in substantial terms.


Then there is the argument linked with the state. . .


Returning to the specifically political issue, I reflected upon the birth of the state as a third argument. The state is not the political community, nor is it the polis, the regnum, or the government: these are all natural forms. The state – which by definition is always modern – is a counterfeit, an historical form of a pseudo politics which denies the natural nature of human togetherness. The state is the modern incarnation of what the political community was. This state begins from the philosophical construction of Hobbes, with later additions from Locke and Rousseau. In one way or another, all of them were under the influence of Protestantism.

In brief, the modern state is political modernity. It responds to the logic of “cuius regio eius religio”, whereby the state religion is the one decided by the king. Evidently born is modern laicity which foresees either the separation of Church and state, or the self-effacing of religions in a free market. The development of the idea of “social contract” based on “consensus” has a close relationship with the Protestant crisis.


Let’s move on to the fourth of the arguments you used to demonstrate how modern culture is linked to Luther: subjective right and human rights.


Scholars debated at length in an effort to understand if subjective right was already implicit in the logic of Protestantism and modernity because Roman law – for example – concerned not a faculty, a liberty or a power, but the objective status of a situation. This position was sustained in particular by the French philosopher Michel Villey. Other authors, such as Danilo Castellano for example, think that subjective right may also be interpreted in a classical sense.

What I wish to highlight in particular is the fact that the concept of subjective right that emerged in history, and as we have known it, has a Protestant matrix. Basically speaking, said subjective right implies the separation of the faculty (will) from the norm: this is the praxis that has prevailed. And this is where we find a Protestant principle. From both the juridical and moral viewpoint, the conscience becomes an autonomous faculty able to create law.

Starting from here it becomes possible, for example, to single out the misunderstanding linked to a certain way of conceiving religious freedom. The Church itself has undergone a certain ‘protestantization’: modernism itself has Protestant origins. Regarding human rights, they are a variety of subjective righties in a modern sense.


Fifth argument: what about capitalism?


Luther’s system would have led to cultural sterility, but Calvin was the one who brought about a revolutionary radicalization. Basically speaking, I feel that in his Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber was right, but above and beyond his considerations, I am interested in the problem as such: that is to say whether there is a predestination concerning a sign – material success – that generates a Protestant ethical and economic dynamic. It would truly seem so, especially in the light of what occurred in the United States, England, France or in the Netherlands.

In summary, demonstrated is the Protestant matrix of modernity if proven is the Lutheran foundation of the aforementioned key concepts of our world: Europe, secularization, state, subjective right and human rights, capitalism. Apart from anything else, the contemporary postmodern appendix does not lie outside this matrix.


(a cura di Silvio Brachetta)