Dennis J. Wieboldt III on natural law and Catholic legal education

Author: Philip Byers

Dennis Wieboldt Hs 2

Dennis J. Wieboldt III studies the history of law, politics, and religion in the 20th-century United States. At Boston College, he earned both a B.A. in history and theology and an M.A. in history, and in fall 2023 he will begin coursework in the University of Notre Dame’s joint J.D./Ph.D. program. In 2022, he won a Research Travel Grant from the Cushwa Center for his project, “The Natural Law in American Catholic Legal Education: Case Studies from South Bend and Chestnut Hill, 1947–1957.” He recently corresponded with Philip Byers to discuss his research in the Notre Dame Archives.


Philip Byers: When you submitted your grant proposal in fall 2021, you were pursuing research as part of Boston College’s joint B.A./M.A. in history. What led you to the topic you chose for your thesis?

Dennis Wieboldt: During the spring of 2020, I enrolled in a course at Boston College on “Religion and American Public Life.” Through this course, I developed an interest in how American Catholics understood themselves vis-à-vis those of other religious denominations during the 20th century. On the one hand, I knew that non-Catholics had viewed Catholics skeptically during the first half of the century, prompting inter-confessional hostility. On the other hand, I also knew that Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish leaders stood side by side to confront racial discrimination during the civil rights movement. This caused me to ask why and how Catholics forged cooperative alliances with non-Catholics around pressing social issues during the 20th century. I then visited the archives at Boston College’s John J. Burns Library to learn more about the dynamics of these interconfessional relationships, particularly through the lens of the life of William J. Kenealy—a Jesuit priest and former dean of Boston College Law School who earned a reputation in the 1950s and 1960s for his prominent civil rights advocacy. By better understanding Kenealy’s life, I thought I could better understand the intellectual resources to which some Catholics turned in attempting to forge cooperative relationships with non-Catholics. In Kenealy’s case, this intellectual resource was natural law philosophy.

PB: Your main interest at the Notre Dame Archives was the undigitized collection of the university’s Natural Law Institute (NLI). What was the NLI, who were the critical figures behind it, and how does it factor into your story?

DW: As the legal historian Stuart Banner has illustrated in his recent book, The Decline of Natural Law (Oxford University Press, 2021), American lawyers once relied substantially upon appeals to natural law when making legal arguments. Around the turn of the 20th century, however, natural law largely disappeared from American courtrooms and law school classrooms. This transformation was deeply concerning to proponents of natural law jurisprudence, many of whom argued in the 1920s and 1930s that abandoning natural law in favor of socially scientific methods of legal reasoning would imperil the higher moral foundations of positive (i.e., human-made) law. After the Second World War, Catholic legal scholars and institutions of legal education became the leaders of a national movement to revive the Anglo-American tradition of natural law jurisprudence, asserting that respecting the natural law’s divine ordinances was the only way to consistently defend human rights.

Proceedings 1949
Proceedings title page, volume I, 1949.

Upon its establishment in 1947, the NLI became the center of this movement to revive natural law jurisprudence. Under the leadership of Notre Dame College of Law Dean Clarence E. Manion, a prominent natural law theorist, the NLI convened annually in South Bend between 1947 and 1951, bringing influential legal philosophers and practitioners from around the world to dialogue about natural law’s role in the field of jurisprudence. The NLI’s published Proceedings became an important source of natural law scholarship, eventually precipitating the establishment of a new academic journal—the Natural Law Forum—exclusively devoted to natural law after the NLI ceased convening annually in 1951. Articles published in the Forum helped to shape the attempted revival of natural law jurisprudence during the mid-20th century, a legacy that continues to this day: restyled in 1970 as The American Journal of Jurisprudence, this publication remains one of the leading journals of legal philosophy in the United States and one of few academic journals that continues to regularly promote natural law scholarship. Given my research interests, the history of the NLI offers a unique glimpse into what Banner has acknowledged as the influential “echoes” of natural law during the latter half of the 20th century, a period that the historiography has otherwise sanitized of its relationship to the movement to revive natural law.


PB: In the mid-1950s, the Law School required a seminar in which students would “investigate the historical, philosophical, moral, and sociological problems associated with the origin, nature, and function of law.” Tell us a bit about that course along with any other features of the curriculum that helped inculcate natural law philosophy.

DW: This course, typically required in the first year of a student’s legal education, was known as “Jurisprudence.” During the early- and mid-20th century, requiring this jurisprudence course was the primary way that Catholic law schools differentiated themselves from their non-Catholic peers. Indeed, by the 1930s and 1940s, it would have been exceptionally unusual for most students at the elite non-Catholic law schools, especially Harvard and Yale, to receive the type of instruction which the required jurisprudence course offered to Catholic law school students. As the curricular evidence at Notre Dame, Georgetown, Boston College, Fordham, and other Catholic law schools of this period reveals, jurisprudence courses attempted to situate a young lawyer’s everyday legal practice within a certain metaphysical superstructure, one provided by natural law philosophy. More often than not, these jurisprudence courses attempted to contrast the deductive philosophical method of reasoning most famously articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas and his 16th-century Scholastic disciples with the inductive, socially scientific method of reasoning that displaced natural law jurisprudence around the turn of the 20th century. One of the most interesting aspects of my research has been locating syllabi, exams, and student essays written for these jurisprudence classes. This material shows that the required course in jurisprudence was a favored tool of Catholic legal educators in their quest to inculcate within students a respect for natural law’s purportedly foundational relationship to the American legal tradition.

PB: Your proposal mentioned interest in “commonalities” between Boston College and Notre Dame. What areas of overlap did you find, and did you identify any distinctions between the two programs as well?

DW: Before applying for the Cushwa Center’s support, I had completed extensive archival research on the history of the Boston College Law School during William J. Kenealy’s deanship (1939–1956). Thus, I came to the University Archives at Notre Dame expecting to find commonalities in how Boston College and Notre Dame attempted to promote natural law. As I expected, the required course in jurisprudence was the primary forum in which both institutions exposed their students to natural law. There was, however, another interesting commonality that I identified between both institutions: Boston College and Notre Dame also employed non-curricular resources in attempting to promote the early- and mid-20th-century revival of natural law jurisprudence. At Boston College, the primary non-curricular forum for engagement with natural law was the annual Red Mass, a long-standing liturgical tradition for lawyers to receive a blessing before the new judicial year. Quite unsurprisingly, the homilists at these Red Masses almost always invoked natural law. At Notre Dame, contrastingly, it appears as though the primary non-curricular forum for engagement with natural law was the NLI.

Another facet of my ongoing research that may have a bearing on this question is examining how Boston College and Notre Dame came to admit women to their law schools. Leaders at the Boston College Law School, which began women’s admission two decades before Notre Dame, argued to their Jesuit superiors that failing to permit women’s admission would force young Catholic women to receive a secular legal education that did not expose them to Catholic legal philosophy (i.e., through the required jurisprudence course). In my future research, I hope to find analogous archival material that can help me understand how leaders at Notre Dame discussed women’s admission during a slightly later period. I will be particularly interested to see if issues related to natural law were at all invoked during the internal deliberations at Notre Dame, as they were decades earlier at Boston College.

PB: This fall, you’ll be commencing study for a joint J.D./Ph.D. at Notre Dame. How did you decide to pursue both tracks, and what are some of your hopes for your time in South Bend?

DW: As a graduate student at Boston College, I have been fortunate to have already found a wealth of archival material about the development of 20th-century Catholic legal thought. As my master’s thesis argues, however, both American religious and legal historians have almost entirely neglected the position of Catholic legal thinkers and institutions in their respective understandings of 20th-century American religious and legal history. This glaring omission in both historiographies was, in part, the impetus for my pursuit of a joint degree in law and history. As a Ph.D. student, I will have the time and archival resources necessary to more clearly understand how Catholic legal thinkers and institutions shaped critical features of 20th-century American religious and legal history—such as Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish collaboration during the civil rights movement. Likewise, as a J.D. student, I will receive the legal training necessary to better situate natural law proponents’ work vis-à-vis that of natural law opponents (who later dominated most mainstream American legal institutions). By doing so, I hope that my time in South Bend will allow me to uncover how placing Catholic legal thought into existing narratives about the development of American jurisprudence in the 20th century reinforces or challenges how we already understand this formative period.

If it is true that we cannot understand American law today without reference to the 20th century, then it is also certainly the case that we cannot understand American law in the 20th century without reference to its transformation at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

Philip Byers is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism.