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What’s the ‘Magna Carta’ Got To Do With It?

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James V. Schall, SJ, reflects on the importance of the Magna Carta – perhaps the best-known historical document in the world – at The Catholic News Report.

What was this famous legal document really like? What did it do? Some, like Oliver Cromwell, thought it was useless. Others did not think it particularly unique, since there were already hundreds of such charters throughout Europe. Others saw it as the basis of political responsibility, by limiting kingly rule. Still others considered it as the beginnings of natural “rights,” a doctrine, as Hobbes would later show, of most perplexing memory. The document is revealing to read. It is filled with medieval law issues and phrases. Yet it contains a thread of principle on which many nations—Canada, Australia, South Africa, the United States, India, and other former Commonwealth countries—have retained.

Schall wonders if most Americans know that the Magna Carta was also a religious document, citing the supremacy of God and his church. Wouldn’t this be a private matter, something to be kept out of government? The feudal society which gave rise to this document is to be understood in context:

Feudal society was a vast arrangement of mutual services and responsibilities, often blessed by confraternities and guilds. It was an effort to render justice—fair prices, fair standards—to various levels of society that were necessary for its survival and prosperity. While it is generally pictured that modern society arose to overcome stagnant feudal customs, the fact is that most of these customs had their roots in some mutual arrangement whereby both sides received what was thought to be due and fair.

The significance of the Magna Carta is said to be the effort to require a monarch (executive) always to act in a legal, defined way. It was a pragmatic effort to “limit” the arbitrary ways of a king’s acting against his subjects.

It was, in effect, an early form of checks and balances.

At the 800th anniversary of this document, Schall says we must be concerned with the erosion of rights spelled out for each man in the Magna Carta. We are forgetting the relationship between natural and civil law, at our peril.

Read “The Importance of the Magna Carta, 800 Years On” at The Catholic News Report.

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Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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