Hanna Holborn Gray served as president of the University of Chicago from 1978 to 1993, the first woman to lead an American research university. Trained as a historian of Renaissance Europe, Professor Gray delivered a lecture entitled “Law and Lawyers in Thomas More’s Utopia” to a lively audience at Swift Hall on Saturday, February 4, following a Red Mass for the Hyde Park legal community. The following interview with Professor Gray, conducted by Lumen Christi Executive Director Daniel Wasserman-Soler – a former student of Professor Gray -- has been edited and condensed.
DW: Can you give us a recap of your lecture on Thomas More?
HG: More was a man whose execution came about after he performed acts of civil disobedience. He had sworn to uphold the law of the realm and came to the conclusion that he could not obey that law. He could not swear to the proposition that the king had become the head of the Church. He was, at the same time, convinced that he remained a faithful servant of the Crown and the kingdom. On the one hand, he had a remarkable career in which he enforced the law that he had sworn to uphold, and on the other hand, he later resisted a particular law, which he found impossible to obey. How does one reconcile those two things? I thought about the many different answers that had been given to that question. So many interpretations. I would say that my theme was to try to examine those controversies once again and to look at the Utopia from the point of view of how somebody who was already making a very successful legal career at the time of its composition also thought that lawyers should not be in an ideal society. I think the answer is that Thomas More was somebody who lived with a certain tension. To look at his own intellectual development and positions is not to say it had to be one thing or another, but that he actually lived with and experienced some degree of inner conflict, and that that may not be unusual for people of significant achievement.
DW: During your career, you’ve been an advocate of free speech on college and university campuses. In your view, what is the state of the problem regarding free speech on campuses today?
HG: The campus is a place which should be a stage for freedom of expression. The job of academic administration is to maintain and protect that environment so that the greatest possible freedom for people to do their work and to express whatever it is they have on their minds should take place. One problem nowadays is a kind of fear that if you say the wrong thing, if you offend people, there are going to be consequences. And so people are very careful about saying certain kinds of things. They're worried about what's going to happen to them. They're worried that they're going to be seen as terrible people. And of course, you have these very bad instances of people who are shouted down, not allowed to speak, or cancel culture. What's happening on campus is an atmosphere of a little bit of fear and a great deal of caution. People are a little reluctant to express themselves because they don't want to offend or don't want to be thought as offenders. And that is certainly a huge reduction in the openness that a campus should have.
DW: As you know, the Lumen Christi Institute was founded to share the Catholic intellectual tradition at the University of Chicago. What do you think that Lumen Christi brings to a secular university?
HG: You've said, Danny, that the University of Chicago opened your eyes and your mind to the fact that there is an extraordinary tradition of Catholic intellectualism. And, you know, that that was truly exciting for you. And I think to bring that to the university is immensely important, immensely important. It enriches one's understanding not only of religion, but philosophy, history, you name it. And your approach, which is to present people who believe in having different points of view to debate, is an extraordinarily important demonstration of the enrichment that you can bring. You obviously have very high-quality programs, very high-quality people that you bring, and any university could only be strengthened by that association.
The Red Mass for laywers was held at Bond Chapel at the University of Chicago on February 4 and was co-sponsored by Calvert House, St Thomas the Apostle Church, and the St. Thomas More Society at the University of Chicago Law School.