Pope Francis and Justice Kennedy on “Transcendent Dimensions”

September 27th, 2015

While reading through Pope Francis’s speech on religious liberty at Independence Hall, I was struck by one very peculiar locution:

Our various religious traditions serve society primarily by the message they proclaim.  They call individuals and communities to worship God, the source of all life, liberty and happiness.  They remind us of the transcendent dimension of human existence and our irreducible freedom in the face of every claim to absolute power.

If the phrase “transcendent dimension” rings a (liberty) bell, it should. Justice Kennedy waxed eloquently about it in Lawrence v. Texas:

Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct. The instant case involves liberty of the person both in its spatial and more transcendent dimensions.

This phrase does not seem to be used much often elsewhere. A Google ngram search found no results. Maybe someone on Pope Francis’s staff was thumbing through AMK opinions?

Update: Yvette (one of my students) writes that Pope John Paul II used this phrase in an address to the United Nations in 1995.

And yet if we make the effort to look at matters objectively, we can see that, transcending all the differences which distinguish individuals and peoples, there is a fundamental commonality. For different cultures are but different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence. And it is precisely here that we find one source of the respect which is due to every culture and every nation: every culture is an effort to ponder the mystery of the world and in particular of the human person: it is a way of giving expression to the transcendent dimension of human life. The heart of every culture is its approach to the greatest of all mysteries: the mystery of God.10. Our respect for the culture of others is therefore rooted in our respect for each community’s attempt to answer the question of human life. And here we can see how important it is to safeguard the fundamental right to freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, as the cornerstones of the structure of human rights and the foundation of every truly free society. No one is permitted to suppress those rights by using coercive power to impose an answer to the mystery of man.

Justice Kennedy’s “transcendent dimension of human existence” is an almost verbatim copy of the Pope’s “transcendant dimension of human life.” That irony that Justice Kennedy is (apparently) using philosophy from the Holy Father to recognize a constitutional right to sodomy is too rich, even for me.