Jacques Maritain, the HHS Mandate, and the Failure of American Pluralism
“As a consequence, the State, constituted as it is, is clearly bound to act up to the manifold and weighty duties linking it to God, by the public profession of religion. Nature and reason, which command every individual devoutly to worship God in holiness, because we belong to Him and must return to Him, since from Him we came, bind also the civil community by a like law. For, men living together in society are under the power of God no less than individuals are, and society, no less than individuals, owes gratitude to God who gave it being and maintains it and whose ever-bounteous goodness enriches it with countless blessings. Since, then, no one is allowed to be remiss in the service due to God, and since the chief duty of all men is to cling to religion in both its reaching and practice—not such religion as they may have a preference for, but the religion which God enjoins, and which certain and most clear marks show to be the only one true religion—it is a public crime to act as though there were no God.” —Leo XIII, Immortale Dei
“The genius of the liberal state, then, is precisely its ability to afford a rather wide range of individual religious liberty, while denying the most fundamental and authentic freedom—that of a church which would presume to judge and, when necessary, condemn the regime as immoral.” —Kenneth Craycraft, The American Myth of Religious Freedom
The recent decision by the Department of Health and Human Services to mandate insurance coverage of contraceptives and abortifacients has evoked the public resistance of Catholic bishops and laity. The official clerical challenge to this legal attack on the Roman Catholic Church in America was articulated in the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty’s document, “A Statement on Religious Liberty,” titled “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.” It is certainly true that the HHS mandate was a direct attack on the religious liberty of Catholics, as well as any religious body, institution, or believer upholding doctrines and practices in tension with the Obama Regime’s distorted conception of the common good, fairness, sexual rights, and economic justice, which is to say, any religious body, institution, or believer that is authentically Christian. To this extent, then, the bishops’ response was understandable, insofar as it defended the right of the Catholic Church to freedom of religious belief and practice, in public as well as in private. However, insofar as the bishops neglected to include a clear articulation of the true metaphysical, political, and theological foundations of the right to religious liberty, including the unique privilege the Catholic Church has been given directly from God Himself, and which the State must recognize, to exercise without restriction her liberty, the libertas ecclesiae, their resistance will prove, I think, ultimately ineffective in the long run.
This was a chance for the bishops to exercise their divine authority and put the state in its place through a firm and undiluted declaration of the Gospel, including Christ’s Social Kingship, and the fact that they appeared to pass up this chance is disconcerting. Nevertheless, that they only declared part of the Gospel in order more effectively to play the more short-term-strategic (they thought) religious freedom card, as it were, is completely predictable, for it manifests yet again—and hopefully for the last time—the American Catholic Church’s fatal embrace of the post-conciliar, Americanist, political theology of pluralism, developed and popularized by John Courtney Murray but originating in the otherwise brilliant mind of the French Thomist and mentor of Pope Paul VI, Jacques Maritain.
Jacques Maritain’s vision of a Christian social and political order developed around the years of World War II. Man and the State, derived from the Walgreen lectures he presented at the University of Chicago in 1949, articulates his most mature political thought, published about twenty years before Rawls’s influential work, A Theory of Justice. At this time, some Thomistic thinkers in Europe and America, such as Yves Simon and Mortimer Adler, were hopeful that after the Allied defeat of the anti-Christian and anti-democratic ideologies of Nazism and Fascism, we might witness a rebirth of Christian democratic politics. For Maritain, there was a newly begotten awareness in the communal consciousness of a war-exhausted West of the pressing need for a revitalized politics based upon a common core of Christian-inspired democratic values. Through his writings and political activities—Maritain was the French Ambassador to the Vatican and a main architect for the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights—Maritain sought to sow, both in theory and in practice, the seeds of this political rebirth.
Maritain was convinced that there was sufficient intellectual agreement among Americans in the immediate post-war period, in spite of their considerable religious and philosophical differences, to “undertake a great work.”1 Widespread agreement about practical goods and values was one social fruit reaped from the otherwise social horrors of World War II. The concerted effort of the Allies to eradicate commonly accepted evils like Fascism and Nazism was inspired, for Maritain, by a devotion to commonly accepted goods, and the defeat of these evils only increased this devotion. Maritain wrote:
“Thus it is that men possessing quite different, even opposite metaphysical or religious outlooks, can converge, not by virtue of any identity of doctrine, but by virtue of an analogical similitude in practical principles, toward the same practical conclusions, and can share in the same practical secular faith, provided that they similarly revere, perhaps for quite diverse reasons, truth and intelligence, human dignity, freedom, brotherly love, and the absolute value of moral good.”2
If there were to be a reacceptance of the Gospel by a secularized, war-weary West, among men holding “irreconcilable comprehensive doctrines,” it would manifest itself in the peaceful establishment of what Maritain termed a “personalist democracy.” It would indeed be a Christian political order, but not in the medieval mode; it would be, in an important sense, more authentically Christian than medieval Christendom due to the “coming of age” of the temporal order in general and the body politic in particular and the post-medieval growth, or “ferment,” of the Gospel in the social and political fabric of the West. A personalist democracy would manifest the now ripe societal and political fruit of the Gospel’s seed planted two thousand years ago in the city of Bethlehem. John Hittinger summarizes Maritain’s philosophical and political project:
“Maritain’s project attempted to unite Thomistic and Aristotelian traditions with the human rights thrust of modern political philosophy. Maritain wished to reassess the liberal state in light of ancient and medieval political traditions, seeking to find what is true, enduring, and practical in the modern liberal state, while criticizing its excesses and reconceptualizing its philosophical foundations.”3
One of the “true, enduring, and practical” features of the modern liberal state was its religious pluralism, which, for Maritain, was both God-willed and intractable. And here is where both Maritain and the post-conciliar establishment went wrong, and why the core of the American Bishops’ rhetorical resistance to the satanic state program of forcing Christians to pay for baby-murder was neither the evil of abortion and contraception, the harm to souls and the common good, nor the erroneous political principles that led to such evil and harm being promoted by political authority. For, an authentically Thomistic and Catholic interpretation of the seemingly intransigent pluralism of modern democratic regimes would deem such pluralism as precisely not intransigent, and certainly not God-willed! Indeed, it would oblige all citizens to work for its transformation into some sort of unity, ultimately, the unity of the Catholic Faith, while, of course, permitting a certain level of resignation to pluralism’s present practical reality in political toleration and compromise. However, whatever the particulars of the less-than-ideal political order judged worthy of pursuit by such compromise and resignation, such an order, to meet Catholic standards, would still have to be deliberately oriented towards securing religious unity. This is the unmistakable and consistent political theology of the Magisterium, and it was publicly challenged by John Courtney Murray and Jacques Maritain before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council. Murray and Maritain’s false interpretation of this teaching became the lens through which the post-conciliar Church would see this teaching in a mirror darkly, at best, and in a distorted caricature, at worst.
Maritain’s political ideal of “the democratic charter,” however, not only leaves out any attempt to unify religious division, but also seeks to erect the best possible society precisely upon and in virtue of this disunity. In this way, it supplants the authentically Christian desire for deep religious unity with the pluralist desire for a unity of a different and much lesser order: not the unity of truth but the unity of practical consensus, requiring no change in religious conviction whatsoever for the political order’s ultimate good. Such an attitude is not reconcilable with a belief in the absolute value of religious truth and its integral importance in every sphere of life, including the political, as Robert Kraynak has written: “From the perspective of ultimate truth, pluralism is a sign of imperfection that should be overcome rather than frozen in place as a right to diversity.”4
The main problem confronting the contemporary Catholic political philosopher in the United States of America is how to orient a political order to God with citizens who radically disagree about both the nature of the political order itself and of the God to whom it should be ordered. The pertinent question for Maritain was whether his requirement that political order be subordinated to spiritual order is effectible and even intelligible without a speculative consensus among the citizens about the true nature of political and spiritual order, or at least a consensus upon the desirability of such a consensus. In the absence of either an actual public consensus in truth or the political desire for one, can there be a truly just and God-pleasing regime? The answer, I would argue, following the perennial teaching of the Church, is no. As our regime becomes less and less God-pleasing, and as the Catholic Church and her members lose more and more rights and liberties, let us hope the American Bishops awake to the futility of attempting to hold back the tide of evil with declarations of religious liberty, a tide that has been accumulating ever so rapidly since the Church in America, de facto, rejected the Social Reign of Christ the King for the social chaos of secular pluralism.
1 For a good discussion of the historical and cultural context of Maritain’s thought, see John P. Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom, and Grace: Thomism and Democratic Political Theory (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2002), chaps. 1-2.
2 Jacques Maritain, Man and the State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951; reprint, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1998), p. 111.
3 Timothy Fuller and John P. Hittinger, “Maritain and the Reassessment of the Liberal State,” in Reassessing the Liberal State: Reading Maritain’s Man and the State, ed. Timothy Fuller and John P. Hittinger (Washington, D.C.: American Maritain Association, 2001), p. 3.
4 Robert Kraynak, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2001), p. 178.