The 20th Century Herald, Jacques Maritain
Part II of a Conference on Catholic Liberalism given by Prof. Luis Roldán, at La Reja Seminary (2012)
Maritain is a curious fellow; a man who came from a Protestant family, converted to Catholicism and, through the first part of the 20th century, especially the 1920s, became renowned as the principal expert on Thomism. Thanks to the publication of some of his works—the Introduction to Philosophy, The Degrees of Knowledge, Three Reformers, and two books which he later did not want to publish, Théonas and Antimoderne—he grew famous as a Catholic intellectual, absolutely faithful to Catholic doctrine, and promoter of St. Thomas; but the condemnation of Action Française, to which he belonged or at least was very close to it, drove him to change direction. In the 1920s, he began to publish other books; especially in the first, Religion and Culture, he tried to revise the condemnation of the modern world and Liberalism that the Magisterium maintained.
The Spanish Civil War
One of the first public acts in which Maritain showed his thread-bareness, as it were, happened during the Spanish War. In 1936, the Spanish War broke out; and for most Spanish Catholics, it was very clear that the fundamental motive was the defense of the Faith, which was under attack by atheistic Communism, Freemasonry etcetera. In 1937, Maritain published an article in the newspaper La Croix, the official newspaper of France, in which he said that “In Spain, really, everyone is mistaken.” He went on to say, more or less, “In Spain, there is one group that believes it defends religion, but really they are defending a sociopolitical system that oppresses the working classes, defending injustice; and there is another group that believes it is attacking the Church, but in reality they are defending the rights of man, the dignity of the workers and so forth.” He concretely denies the right to rise up; because, he says, the Catholics—as Spain is a democratic republic—could and should fight against anti-Christian legislature, but only through legal means. This was the first time that Maritain showed his true colors. Fortunately, in the Spain of that time, his doctrine was not very established; but nonetheless, it did continue to spread, as a few years later came the Second World War and Maritain, who was married to a Jew—Raïssa—exiled himself to North America. There he was transformed into a new expert on Catholic doctrine. He would go about to all the universities, and in the 1940s, he published one of his most influential works: Integral Humanism. Another book came later—Human Rights and Natural Law. In these he finished formulating his new political doctrine; and he also had to re-formulate his approach to history on a more systematic level. He bases his teaching primarily on the distinction between the individual and the person. The “individual” is considered as the purely material aspect of man, who is thus reduced to a total dependence on the state. Here, he leaves behind all the theories of St. Thomas Aquinas, which he does not apply, turning instead to the primacy of the “greater good.” The “person,” on the other hand, is oriented solely to God, and is not subordinate to the state, nor is he subordinate to the greater good.
We cannot discuss all the errors of Maritain, but basically, the fundamental problem he has is that the distinction of the person and the individual is unsustainable. Every human person is a human individual, and every individual human is a human person! But the fundamental error consists in his confusing what we might call the ontological dignity of man, with his practical or moral dignity. When I assess the ontological dignity of something—that is, the dignity or worth that it has in being what it is—I am not thinking of a practical object. Let us say, for example, that a mouse, from an ontological point of view, has more worth than a nugget of gold; because the nugget of gold is an inanimate object, while the mouse is a living being. Now no one, in the normal course of things, would consider trading a mouse for a nugget of gold. I think of something that Fr. Calderón’s father says that has always delighted me about the relationship between intelligence and thought. “A thought is something accidental, fleeting. From the ontological point of view, intelligence is much more worthy of esteem; it’s the superior faculty of man. But considering from a practical point of view, intelligence is a potential thing; thought is the action. Intelligence drives you to think.”
From this point, Maritain went on to systematize his political doctrine by saying that fundamentally, these rights of man, which were the “rights” of the French Revolution, are actually Catholic truths. To understand this better, we would have to look at history, which Maritain does do. One of the first major difficulties for liberal Catholics is that the Church is a few centuries old, so one has to consider all its history. Thus, Maritain had to reinterpret history; he said that there were different epochs of history from the viewpoint of the relationship of Church and State. The first epoch, what we can call the “sacral state,” would roughly correspond to the Middle Ages. At this stage the power of the Catholic Church nearly blotted out human nature, which gave way to a sort of supernaturalism. Since this went against the order of things that God wants, says Maritain, a reaction had to occur. This reaction was the “lay State”—the French Revolution—which sought to eliminate religion everywhere. And, he adds, this is obviously bad, but understandable; there was too much of the Church! But now, after all the drama of the World Wars, perhaps man can come to an accord and establish a third epoch—by way of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis—which is the secular state. A secular State is basically the ideal of Lammenais, a free Church in a free State: a state organized in a democratic manner, which is the only way that conforms to our natural rights, because it is the only one that respects the dignity of the human person; in which the Church has freedom to preach, but cannot demand any privileged situation, nor of special union with the State; much less, of course, may it use civil law or policy to impede the manifestation of any other cult that is not Catholic.
This is the scheme of Maritain. To begin with, this is just wrong historically! To anyone who studies medieval history, the first thing that calls our attention is the number of conflicts there were between the papacy and the Empire! The medieval Kings were anything but a bunch of servile little altar boys enslaved to clerical power! On the contrary, to find such a lay model we have to look at the post-Conciliar laity, the lay-adult followers of the Council! This scheme of Maritain’s has no foundation in reality; it cannot be verified by history; it is incorrect. The other element he brings up is that this “sacral state” of his is a violation of human dignity; and where do we find such a violation? In that, fundamentally, there is no respect for the right to religious liberty. And here Maritain had his moment of triumph at the Second Vatican Council, especially in certain paragraphs of Gaudium et Spes, and especially in the document Dignitatis Humanæ. It is impossible to understand this document without having read the work of Maritain. Here, then, is the nucleus of Maritain’s error, which consists of this confusion regarding human dignity. Be it noted that this concept of human rights is a theme that swirls through the whole Second Vatican Council and post-Conciliar magisterium; it has become the new topic of debate for contemporary modernists.
It would be worth it to add a little paragraph about this topic. What is dignity, or worthiness? We could say that it is what is deserved, merited; a criminal condemned to death for a terrible crime has received a worthy punishment; a deserved punishment. A hero of his country who has conducted himself brilliantly in war and has a fine monument built to him, we may say, has received a worthy prize. Worth or dignity is what man merits. So the fundamental question that we must ask ourselves about human rights, is asking why a man deserves something. A teacher of mine once said to me, “Today, I was talking to my son about the titles of human dignity. A title is a condition or quality of an individual which places him in a determined position, to make him obliged to do something, or deserving to receive something.” It is very clear that in a man, when considering his human dignity, there are different aspects we can consider. Firstly, we can make an analysis of human dignity in the light of reason; and indeed, we can say that there is a natural dignity to man. Indeed, man, by the simple fact of being human, of being a human person, of being a rational animal, deserves to be treated as such. For example, though a person should commit the worst of crimes, no punishment that should corrupt him morally may be applied to him. And certainly, by virtue of this ontological or natural dignity of man, we could conclude that man has certain (very imprecise) rights; for example, this right not to be corrupted. This dignity, because it is essential, is the same in both the worst of criminals and the greatest of men.
But the right that is most important, both in light of ethics and of politics, is not this last; it is practical dignity, moral dignity. Pope Leo XIII mentions this in the beginning of his encyclical Libertas, which is the greatest document of the Church against Liberalism. Those of you who haven’t read it—I recommend that you do; or better, that you study it! Leo XIII, in this document, says very clearly that the dignity of man does consist of being a rational animal; but fundamentally, it consists of what man does. If I progress in virtue through using my freedom of action to follow God’s law, the moral law, I augment my moral dignity. And this moral dignity is not the same in the worst of delinquents and the greatest of the saints; this is what makes us build a monument to the one, and condemn the other to death. Our ontological dignity is the same; our moral dignity is not. And in the juridical and political scheme of things, the most relevant thing is this practical dignity. We can also take into consideration the idea of supernatural dignity. This idea of dignity appears in the sermons of St. Leo: “Christian, acknowledge your dignity;” and what is that dignity? That we are called to eternal life, the life of grace obtained by baptism.
A Failure to Make Distinctions
In Maritain, all these aspects are confused. Basically, he does not want to distinguish between ontological and practical dignity. We may note that Dignitatis Humanæ, when it touches on the right to religious liberty, it is mentioned as an objective right, founded on the dignity of the human person; a right that is held just as much by the one who seeks truth as the one who refuses it—he who desires good is the same as he who desires evil. From this basis springs the ideal of egalitarian democracy: as we are all equal in ontological dignity, we should all have the same right to participate in politics. Therefore, democracy is the only form of government that corresponds with our natural rights. Any form of government that establishes distinction, be it of class or of function, violates human rights.
The second element visible in Maritain through this fundamental Liberalism is something we have mentioned in previous lectures: namely, nominalism—disdain for social conditions. In Dignitatis Humanæ this is very plain to see—the idea that the only thing the Church needs is freedom. Here, at its depths, there is a sort of “angelism”; the idea that man, without exterior influences, always does good. There a denial or forgetfulness, implicit at the very least, of the dogma of original sin. This idea is also seen in the work of Rousseau, and almost all the liberals maintain some shade of it. Rousseau’s idea is just this: that man acts badly because he is corrupted by society, but that his nature itself is good; which is a problem, because it ends up confusing nature with spontaneity.
We may define Rousseau’s doctrine as something like this: a Bengal tiger which is captured and shut up in a circus, obliged to jump through fiery hoops and do pirouettes, loses its fur and doesn’t reproduce, is corrupted; because his nature is violated. Man, he says, is the same; he should be allowed to act freely and spontaneously, and he would act well. I don’t remember who it is that tells that when Rousseau sent in his contribution to the Encyclopedia, Voltaire—who was a cretin, but nonetheless an intelligent fellow—reading his work, commented, “I have never seen such a strong attempt to make us all walk on all fours.”
In these ideas is a forgetfulness that human liberty, if man really is free, is a situational liberty; it has conditions placed upon it by social means. And this conditioning always exists. Life in society, for good or ill, conditions me. The action of a normal traditional Catholic family is not the same as that of a broken family. It is not the same to live in an economy that is truly oriented toward the common good, marked by justice, as to live in an economy that is unhinged. It is not the same to breathe in a Catholic culture, as to breathe in a totally revolutionary one. Man’s liberty is purely situational. This is why, in that beautiful book of Archbishop Lefebvre’s, They Have Uncrowned Him, there is a chapter that is called “On Good Influence.” Note that the theme of Dignitatis Humanæ is immunity from influence. Absolute immunity from influence is impossible. For that we would have to live like Robinson Crusoe, on a desert island. If I have any kind of social life, there are some limits involved. I have a neighbor who takes the bus with me, the one that is always playing his radio, the one who keeps knocking on my door; human freedom always has limits.
The Folly of “Complete Liberty”
The idea of complete liberty is impossible, utopian; and it belittles the effect of social conditions. This is why liberals, in their analysis of politics, commit a fundamental error when they admit democracy as the only possible form of government; not only because democracy is false, but because they do not admit what we might call, for lack of a better term, the formal logic of institutions: the fact that at the moment of its organization, every institution has an internal logic which over time imposes itself over the will of its members. One of the greatest errors of the liberal Catholic is to acknowledge modern democracy, thinking that modern democracy is neutral. No! Modern democracy has a formal logic, and history has shown it. For this reason all the attempts of Christian democratic parties to evangelize democracy have failed.
The strongest example is that of Italy, which has been ruled by a hegemonic party for 50 years. And yet, Italy has abortion; it has divorce; it has the separation of Church and State; it has a liberal, or Marxist economy. And all this—why? Because they were all evil people? I don’t believe that it’s because they were all evil people. It is because they did not take into account that every institution has a formal logic. This is the other fundamental error of Liberalism, and today, we live with it. The concrete form of Liberalism that all of you will have to face, when you go out into the world, is principally Catholic Liberalism. In our countries—if it were not for Catholic Liberalism—absolute, atheistic Liberalism would be a mere intellectual curiosity, found in small groups. Catholic Liberalism is the Liberalism that we run into on a daily basis. And today, the principal issue that we have to deal with is the idea of separation of Church and State, which liberals have tried to disguise with a new face, which they call “healthy laicism.”
The issue to note is that, curiously, the phrase, “a healthy and legitimate laicism” is not mentioned by the Second Vatican Council. I have never found it. It is mentioned in a discourse of Pius XII; but I noticed that this discourse didn’t seem to appear anywhere until a friend of mine, a fellow-graduate of the Universidad Católica Argentina, rescued the text and published an article which scandalized the liberals. Pius XII gave this talk to the Italian Marche; and what he says is that this “healthy and legitimate laicism” consists of making a distinction between political power and ecclesiastical power—but never in separating them! And he talked about a Catholic Italy, about the Catholic Marche, and so on. The liberals could not stand this speech from Pius XII.
In what, then, does this “healthy and legitimate laicism” consist? Basically, it is the scheme of Maritain: the free Church in a free State; the idea of a purely neutral State, which does not support the Catholic Faith, but does not persecute it either, and within which the Church can carry out Her apostolic mission with freedom. This is the dominant doctrine today; this is the line of thought of Benedict XVI. In a book he published some years ago—I have the ’82 edition, but I think it is older—called Compendium of Moral Theology, he plainly says that Gaudium et Spes and Dignitatis Humanæ have acted as a true counter-Syllabus. That is to say, their idea was to reconcile the Church with the world as it was after 1789. Later he returns to this topic, speaking of religious liberty, and says, “This is not indifferentism.” The interpretation he gives is to say that man does not have the right, in the moral sense, to follow any religion; rather, he is morally obliged to follow the true religion. However, he adds, political and juridical order cannot promote one specific religion.
The Distinction Between Ethics and Rights
His problem is the distinction between morals and rights, or more exactly, between ethics and rights. This can be argued on many points; but I believe that the best way to confront this proposal of a “healthy laicism,” or of religious liberty, is not only to show that is a false doctrine, but rather, that it is impossible—unverifiable in practice. It is something that does not happen in real life; it’s like talking about a horse with eight legs—something that does not conform to reality. Horses have four legs! Here and there, one might find a deformed one with three or perhaps five legs; but none with eight!
This, then, is the great lie that is hidden in the idea of a secular State—a purely lay State. This is impossible to find: why? Because in any societal group—and let us look at something closer than the large political community, which seems too large and distant—its form, that which makes it what it is, is fundamentally an agreement of wills—be it a group of friends that get together to play a game of ball, or a gang of delinquents that agree to a kidnapping for ransom. This agreement of wills, this concord, is always dependent on a certain worldview. Let’s take the example of our gang of kidnappers. They have agreed to carry out a kidnapping for ransom. Therefore, they have agreed that kidnapping for ransom is a good thing. This idea, this worldview, is—to put a label on it—the public orthodoxy of that group. But what happens if, amid this gang of kidnappers, one of the kidnappers says to himself one day, “I’m going to start speaking against kidnapping”? There are several possible outcomes—we can think of at least three. The first outcome is that nobody listens. With that outcome, it’s possible that our man will decide to leave the gang. Another possibility is that he is successful, and manages to convince the rest of the group that kidnapping is a bad thing. And there goes the gang. The third possibility is that the leader of the gang says to him, “Look, you stop bothering us about this, or you can leave”; because, indeed, the very existence of the group depends on maintaining its particular public orthodoxy.
This has been verified over and over in history. When we analyze the relationship of the Church with the various nations, this sort of public orthodoxy always exists. What happens is that it can always change content, but it never disappears. It is very interesting to see it in the way the conversion of Rome to Christianity unfolded. Why did Rome persecute Christianity if there was almost total religious freedom in Rome? In Rome, there was a temple to Isis; in Athens St. Paul even ran into an altar “To the Unknown God.” The pagan’s problem is certainly not that he lacks gods; more likely that he has too many! But the unity of the Roman Empire rested on a public orthodoxy that demanded recognition of the primacy of the Pax Romana. The idea of the Empire was that one could worship whomever one liked; but over and above each person’s particular belief stood the greatness of Rome. The refusal of the Church to admit this is what led to martyrdom and persecution. And it is very interesting that one of the last persecutors was Galerius, one of Diocletian’s men, who wrote the first edict of toleration of Christianity—predating that of Constantine—in 311 AD. He said, “Here, the Christians adore neither their own God nor the pagan gods. So I will permit them to adore their God, on condition that they pray for Rome.” There was a transitional period between 311 and 385, which was when Theodosius, under the influence of St. Ambrose, declared Catholicism the official religion of the Roman Empire. And then, they realized that there could not be a political order without a public orthodoxy. Insofar as they could, the Romans defended their pagan orthodoxy, and when they discovered that it didn’t work, many of those same pagans became the promulgators of a Catholic State, because they did realize that there could be no society without an official religion.
The same thing, in reverse, occurs in the modern era. Today we discussed the chapter on civil religion of the Social Contract of Rousseau. You may say that I’m cheating a bit, because I am taking all my examples from Europe, and Liberalism in France has always been against the Church and what have you. Why don’t I give the example of the United States? Well, because all liberals follow the same example, even in otherwise good books.
The Church and Political Power
The other day I was re-reading a book by Fr. Hillaire, Demonstrated Religion; and in his arguments for setting aside persecution of the Church, he sets forth the example of the United States. He says, “Look, here in the United States is the perfect model. The Church prospers, there’s a republic, there’s democracy. They don’t burn churches, they don’t kill priests or arrest them…” Maritain would also say that the United States is the model of democracy. Many teachers would say that the North American system is the model of healthy and legitimate laicism—a place where separation of Church and State unfolds freely. This is false. The US is also a confessional State of sorts. It has a rather confused, but deist religion, and also submits to the Church in daily life.
There’s a very interesting article published not long ago by a North American professor, Christopher Ferrara, who is the president of the American Catholic Lawyers’ Association, in which he analyzes the jurisprudence of the US Supreme Court, and in particular the voting of one of the justices, Justice Scalia, who passes for Catholic—a man of Opus Dei. Ferrara shows that there is also a system of public orthodoxy in the United States. North America has a system of separation of Church and State—of religious liberty.
But what happens when there is an action that someone wants to carry out because of religious commitment that clashes with a legal norm? Scalia says that “If someone, for example, wants an abortion, in a democracy, the State should permit abortion. To say that it is against natural law is to place oneself above the democratic state and presume to decide, in opposition to the majority, what is good and what is evil. I don’t believe that’s my job.” In other words, the problem remains present—the same problem that doctors have who refuse to perform abortions in states where abortion is legalized by society…and we can give many more examples.
Every concrete political organization always has a certain confessional aspect; it always has a public orthodoxy. Because of this, the idea that the Church can survive in a sort of limbo in which it is neither persecuted nor united to the political power is a utopian idea; it has never been fulfilled in history and never will be.
The Church is either persecuted, or it informs the political power; or else it is transitioning from one of those states to the other. Do not accept, as a real possibility, the true separation of the Church and the State. The idea is always present which Father very astutely put at the head of today’s program: Christ always reigns. He reigns, either as He should, or because society has turned anti-Christian. The utopian possibility of the modern Catholic liberals, the idea of a free Church in a free State, is something that has never occurred and will never occur in history.