Jacques Maritain’s "Democratic Faith": Heretical or Orthodox?

By Thaddeus J. Kozinski
Catholic University of America

In 1864 the ultramontane English Catholic, William George Ward, described the spiritual dangers that English Roman Catholics faced from the "national spirit" of their homeland. He writes:

In every nation there is a certain subtle, yet most powerful influence, which we call the national spirit; it is produced partly by national character and partly by long-continued habits of legislation and administration; and it imbues unconsciously the mind of each individual citizen with an indefinite number of notions, regarded by him as self-evident first principles, and as beyond the province of criticism or examination. In like manner, on the Church’s side, there is a Catholic spirit, and there are Catholic instincts, produced partly by the working of Catholic truth on those pious and simple souls who faithfully receive it, and partly by the more direct agency of the Ecclesia Docens; and this circumambient Catholic atmosphere is one of her principal instruments in bringing home to each individual the great truths with which she is entrusted. But these two spirits—the Catholic and the national respectively—are very far more antagonistic than harmonious. To the former we cannot resign ourselves too unreservedly, for it is the very effluence of God the Holy Ghost. Towards the prevailing national spirit, on the contrary, our only reasonable attitude is one of deep jealously and suspicion; because it is charged with principles which, for the corruption of human nature, are sure to be more false than true, and from which we should keep ourselves entirely free, until we have measured them by their only true standard, the Church’s voice."

In 1951, Jacques Maritain, the neo-Thomist French Catholic, said this about his first encounter with the "national spirit" of America:

When he who, meeting for the first time either France or America, falls in love at first sight, it is because he is confronted with a moral personality, a moral vocation, something of invaluable dignity, which is spiritual in nature, and which, I think, in the last analysis is quickened, in one way or another, by some spark of the Christian spirit and legacy.

I contrast the attitudes of these men, both brilliant, thoroughly Orthodox Roman Catholics, because they constitute the attitudinal antipodes within which American Roman Catholics have historically been disposed toward the Anglo-American "national spirit" of their homeland: "deep jealously and suspicion," on the one hand, and "love at first sight" on the other. A pressing issue that confronts Catholics in America today, when our culture seems less and less "quickened by some spark of the Christian spirit and legacy," is the proper attitude we should have towards the contemporary effluence of our national spirit. No one could have ever predicted, not even someone with the prophetic brilliance of Jacques Maritain, that only two decades after the end of World War II the soul of America would have been inhabited by spirits so evil that none other than the vicar of Christ would refer to her as "the culture of death." Should we, then, adopt the optimistic, 1950’s idealism of Maritain, seeing an essential compatibility of even today’s American national spirit with the Holy Spirit? Or should we adopt Ward’s more somber view, in which "our only reasonable attitude is one of deep jealously and suspicion"?

In this essay I will attempt my own "discernment of spirits" to show that the wiser attitude for us to cultivate today is Ward’s, because Maritain’s overall assessment of the spirit of the American regime was flawed. To accomplish this I will conduct an extensive analysis and critique of his famous political concept, "the democratic charter." The doctrine of the democratic charter, in a word, states that unity in the truth is not necessarily a prerequisite for unity in the good. This notion, I shall argue, is wrong. However, even if I can not show this adequately, accepting the possibility that theoretically and practically Maritain’s program is justifiable in itself, it is no longer applicable for "the ethical and political predicaments facing America and the world today" (in the words of this conference’s invitation flyer). The possibility of the sort of consensus Maritain envisioned, one requiring angelic dispositions without the worship of the King of Angels, is next to zero in our now thoroughly de-christianized culture of death.

I. Maritain’s Vision for America: A Long Awaited Political Pentecost

Maritain developed his vision of a Thomistically inspired social and political philosophy for the modern world during the horrific years of World War Two.  There was a definite sense among Catholics in Europe and America after the War that the defeat of the anti-Christian ideologies of Nazism and Fascism would induce a rebirth of a Christ-based politics in Europe and America. Through his writings and political action (as the French Ambassador to the UN and a main architect for the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights) Maritain sought to sow, both in theory and in practice, the seed for this rebirth. One can discern in Maritain’s writings an assumption that there existed a sharp awareness in the minds of Western Europeans of the need for a new political order based upon a common core of "democratic values." The horrors of Nazism, fascism and communism should be attributed to the abandonment of the Gospel as the foundation for society, and, as Maritain saw things, the reacceptance of the Gospel by contemporary men would manifest itself in the establishment of a social and political order rooted in what he called a "personalist democracy."

This personalist democracy would be nothing less than the culmination, the ripe societal fruit of the seed of the Gospel planted nearly two-thousand years ago in the city of Bethlehem. The progressive American president, Woodrow Wilson, had in a previous era evinced similar sentiments to Maritain, asking Congress in 1917 to declare war to defeat the Germans in order to "make the world safe for democracy," the implied assumption being that democracy was now the foremost social desideratum of the peoples of the West (whether they knew it explicitly yet or not). For Maritain, liberal democracy was indeed such a desideratum, for it represented the progress of man’s moral consciousness and a "coming of age" of the temporal order since the Middle Ages. The temporal order had progressed insofar as it had become more differentiated from the spiritual sphere and more conscious of its own relative autonomy, distinctness, and dignity, and morality had evolved insofar as it now recognized the tremendous dignity of the human person and the priority of freedom.

In proportion as the civil society, or the body politic, has become more perfectly distinguished from the spiritual realm of the Church—a process which was in itself but a development of the gospel distinction between the things that are Caesar’s and the things that are of God’s—the civil society has become grounded on a common good and a common task which are of an earthly, "temporal, or "secular" order, and in which citizens belonging to diverse spiritual lineages share equally.

For Maritain, the democratic faith was the primary temporal analogue to the spiritual faith of Christianity, and its inception in the modern era was valid proof of a genuine moral progression since the Middle Ages: the democratic faith was a long-awaited political Pentecost.

Now, what was not in any way a development of the Gospel, of course, was the tragic religious divisions among men and the widespread apostasy from the Christina Faith. The unity of Faith was, for Maritain, infinitely superior to any other unity, as it was a unity forged in the highest things, and in no way could it ever be said, regardless of the development in the temporal order that may have accompanied it, that such religious division was anything but an absolute evil. Nevertheless, for Maritain, it was an inescapable reality permitted by God out of which has arisen a great good: a new kind of unity—based upon a new creed—the "creed of freedom":

For a society of free men implies tenets which are at the core of its very existence. A genuine democracy implies a fundamental agreement between minds and wills on the bases of life in common; it is aware of itself and of its principles, and it must be capable of defending and promoting its own conception of social and political life; it must bear within itself a common human creed, the creed of freedom.

Now, to the ears of a Catholic imbued with the Church’s social teachings, especially since Rerum Novarum, it would seem that God has given His divine stamp of approval to Maritain’s insights. We know that Pope Paul VI was a loyal student of Maritain’s thought, and since Vatican II, the Church has been echoing many of Maritain’s ideas in her Magisterial teachings: freedom and the dignity of the human person as the main criteria for the evaluation of any social order (Dignitatis Humane), the real distinctness, autonomy, and goodness of the created world (Gaudiam et Spes), and the ethical superiority of free, democratic political and economic institutions over centrally planned ones (Centessimus Annus). Nevertheless, not everything that Maritain taught on social and political matters was adopted by the Church.

We have already discussed Maritain’s idea of "the democratic faith"; we now turn to the question of its attainment. Maritain writes:

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.

Now, it is not manifestly problematic to cite natural and secular values and goods as primary desirables to which men in the political arena could devote their hearts and for the accomplishment of which they could work in the sphere of public life. The problematic aspect is the idea that the democratic charter, the locus of political unity constituting the precise good of the temporal order, would be attainable by men whose theoretical conceptions of and religious beliefs about man, the world, and God might be totally diverse—and even entirely erroneous—and whose souls did not have to be sanctified by supernatural grace.

II. The Democratic Faith: Heretical or Orthodox?

Maritain assumed that there was enough residual intellectual agreement among American men in the 1950s, in spite of their religious and philosophical differences, to "undertake a great work." Apparently he thought widespread agreement about practical goods was inevitable after the communally-experienced horrors of World War II; the concerted effort to eradicate commonly-accepted evils like Fascism and Nazism would clearly reveal to the whole world commonly-accepted goods. One of these revealed goods, Maritain thought, was the inherent dignity of the human person, and he thought it sufficient for the cause of world peace that the West had simply come to a vivid awareness of this good, even though the theoretical justification of this awareness may have left something to be desired. Was he correct?

Alasdair MacIntyre, a noted critic of Maritain, sums up the main problem with the attempt to build a practical consensus in abstraction from philosophical theory:

What Maritain wished to affirm was a modern version of Aquinas’ thesis that every human being has within him or herself a natural knowledge of divine law and hence of what every human being owes to every other human being. The plain prephilosophical person is always a person of sufficient moral capacities. But what Maritain failed to reckon with adequately was the fact that in many cultures and notably in that of modernity plain persons are misled into giving moral expression to those capacities through assent to false philosophical theories. So it has been since the eighteenth century with assent to a conception of rights alien to and absent from Aquinas’ thought.
According to MacIntyre, Maritain’s democratic charter does not sufficiently account for the fact that, while men may assent to practical goods without conscious deference to an abstract philosophical theory, they, nevertheless, possesses philosophical commitments which influence and condition the nature and interpretation of that assent, thereby determining the style of behavior that flows from that assent. As MacIntyre has shown, rationality itself is a "practice" that takes its shape in a particular, lived-tradition of rationality, informed by religious, philosophical, anthropological, epistemological commitments that in turn inform the precise manner in which that rationality is practiced by the individuals habituated into a particular tradition. For MacIntyre, then, the post-World-War II consensus on the goods constituting the democratic charter was not really a consensus at all, even though the consenters evinced a common lexicon of "human rights" and "democratic values"; for, it was built on sand, on entirely disparate understandings of that lexicon in virtue of their disparate traditions of rationality: Thomist, Humean, Kantian, Rousseauian, Nietzchean, Deweyean, etc.. But even if all the consenters had indeed been rooted in the same tradition (perhaps as the children of a dysfunctional Enlightenment family!), it was not rooted in that one tradition of rationality without which, Maritain insisted, the particular goods of the democratic order would have never even been recognized, let alone become attainable, the scholastic tradition of Christian rationality.

Maritain also insisted, however, that even though scholastic thought was the only philosophical tradition that could coherently ground the democratic charter in theory—because both the charter and scholasticism were worldly branches of the same spiritual tree, as it were, the tree of the Gospel—it was not necessary for modern men to be grafted onto that tree, that is, to be scholastic or even to profess Christian belief, in order to give a full and intelligible assent to it. Why? because the fundamental insight upon which the charter would be built, the dignity of the human person, was an insight now commonly held by even a scholastic-and-Gospel-eschewing modern man. As long as this insight about the dignity of persons remained firmly in the communal consciousness, as he believed it would because of the evident evolution of moral consciousness, the democratic charter would work, regardless of the truth or falsity of the philosophical or religious theories that served to ground it in the minds of individual men.

In the last fifty years, however, the underpinnings of that consensus have become unglued. We have also seen a concomitant rise in the number of false philosophical theories, theories that would eventually redefine human persons in the same way as the "undemocratic" Nazis did in order to justify the murder of the unborn, all under the banner of the "freedom" and "rights" afforded by the democratic charter. In hindsight, then, it would appear that Maritain may have underestimated the potential divisive power of the diverse theoretical commitments that lay dormant in that apparent "unity of moral consciousness" that had its apotheosis after the Great War.

III. The Neutral Faith the Neutralizes Faith

The second problem with the attempt to ground politics on nothing but a practical, secular consensus is the tendency for that consensus to undermine the priority, in first public and then private life, of supernatural or spiritual reality, and even to invert the proper subordination of the mundane to the spiritual. I contend that such a "neutral" consensus brings about a transformation of the religious convictions of its citizens from publicly relevant, supremely important guides for thought and action, into mere private bulwarks for the "more important" public values of the democratic faith. Since the democratic charter, representing the sole blueprint for the production and maintenance of the public good, rests upon no particular philosophical or religious creed (though it, as Maritain insists, is a product of the Gospel and can not exist without its continued inspiration) and, in fact, retains its integrity and strength precisely because it eschews a metaphysical and religious foundation, then it would follow, I would maintain, that religiously-relevant political prescriptions would be rendered inane at best, and dangerous at worst, in the hearts and minds of the citizenry. Active participation in such an order would tend to habituate one into privatizing his truth claims, first in public but then in private, such that religious indifferentism or apathy would be result. The enforced divorce of one’s deep, comprehensive worldview from political life, inasmuch as one is "told" in countless ways (education, media, law, church sermons!) that such a divorce is morally obligatory by the exigencies of pluralism, would tend to make a rigorous, politically relevant Catholic doctrine like the social reign of Christ the King seem obsolete—or even heretical!

The reason why "neutrality" ends up enforcing a certain dogma is because no publicly enforced policy can ever be neutral towards religion. The ostensibly pragmatic concession to religious pluralism has served, in the liberal regimes of our day, to mask the institution of a hidden religion:

For since the liberal state must act, and since it cannot take any religious prescriptions as authoritative for its actions, the liberal state in principle denies that there are any true politically relevant religious prescriptions. Liberalism rests on a theological premise."

The irony is that the proposal of the so-called religiously-neutral state as the only way to deal with deep pluralism itself establishes a religion and a set of values. This is the religion of liberalism."

As it is impossible for one to serve both God and mammon, what would happen to a religious believer who attempts to serve a democratic faith that requires the sacrifice of the public, temporal significance of his religious faith? It would be perfectly natural for him to interpret his obligatory devotion to the publicly celebrated, legally enforced, and socially respectable democratic faith as less important than his voluntary devotion to his publicly neglected, legally ignored, and socially eschewed religious faith. The consequence of prolonged habituation in such a regime is obvious. It is not possible, without a heroic amount of grace, effort and vigilance, to hold both the "theologically-neutral" theological premise of the democratic charter and the theologically charged premises of a Christian political theology. For this reason we should be very hesitant to accept the purported neutrality of even Maritain’s Christ-inspired democratic charter. Maritain, of course, would never had wanted any part of such a trivialization of Christian belief—on the contrary, he explicitly called for a new Christendom! But one mustn’t ignore the possibility that he may have promoted this very obsoletion when he denied the need for truth as a basis for social order in the modern world:

Hence we must renounce the search for a common profession of faith, whether it be the medieval one of the Apostle’s Creed, or the natural religion of Leibniz, or the positive philosophy of Auguste Comte, or that minimum of Kantian morality invoked in France by the first theorists of Laicism: we must give up seeking in a common profession of faith the source and principle of unity in the social body.

The Hungarian-born Aurel Kolnai, an outstanding but unfortunately underappreciated political philosopher of the twentieth century, in a savagely critical review of Maritain’s Man and the State wrote this: "In the upshot, what we are faced with here is not Christ recognizing the autonomy, in his own rightful domain, of Caesar; rather it is Anti-Christ begged to accord an asylum to Christ." Though I am convinced that Maritain would have rather died than betray Christ, we must ask if a conceptual betrayal, at least, could not have been the unintended consequence of his thought on this matter.

IV. A State of Grace—Without Grace?

Maritain explicitly stated that the one condition that would make or break the success of the democratic charter was a widespread reverence for spiritual goods. The question we must ask is how Maritain could have expected non-Catholics and especially non-Christians, that is, those either partially or fully separated from the font of grace, without which all true virtue, both natural and supernatural, is impossible, to revere the societal values of the Gospel adequate to the attainment of a genuine temporal peace? Contrast Maritain’s optimism to these passages by Pius XI and Leo XIII, the former who wrote these words from Quas Primas very near to the time when Maritain wrote his Integral Humanism:

We referred to the chief causes of the difficulties under which mankind was laboring. And We remember saying that these manifold evils in the world were due to the fact that the majority of men had thrust Jesus Christ and his holy law out of their lives; that these had no place either in private affairs or in politics: and we said further, that as long as individuals and states refused to submit to the rule of our Savior, there would be no really hopeful prospect of a lasting peace among nations.

The Church of Christ is the true and sole teacher of virtue and guardian of morals. She it is who preserves in their purity the principles from which duties flow, and by setting forth most urgent reasons for virtuous life, bids us not only to turn away from wicked deeds, but even to curb all movements of the mind that are opposed to reason, even though they be not carried out in action.

Whence came Maritain’s optimism for a religiously-neutral public charter in light of these sober Papal admonitions to explicit and formal societal and political submission to Christ? Perhaps a clue can be found in this passage of Maritain’s:
Thus there is a sort of vegetative development and growth, so to speak, of moral knowledge and moral feeling, which is in itself independent of the philosophical systems, . . . As a result these various systems, while disputing about the "why," prescribe in their practical conclusions rules of behavior which appear on the whole as almost the same for any given period and culture [my italics].
We clearly see here Maritain’s belief in the inevitability of moral progress, even in the absence of philosophical or religious progress in truth. Now, Maritain did hold that the sole reason for the evident moral progress of modern man was the Gospel’s influence; however, for Maritain such progress does not require explicit belief and submission to the Gospel’s truths and precepts on the part of individual men. In short, it is not necessary for the individual to explicitly accept or live the Gospel in order for him to accept and live the Gospel-inspired democratic charter. Maritain appeared to believe that simply by living in the modern historical era, an era now thoroughly pervaded by the temporal spirit of the Gospel (at least, in the West), one would become Christian enough in spirit, if not in confession, to uphold a social order authentically Christian.

Here is the main problem with this: Since the goods of the democratic charter are based upon the natural moral law, as Maritain maintains, and since abiding in the light of the Church’s infallible interpretation and elucidation of the natural law is not a requirement of either subscription to or action in accord with this charter, as Maritain also maintains, it would follow that the level of understanding of the natural moral goods in the democratic charter by the non-Catholic subscribers would be, at best, imperfect. Why, then, would Maritain have advocated such an imperfect state of affairs as an ideal for which Catholics should strive?

The Church herself teaches that men cannot adequately understand in theory, let alone fulfill in practice, the natural law without the help of its author, God, and its divinely appointed interpreter, the Roman Catholic Church. Here are two quotes expressing this truth, one the official teaching of the Church on Ecclesial public law as expressed by a scholar in 1951 (the exact date of the publication of Man and the State) the other, a passage by Ward irrefutable in its logic:

The only true doctrine is that civil society cannot prescind from the ultimate end, both because the temporal welfare implies an ordering to the spiritual and supernatural, and because the individual citizens are directly and positively bound to tend to it."

The Church professes to be infallible in her teaching of morals no less than of faith. If, then, Catholicism be true, and if Catholics have the fullest ground for knowing it to be true, the one healthy, desirable, and legitimate state of civil society is that the Church’s doctrines, principles, and laws should be recognized without question as its one basis of legislation and administration; and that the civil ruler, in all his highest and most admirable functions should be profoundly submissive to the Church’s authority.

Of course, Maritain’s whole point was that even a completely distorted understanding of the natural law is no obstacle towards the success of the democratic charter, provided that in spite of intellectual errors its subscribers revere the values of the charter, i.e., truth, love, human persons, etc. I reiterate here the oft-repeated truth of John Paul II that the revelation of Jesus Christ is the only mirror in which man can fully contemplate and comprehend himself. Is reverence for the human person and the practice of brotherly love, then, really attainable without the belief in Jesus Christ, Who was the very incarnation of personhood and love itself? Is even political peace possible without spiritual rebirth through Baptism and the infusion of sanctifying grace that comes via the Church’s sacraments? In short, can man by the unaided exercise of his natural powers attain his natural end, in which a genuinely good political order is indispensable, through faith in a mere democratic charter?

Although Maritain knew that man could not attain his natural end perfectly without grace, as his mentor St. Thomas taught him—"But in the state of corrupt nature, man falls short of what he could do by his nature, so that he is unable to fulfill it by his own natural powers"—he did appear to imply, however, that reverence and brotherly love for our neighbor, as well as a robust devotion to moral truth, could be attained without God’s direct help. This is problematic; for, insomuch as man is unable to fulfill his natural perfection without the aid of grace, and insofar as man’s natural perfection is both a constitutive element and product of political life, we can not expect anything but a very imperfect—if not downright evil— social order without the direct influence of sanctifying grace on the individual level. In short, the kind of reverence for natural goods that the democratic charter requires is only to be found rarely and fleetingly (perhaps only in times of suffering and war, such as we experienced in the aftermath of both World War II and 9/11) among fallen and unredeemed men. Perhaps this reverence was pervasive among European and American men after the trauma of World War II, but the evidence is now in of its quick dissipation. Such reverence, I would argue, can only be preserved under the social reign of Jesus Christ, not the reign of "democratic values."

V. Discerning the Spirits: Christ or Chaos?

I admit the possibility that my analysis of Maritain’s political thought may be entirely off-base. I say this sincerely, in spite of the confident tone of my criticisms, because in many ways I have simplified the thinking of Maritain to make my criticism of him easier—he is an incredibly complex thinker whose ideas resist simplification. I have left out many of his statements that would seem to refute my characterization of him as a kind of proto-Rawlsian liberal; to wit: "Well, those Christians who are turned toward the future and who hope—be it a long range hope—for a new Christendom, a new Christianly inspired civilization, know that ‘the world has done with neutrality. Willingly or unwillingly, States will be obliged to make a choice for or against the Gospel’." "The world cannot be neutral with respect to the kingdom of God. Either it is vivified by it, or it struggles against it." "Woe to the world if the Christian were to isolate and separate his temporal mission (then it would be wind only) from his spiritual vocation!"

But the very juxtaposition of two seemingly contradictory sentiments coming from the same man suggests the accuracy of my thesis: I see it as the tell-tale sign of the distortion of theological and philosophical principle that can result from a failure to "discern the spirits." In some of his writings, Maritain issues a clear clarion-call for Catholics to work for the social reign of Christ the King; in others, he demands that Catholics uphold a religiously-neutral democratic charter. On the one hand, Maritain declares the fact of religious division to be "unfortunate," and the freedom of citizens to practice false religions an evil to be tolerated "in order to avoid greater evils," on the other, he declares the superiority of a new Christendom built precisely on an unregenerate religious pluralism! Glenn Olsen gives us an insight into a possible cause of Maritain’s confusion:

I have suggested that indiscriminate praise of pluralism is a disservice to life in society, and that Americans who constantly try to make virtues out of the necessities stemming from their sectarian origins, have failed to achieve any measured understanding of all the issues involved in the question of pluralism."

I hope I have succeeded in attaining both a "measured understanding" of at least some of the important issues involved in the question of pluralism, and of Maritain’s ideas on the question as well. Maritain’s "blind spot" to the imminent dangers of pluralism was shared by many Catholic intellectuals in the immediate post-war period, and no doubt this writer would have shared in the blindness also. However, such a blind spot can not be excused today, in the clear light of those evils that now beset our country, evils whose existence Maritain had no way to predict. Insofar as America was, for Maritain, a veritable incarnation of the democratic faith in the modern day, and insofar as we have determined that that faith is flawed, I think it can now be admitted that Maritain made a grave error in his discernment of the American spirit of his day. The American spirit, in spite of its original goodness, has now been taken over by evil forces, forces that can not be exorcised by anything other than an unadulterated, vigorous, politically-relevant faith in Jesus Christ and the Church that He founded, a Church that must be, for the sake of both the Church’s honor and the temporal common good, the publicly recognized guide for men in both individual and social life. And for the latter to occur, we need to work for a nationwide conversion to the Catholic faith. If the democratic faith was a conduit for good in the days when the American spirit was still vitally Christian, it is a conduit for evil in our day when abortion has become a secular "blessed sacrament," homosexuality a new-age "spiritual counsel," and the prayer, "They shall be created, and thou shall renew the face of the earth," co-opted in a new Pentecost of human cloning. We close with the wise words of William Ward, whose accurate discernment of the spirit of his day we must imitate in order to save ours:

Towards the prevailing national spirit, on the contrary, our only reasonable attitude is one of deep jealously and suspicion; because it is charged with principles which, for the corruption of human nature, are sure to be more false than true, and from which we should keep ourselves entirely free, until we have measured them by their only true standard, the Church’s voice.

Copyright 2002 Thaddeus J. Kozinsky