January 1, 2011


Making Muslim Democracies (Jan-Werner Müller, November/December 2010, Boston Review)

If the Vatican did not move Christian Democrats significantly, what did? Was it only the mechanisms of electoral competition, or did developments in Christian doctrine play a role? The influence of ideas in party politics is notoriously hard to demonstrate, but a strong case can be made that the Christian Democratic parties’ turn toward moderation and their eventual embrace of modern party politics is related to theological and philosophical notions about the compatibility of Catholicism and Democracy. While there was no single cause of accommodation, ideas were indispensable to the process.

Arguably the most influential figure in generating the intellectual grounds for Christian Democracy’s emergence in party politics was the French philosopher Jacques Maritain. Beginning in the 1930s, Maritain developed a range of arguments on behalf of a Christian embrace of democracy and human rights. He was not the only Catholic thinker to do so, but tracing his thought and influence suggests how important new ideas were in the liberalization of Christian Democracy.

Maritain, born into a prominent republican family, started his intellectual life as a philosophy student at the Sorbonne. As a young man, he flirted with socialism and supported Colonel Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, against an unjust accusation of treason and the forces of reaction. In 1901 he met fellow student Raïssa Oumansoff, daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, and the two began a lifelong romantic, intellectual, and spiritual collaboration with few parallels in the twentieth century. On a sunny summer day in 1903, in the Jardin des Plantes, the lovers vowed to commit suicide together within a year if they could not find answers to life’s apparent meaninglessness. Just in time, they found some: first the philosophy of Henri Bergson, then Catholicism, and finally the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, to which Maritain was introduced by Raïssa. Within an astonishingly short period, Maritain became one of the leading neo-Thomist philosophers in all of Europe.

From the mid-nineteenth century onward, the Vatican had promoted Thomism as the main alternative to modern, supposedly secular, philosophy. Thomism combined the ideas of Aristotle (whom St. Thomas had rediscovered in the thirteenth century) with Catholicism and a strong notion of natural law, which is derived from divine law, but is knowable by reason and allows humanity to attain its proper end: moral and spiritual perfection. Thomism denied that reason and faith had to be in conflict.

Neo-Thomism played a role in the Church’s attempt to offer a distinctly Catholic solution to the social question—the emergence and immiseration of the industrial working class. In the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII condemned socialism for its materialism and called for an end to class struggle. Instead, he suggested via Thomist reasoning that employers and workers should cooperate, with the employers clearly acknowledging the legitimate interests of the workers. Families and associations in civil society—not the state—should alleviate social problems so that all members of society could attain their proper ends.

But the social doctrines and the Thomism of Leo XIII did not encourage Catholics to become democrats. And, at least at first, neither did Maritain’s. In the 1920s Maritain, under the influence of his priest, became close to the proto-fascist Action Française (AF), an association of ultra-nationalist, pro-Catholic monarchists. In 1926 the movement was condemned by the Vatican, which accused it of using Catholicism as a smokescreen for what was in fact atheistic nationalism. Maritain tried to mediate between the Vatican and the movement’s leader; then he abandoned the AF for good. But even so, he remained, like the members of the AF, highly critical of political aspects of the modern world—Protestantism and liberalism in particular. The latter, for Maritain, implied secularism and the atomization of society.

Maritain came to believe that the person flourished only within community and when open to god. These beliefs, derived from Thomist natural law, crucially shaped the emerging philosophy of personalism, which sought to chart a path between communism and liberalism and, much later, deeply influenced Pope John Paul II’s outlook. Personalism, its advocates insisted, was not the same as individualism, which allegedly treated human beings as isolated, self-interested agents, instead of understanding their embeddedness in groups. Communism, on the other hand, entirely absorbed people into the state.

Personalism was thus simultaneously anti-liberal and anticommunist; its proponents held that liberalism and communism, for all their apparent differences, were forms of materialism, whereas personalism did justice to the spiritual dimension of human life. Human beings were simultaneously related to a social order and possessed of individual dignity and capacity for transcendence. They should contribute to the common good, but the spirituality of persons was above and untouchable by any earthly community, in particular a potentially totalitarian communist one.

In the 1930s personalism began to take off. For a time Maritain was a mentor to Emmanuel Mounier, editor of the premier personalist magazine, Esprit, which sought a communitarian alternative to liberal parliamentarianism. But Maritain worried that his disciple’s search for alternatives to liberal democracy would end in a form of authoritarianism, and, indeed, Mounier flirted with both the Vichy regime, and, after the war, Soviet Communism. Unlike many European Catholics, Maritain refused to endorse Franco or to portray the Spanish Civil War as a kind of modern crusade. He began to work out a philosophical rapprochement between Catholicism and modern conceptions of human rights and democracy, and in 1938 he published Integral Humanism, which advocated the place of Christianity in an increasingly ideologically diverse world. The book, with its clear endorsement of pluralism in the temporal sphere, became an early touchstone in Christian Democratic political theory.

When the war broke out, Maritain was traveling in the United States and Canada for a lecture series. He decided to stay; the Gestapo searched his house outside Paris in vain. He taught at Princeton and Columbia and contributed to Voice of America. Partly inspired by the example of the United States—a democratic system that, unlike France, not only tolerated religion, but seemed to flourish on the basis of values that he associated with Christianity, such as equality—Maritain began to propagate more openly what he saw as the inner connections between democracy and Christianity. In 1942 he authored Christianity and Democracy, a pamphlet dropped by Allied planes over France. In it he affirms that “democracy is linked to Christianity and that the democratic impulse has arisen in human history as a temporal manifestation of the inspiration of the Gospel.”  In 1951’s Man and the State, Maritain declares boldly, “democracy is the only way of bringing about a moral rationalization of politics. Because democracy is a rational organization of freedoms founded upon law ”(emphasis original). On an even more emphatic note, he announced, “democracy carries in a fragile vessel the terrestrial hope, I would say the biological hope, of humanity.”

To be sure, Maritain’s intellectual-political aggiornamento was selective and based on a particular interpretation of modernity: it retained core elements of late nineteenth-century Catholic political thought. Thus Maritain remained skeptical of the notion of sovereignty, which he viewed as threatening to voluntary collaborations in civil society. He also was no anything-goes liberal. For Maritain, freedom meant not license, but the full realization of one’s ends. Against this teleological background, Maritain insisted on the importance not just of electoral democracy, but also of workers’ rights and general rights of subsistence. His ideas, therefore, could provide the foundations of a conservative, family- and community-oriented welfare state, such as were eventually constructed in many European countries outside Britain and Scandinavia.

While Maritain’s views could reasonably be put to a variety of ends (he was a close friend of Saul Alinsky’s, for instance), there is no question that his project was a liberalizing one that sought a role for Christianity in democratic politics, including the politics of those who believed differently. Maritain was involved in drafting the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and even the Holy See itself would eventually ratify many of his ideas. At the closing of the Second Vatican Council—the major 1960s gathering of the Catholic hierarchy, during which the Church officially affirmed human rights and religious tolerance—Pope Paul VI presented to Maritain the “Message to Men of Thought and Science,” leaving no uncertainty about whose thinking steered whom when it came to the modernization and moderation of Catholic political convictions.

The election of a Tocquevillian Pope represented a a fulfillment.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at January 1, 2011 2:57 PM
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