When I was a college seminarian, studying philosophy at New York’s Saint John’s University in the 1990s, I had an incredible professor, a priest of my diocese (Brooklyn), Fr. Robert Lauder.
Fr. Lauder was (and still is) a full-time professor at Saint John’s University’s department of philosophy and I was blessed to have him for some really great elective classes: Problem of God, Existentialism, the Catholic Novel (of which I had written about a few articles ago), and, in my senior year, second semester, a class in Personalism. While I must admit that it was rather difficult to concentrate fully on my studies in my last few weeks in college (especially with the excitement of graduation and beginning major seminary studies), Fr. Lauder’s class in Personalism left a major impression on my life and thought for the rest of my life.
Among the thinkers studied in the class was the French Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain (1882-1973). Maritain was born in Paris and studied the natural sciences at the Sorbonne, where he met Raïssa Oumansoff with whom he fell deeply in love and married in 1904. Both Jacques and Raïssa subscribed to a scientific worldview but quickly realized that one cannot live happily and fully with this manner of thinking. They made a suicide pact in 1901, stating that they had to find meaning in life by the end of the year.
Through the influence of great intellectuals like Charles Péguy and Henri Bergson, this young couple began to come out of their intellectual despair and, after meeting the lay French Catholic novelist, Léon Bloy, they converted to Catholicism.
The story of Jacques and Raïssa’s romance with each other, with the Lord and his Church, and with the intellectual life, can be found in her lovely book, We Have Been Friends Together and its beautiful sequel, Adventures in Grace (1945). The cause for canonization for the Maritains has been introduced in 2011 and they certainly exhibited sanctity of life. By all accounts, Raïssa was a mystic and the Maritains themselves freely decided to enter into a “Josephite Marriage,” meaning that they both decided to remain celibate, but to live as husband and wife together. Jacques Maritain served as an adviser and mentor to Pope Saint Paul VI. Maritain’s The Peasant of the Garonne: An Old Layman Questions Himself about the Present Time (1966), in which he cautions the Church to be very wary in her attempts to embrace uncritically contemporary philosophy and thought, is well worth reading, especially today.
Maritain was introduced the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas by his wife, Raïssa, and for him, Thomas’ wisdom made perfect sense. He described himself in these early days as “a Thomist without knowing it...When several months later I came to the Summa Theologiae, I would construct no impediment to its luminous flood." As a part of the “neo-Thomists” of the early 20th century, Maritain was one of the most influential thinkers for a generation of Catholics. His text, Elements of Philosophy (1920), taught the importance of Thomistic philosophy and he wrote that this is the premiere Christian philosophy “both because the church is never weary of putting it forward as the only true philosophy and because it harmonizes perfectly with the truths of faith, nevertheless it is proposed here for the reader's acceptance not because it is Christian, but because it is demonstrably true. This agreement between a philosophic system founded by a pagan and the dogmas of revelation is no doubt an external sign, an extra-philosophic guarantee of its truth; but from its own rational evidence, that it derives its authority as a philosophy.”
Perhaps what I find most fascinating about Maritain is his view on Christendom. From his early days, Maritain was involved in bringing theological clarity to the political world. Martiain produced a book, Primaute du spirituel (1927) and wanted Catholic theology to dialogue with the contemporary world. According to Maritain, the Christian was called to be a humanist and that it was necessary for a new relationship to be discovered between Church and society since the medieval structure that had previously existed was now gone.
According to Jude P. Dougherty, Maritain’s views on the church and state relationship, despite his European backgrounds were largely derived from an American context. Maritain’s views on this relationship come from several of his texts, namely True Humanism (1970), Christianity and Democracy (1945), Reflections on America (1951), and Man and the State (1975). Maritain proposed that the Catholic Church should engage with modern democracy so as to establish a form of “Christendom.” He explained:
There is only one integral religious truth; there is only one catholic Church. ... In speaking of a new Christendom, I am therefore speaking of a temporal system or age of civilisation whose animating form will be Christian and which will correspond to the historical climate of the epoch on whose threshold we are (True Humanism, 126).
For Maritain, Christendom will be guided by a “Christian philosophy of life [which] would guide a community vitally” and be more than simply a “‘decorative’ manner, where society will be constituted by the key ethical principles of human rights, the dignity of the human person and the common good.” (True Humanism, 146). The Church must possess an influence on political thought, so that the temporal might be subordinated to the spiritual, just as the body is subordinated to the soul (True Humanism, 160-161). Maritain explained that his vision of Christendom was not a nostalgia for the Middle Ages where the Church exercised direct temporal power. He accepted that in the 20th century, the Church is free to be a “purely spiritual religion.” However, he insisted that the Church, which cannot be separated from culture, has to work on the culture spiritually to transform it. (True Humanism, 165). This sounds to me like a blueprint for the New Evangelization.
The Church is called to be in the world, yet not of the world. Yet, she, as a loving Mother, must guide, teach, protect, and pray for her children as they venture out into the world. Maritain’s thought, based on the perennial wisdom on Saint Thomas Aquinas, can be a guide in helping the Bride of Christ to instruct the world in the way of truth.