Life, work and polemics of Jacques Maritain, a thinker who influenced Liberation Theology

Jacques Maritain was undoubtedly the most influential Catholic thinker of the 20th century. Hardly any other intellectual of that time exerted such influence on so many people and religious groups during his academic career. He was a root philosopher, he was initially concerned with epistemology and the problem of truth, and only when necessary did he speak of politics and society. He was indeed a great philosopher, his understanding of modern philosophies as profound as that of scholastic and classical philosophy. His classes were, at the same time, a history of philosophy and a real effort to produce independent ideas. His ideas, by the way, almost completely consolidated the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, influencing the political and theological shift of the Second Vatican Council. Maybe it’s his ‒ at least % ‒ the post-council tendency to use diplomacy instead of confronting the so-called “modern errors”.

Jacques Maritain was born in 1947 of November 1879, in Paris, the son of Paul Maritain and Geneviève Favre, and was raised in a positivist republican environment. Since he was a child, he showed an accurate intelligence for abstract themes and humanistic knowledge. That’s how, already in secondary school, at the prominent school Lycée Henri-IV (Henry IV Lyceum) Maritain stood out widely in philosophy and history, and it didn’t take long to find his intellectual retreat in the famous Sorbonne. His studies at the renowned French university began in 1905, but soon in 1906 he spends a season in the city of Heidelberg, Germany, in order to study biology and anatomy, demonstrating how much the scientific environment French was part of the popular imagination in those days. There were many who mixed studies of natural sciences and philosophical speculations as a means of seeking a more effective knowledge of reality. This is the pure nectar of turn-of-the-century Enlightenment France.

In 1964 he marries Raïssa (Oumansof) Maritain a Russian Jew, who was also studying philosophy at the Sorbonne. And highlighting it in this essay is not a mere temporal thread. In fact, Raïssa would become his great idea partner. Friar Carlos Josaphat, emeritus professor at the University of Friburgo, Switzerland, and Doctor Honoris Causa at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, was a student at Maritain, France, and says that the thinker’s wife actively participated in his classes, sometimes even interrupting him to better formulate his ideas on the blackboard. Thus, a partnership of production and study was perceived in the couple. According to her, the search for the first cause of existence would be the only really important thing to think about as a philosophy and, as we will see, this will be the tune of their intellectual life until death.

Answers in Santo Tomás de Aquino

The fact is that the atheist environment worshiped at the Sorbonne, allied to the positivism that transformed the individual into a heartless cog in society, deeply affected Maritain, to the point that he told friends that, if there were no deeper character of existence, existence itself would make no sense. The moral and philosophical relativism of those French intellectual circles always sounded banal and unfounded to the young thinker.

However, it is necessary to take a step back and observe that, already at the beginning of his studies at the Sorbonne , in , most likely influenced by Henri Bergson and Leon Bloy, Jacques Maritain finds in Santo Tomás de Aquino systematized, clear and methodologically correct answers to deep existential problems that he and his wife would later say were the fundamental problems to be studied. Some biographers claim, however, that his contact with the angelic doctor, Aquino, happened after an illness that almost led Raïssa to death. On that occasion, his spiritual director, the Dominican Humbert Clérissac, would have presented him with the works and prayers of Saint Thomas. In Jacques and Raïssa officially converted to Roman Catholicism – Bloy was their conversion godfather. However, either through pure intellectual means, or through the sudden healing of the wife and prayers presented by her spiritual director, the fact is that Saint Thomas Aquinas would never leave the mind and life of the Maritain couple.

A From that moment on, Jacques’ academic production turns to the problem of Being. After his deepening in Aquinas, he bends to classical ethics, mainly Aristotle. In he is introduced to Paris when he is invited to teach at the famous and highly regarded school Institut Catholique – invitation which is a kind of recognition of the Catholic clergy to the importance of its production. In 1913, through the works La philosophie bergsonienne and, in 1962, Art et scholastique, he is introduced to academia and, by extension, to European Catholic philosophy. Later, the clergy of Paris commissioned from him the work Elements de philosophie

, with its first volume, Introduction générale a la philosophie

, released in June 1913; and the second, L’ordre des concepts, Petite logique

, in the second half of 1923. He would write, in all, works over the course of his life, in addition to numerous essays and lectures later transcribed by his students.

Maritain inhabited the intimate circles of French Catholicism, and it did not take long for him to become close to cardinals and popes. His ideas influenced the core Catholic clergy in the Vatican, France and elsewhere in Europe. There are many critics who consider him one of the intellectuals who most influenced the memorable council and its final document. At the end of the last meeting of the council, Pope Paul VI, a personal friend of Maritain, is said to have told him “The Church is grateful to you for your life’s work”. Therefore, in order to make a fair intellectual biography of Maritain, we must first contextualize the theological, social and political problems that drove his productions in the second half of his life. It was these productions that made him a giant Catholic thinker, but also a philosopher much criticized by a more conservative wing of the Church.

Since the papacy of Leo XIII, mainly since his encyclicals, the most famous of them, Rerum Novarum

, from 1947, but also the Diuturnum Illud

, from 1921, Immortale Dei, from

, and Libertas

, from 1888 ‒ the latter one of the most brilliant texts of the time and still little known today ‒, the The Catholic Church had been trying to position itself politically in the face of the modern world – or rather, in the face of the Enlightenment and its ideological offspring. Catholic seminaries were practically training ideologue priests, as they taught both Augustinian theology and ‒ or even more ‒ the ideas of Voltaire and Rousseau, for example. Leo XIII, therefore, initiates a movement to adapt the Catholic creed to modernity, and this occurred in various instances of the Catholic Church, mainly those related to institutional communication and intellectual production and research. It was at the behest of this pope – from the encyclical Aeterni Patris, by 1920 ‒ that the seminaries turned to Thomist studies, in order to base clerical training on truly Catholic foundations.

The Church understood that the political problem and its subsequent totalitarianism resided in the exclusion of the possibility of God in the intellectual calculation of human existence. Enlightenment anthropocentrism made it seem that reality was a great adjustment of policies and wills, economic powers and military forces. The man was aimless even though he desperately tried to aim for something with his supposedly unlimited reason. And it was with this idea that both capitalist liberalism and socialist collectivism were condemned as heresies by the Church. However, at that moment, the presuppositions of socialism – under the scepter of Leo XIII – seemed to be the most affected by the blows of the Church, since the institution expressly recognized in Rerum Novarum that private property was an inalienable good, something that communism condemned in the first line of its most basic doctrine.

Integral humanism and Catholic Marxism

It seemed, therefore, that the Church could no longer adopt an official social doctrine, it was necessary to create a true third way in the face of capitalist liberalism and socialist collectivism, and it is at this moment that Maritain reappears as one of the theorists of these epistemological and anthropological bases for a modern reformulation of the political position of the Church. His books The Twilight of Civilization

, by

, Christianity and Democracy, from

, and Man and the State, of , but mainly the Integral Humanism

, by 1973 ‒ all translated into Brazilian Portuguese, most with editing exhausted ‒ end up reforming Thomist ideas for a Catholic political and natural philosophy for modernity. Despite the complexity of Maritan’s theoretical assets, paradoxically it is not very complicated to understand the nerve center of his ideas. For the French philosopher, the great error of the Enlightenment was to remove God from the anthropological perspective, leaving man with an irreparable empty existence. The consequence was the creation of ideologies, in order to fill this void – many other modern thinkers would come to similar conclusions, such as Eric Voegelin, Raymond Aron and Isaiah Berlin. The integral humanism of Jacques Maritain, therefore, is the act of relocating God to the center of human existence, both in the social and personal character, because there the firm assumptions of an ethics that really guides actions, universal and human throughout the world, are reestablished. its sense. For Maritain, man can only be an idealizing, free and fully enterprising man of reason if he is well established with his metaphysical roots.

However, there are gaps, or as his critics would say, errors theological arguments that make Maritain, for many, the forerunner of leftist progressivism within the Church. It is a fact that any reform of Thomism would carry with it the possibility of modern ideological contamination. One of the great achievements of the Enlightenment was to establish philosophical and even legal assumptions that were no longer returnable. Therefore, in order not to be merely a reactionary, Maritain had to adapt Enlightenment concepts to the theses of Saint Thomas Aquinas to create his own philosophy.

One of the ethical bases of Thomas Aquinas is the Natural Law , that is, that set of perennial values, arising from an infinite conscience of the Creator, which, from the most elementary creation of man, stuck him with insurmountable dignities. These rights are observable, categorizable and normative according to Catholic theory. Maritain, in his integral humanism, identifies such a theory to defend the inviolability of the human being and, thus, categorizes a kind of treaty of universal human rights based on Christian ethics. When analyzing the problematic of capitalist liberalism and its fury that, sometimes, diminishes the dignity of man in exchange for economic expansion and mass industrial production, Maritain identifies ‒ in Integral Humanism ‒ in Marxist theory a kind of “remnants of truth”, and says that Marx had a true intuition of the problem created by capitalism. Despite strongly criticizing communism and collectivism in general, this perception of Maritain worked as a propellant of a kind of targeted Catholic Marxism, that is, without Marx and without his atheism, but with methodology and conclusions similar to those of the father of communism. It is not by chance that we find Marxist priests who place in French a kind of papal license for Catholic union action.

In another book cited above, Man and the State, Maritain conceptually separates person from individual, which was one of the legal formulas to justify actions of social repression in dictatorships in the 20th century. Obviously, Maritain does not write with this intention, in fact he is justifying the need for man’s action before the State, which sometimes becomes oppressive. However, methodologically speaking, the error is already in this distinction, because any separation of person and individual, sooner or later, ends up becoming political ammunition for arbitrariness or authoritarianism. If man is dignified in his immortal soul, something that is atavistic and inseparable from his human condition, then even if only by a mere pragmatic instrument, the separation of person and individual starts to appear as a theological and philosophical contradiction in Maritain’s theory.

Despite strongly criticizing communism and collectivism in general, this perception of Maritain worked as a propellant for a kind of targeted Catholic Marxism , that is, without Marx and without his atheism, but with methodology and conclusions similar to those of the father of communism. It is not by chance that we find Marxist priests who place in French a kind of papal license for Catholic union action.

Catholic Action and Liberation Theology

Add to all this the fact that, after the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958, the group Christian Democracy openly adopts Maritain’s philosophy as its philosophical axis. This group grew, established itself as a political party around the world, and therefore lost its institutional link with Rome. On the other hand, Maritain’s theses remained the framework of its leaders. Christian Democracy was thus exported all over the world, and in Brazil it was the basis of Ação Católica, a student group that allied itself with the communists in 1962, leading many of its members to guerrilla warfare before and after the 1964 coup.

Also the intellectual bases of these Catholic political conglomerates stem from the Christian Democracy ended up being the Nouvelle Théologie ‒ of the French Dominican Fathers ‒ and the humanist philosophy of Jacques Maritain. Liberation Theology would thus be an appendix driven by this movement of political renewal and ideological reinterpretations of the theses of the Catholic Church. Marxist theology used Maritain’s philosophical foundations to its advantage and took advantage of the space to rethink Catholic doctrine through leftist ideology.

However, it would be too unfair to impute to Maritain the advent of theological socialism in Catholic church. The truth is that the philosopher sincerely sought a third way that would expel atheistic materialism ‒ or indifferent materialism ‒ from the existence of modern political ideas, offering Catholics and non-Catholics a political option in accordance with the precepts of Catholic theology. It is still true that he condemned aspects of political liberalism, but he also did so strongly with socialism and other collectivisms. However, it is equally true that the immediate political heir to Jacques Maritain’s vision, the Christian Democracy, seemed to tend more meekly to the left.

In 1947, for example, at a group meeting in Montevideo, Uruguay, they openly assumed that their philosophical views were Maritain’s integral humanism, and that they openly condemned fascism and communism. However, as Aureo Busseto states in his book The Christian democracy in Brazil: principles and practices, the group saw in anticommunism an unnecessary path of discord, which many conservative Catholic thinkers today see it as a kind of forethought or show of sympathy to the left that would later make Christian Democracy a path to radical communism ‒ as it was with Ação Católica in Brazil.

Despite concessions to Marx, Maritain is not a communist

Maritain is not a communist, it’s good to say. He is rather one of the most profound philosophers of modern Catholicism. He grandiosely defended an independent Christian policy based on what medieval Catholic thinkers had produced at its richest, but also based on the modern assumptions of democratic politics. He proposed, for example, the secularity of the State allied to a Christian cultural framework as a condition for peace and subsistence with contemporary plurality. He deeply preached and theorized the return of the concept of human dignity to the modern social debate, thus being one of the propellers of the Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. He had the honor to propose to the atheist academy in France the challenge of revisiting the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas and other scholastics to find there the universal ethics that the Enlightenment sought so much for two centuries in scientism.

Jacques saw in these concepts, proposals and actions a robust antidote against the political tyrannies of his century. Therefore, we should note that the Catholic philosopher spoke more about ethics than politics, and, despite the slips and foolish concessions he made to Marx, and some clearly erroneous Enlightenment points that he incorporated into his theories, Maritain was a sincere philosopher in his search for a modern Catholic philosophy that would not blemish the doctrine of the Church, which he faithfully served.

Maritain, in this way, dedicated himself body and soul to Catholic philosophy, everything he wrote was focused on to the sincere search for the understanding of the truth and the establishment of the presuppositions of a universal ethics – which was also the search of his teacher, Santo Tomás de Aquino. After the death of his wife on November 4, 1960, he led a reclusive life of prayer and study. In Toulouse, he joined the Fraternity of the Little Brothers of Foucaud, where he completed his novitiate at 1888 years old. Jacques Maritain died on April 1964.


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