The Return of Thomistic Political Philosophy, Part II

Here is the second part of our interview with Raymond Dennehy about two recently re-issued works of Jacques Maritain’s political philosophy, Christianity and Democracy and The Rights of Man and Natural Law. You can read the first part of the interview here.

*** What is the relevance of these books to the political and cultural scene in the US and Europe and elsewhere in the world?

Dr. Dennehy: Again, permit me to recall what I wrote in the book’s foreword:

The decision to reissue the single-volume edition of Jacques Maritain’s Christianity and Democracy and The Rights of Man and Natural Law could hardly have come at a more urgent time, a time when, perhaps as never before, the future of democracy hangs in the balance. That Maritain wrote them back in the 1940s, in answer to the Fascist and Communist attacks on democracy, human rights, and Christianity, does nothing to diminish their timeliness. Yes, Fascism and Communism have been defeated, but the secularization of the West that fuels the treats to Christianity and human freedom continue unabated. Consider, for example, the absence of any reference to God in the European Union’s constitution; the legal challenges to the phrases ‘under God’ in our Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” on our currency; the British law that forbids teachers in Catholic schools from teaching that homosexuality is immoral; the astonishing success of the homosexual agenda in the United States, Europe, and Latin America in legalizing same-sex “marriage”; and (to borrow then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s characterization) the “atomic bomb” that was dropped on democracy in 1973 – the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision and its logical consequences: laboratory reproduction and human embryo stem-cell research. The right to life is the most fundamental and important of all rights. The other rights of speech, worship, assembly, etc., are important because there can be no political society worthy of human beings without them; however, the primacy of the right to life comes down to this: if one does not have life, one does not have anything, let alone rights. A government that fails to respect the right to life can hardly be expected to respect any other rights and certainly cannot be accused of inconsistency for failing to do so.

In the long run, the most devastating of these assaults on human dignity and freedom is the movement now underway to relegate Christianity to a backwater subculture of crosses and candles. To be sure, these other assaults directly attack the pillars of democracy: freedom of religion and speech, the right to life, the meaning of marriage and family life. But, as Maritain argues in both Christianity and Democracy and The Rights of Man and Natural Law the ideals of modern democracy are Christian in origin and the values of Christianity energize its institutions. Thereby hangs a tale. Attempts to establish religion without God do not succeed. John Dewey’s A Common Faith is a case in point. If there can be no religion without God, it follows that there can be no Christianity without God; and if there can thus be no Christianity, can there be democracy? Some Catholic thinkers have criticized the notion of human rights, Alasdair MacIntyre for instance. How do you think Maritain would respond to critiques like MacIntyre’s?

Dr. Dennehy: I have not read MacIntyre in some years, but my initial thought is that Maritain would respond to the communitarian argument in two ways. First, he would point out that the “society of free men” that he describes and defends is not individualist in the way that advocates of the laisssez faire conceived of society as a kind of heap of individuals struggling to ascend to the top and whose obligations to society were negatively conceived as not harming others by force, fraud, or intimidation. Maritain argues, on the contrary, that a society of free men has four characteristics; it is personalist, communal rather than individualistic, pluralist, and Christian or at least Theist. Thus for Maritain a society worthy of free persons must not only be just but also commit itself to “civic friendship.” The second way that Maritain would reply to the communitarians is to call attention to the rights of the person as ontologically grounded in human nature in virtue of what it means to be a human being. The exigencies of the human person arise from that ontological fact: each human being is not simply a part of society but a whole as well. Unlike animal groups, human society has a common good, which Maritain describes as a moral good that pertains to society as a whole and yet flows over each of its members. If I am qualified to teach philosophy, society can compel me to teach the subject, but it cannot compel me to teach a particular philosophy as true. The reason is that each of us is a whole in himself has been created by God to exist by his own free will. Maritain borrows here from Aquinas who argues that just as the runner strives to win the race but cannot put all that he is and has in the effort to win (he knowledge of astronomy and the Bible, e.g.), so the person cannot put all that he is and has into serving society (his knowledge of God, the desire to know the truth, and to increase his “freedom of personal expansion,” e.g.). Thus, for Maritain, the rights of the person follow from the nature of the person.

The second book in this volume, The Rights of Man and the Natural Law, contain seminal references to the human person that Maritain will develop more fully in his book, The Person and the Common Good, which appeared in print about 1948. When did you become interested in Maritain? What has been the focus of your research in Maritain?

Dr. Dennehy: I first read Maritain while an undergraduate at the University of San Francisco, having been taught philosophy by a series of Thomists there. While in my doctoral studies at the University of Toronto, I read Jacques Maritain, mainly his Degrees of Knowledge. I was searching for a philosophical basis for human rights, which basis I stumbled upon on in The Person and the Common Good. That was his notion of subsistence, which served as the foundation of my doctoral dissertation, The Subject as the Metaphysical Ground of Maritain’s Personalism.

I am a founding member of the American Maritain Association and served as its president for seven years.