Some Critical Comments on Maritain's Political Philosophy

Back in March I posted a two-part interview with Raymond Dennehy about the recent reissue of Maritain’s Christianity and Democracy and The Rights of Man and the Natural Law (“The Return of Thomistic Political Philosophy, Part I,” “The Return of Thomistic Political Philosophy, Part II”).

Not long ago I was asked by the St. Austin Review to write a review of the reissue. Since it seems that our readers took particular interest in the reissue of the Maritain books and the Dennehy interview, I thought I might share some of my review in this post. I don’t think it would be fair to the St. Austin Review if I posted the whole review here, so I offer only a snippet of my conclusion, which I’m afraid evidences that I have a less positive reading of Maritain’s political thought and these two books than Dennehy.

There were three principal points on which I challenged Maritain:

(1) In his foreword Raymond Dennehy observes that Maritain’s ideas about democracy, Christianity, and human rights are still relevant today inasmuch as they provide us with valuable resources to deal with increased secularization in the U.S. and Europe, to fight against the normalization of homosexuality and the promotion of same-sex “marriage,” and to defend unborn human life. I have to confess my skepticism about their value in this respect. It is true that Maritain seeks to develop a political theory in which Christian doctrine and the natural law are integral parts and both in themselves are obviously of use in the “culture wars” that Dennehy has in mind. But some of the democratic principles espoused by Maritain would undermine their effectiveness, or so it seems to me. The freedom of religion, the freedom of self-determination, and the inviolability of conscience endorsed by Maritain could always be invoked against any proposed legislation or cultural pressure aimed at overcoming the evils of which Dennehy speaks.

(2) I find Maritain’s treatment of the meaning of human rights in these books underdeveloped. His claim is that there are certain rights that we have as human persons or, as he also puts it, “[t]here are certain things which are owed to man because of the simple fact that he is a man.” Maritain says that among these rights is, for instance, a right to existence or life. The Church has always condoned capital punishment justly applied as she has also condoned just war. Criminals and enemy invaders do not as such cease to be human persons yet they may be killed for proper reasons. But how could they be so killed if as human persons they have a right to life? Is the Church’s teaching on these matters mistaken? Assuming, as we must, that it is not, perhaps we must rethink the meaning of human rights. I may have some “basic” rights but maybe very few accrue to me simply by virtue of being a human person. Certain qualifications and contexts must be included in our considerations. To speak of the right to life, is it not the case that human persons enjoy this not only qua human persons but qua innocent human persons?

(3) Finally, I cannot accept Maritain’s thesis about democracy’s privileged connection to Christianity. As I read ecclesiastical history, the Church has always been very pragmatic about her relationships with the various types of political regimes, never teaching in any binding manner that some one kind of regime in particular has its roots in the Gospel. And yet, as I argued [earlier in the review], it does appear that Maritain would have to insist that Christians are in some sense bound to promote democracy. There is not the space here sufficiently to reflect on the papal teaching of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that, in fact, was quite critical of some of the same democratic tenets held by Maritain. It is ironic that in reviewing Christianity and Democracy in 1945 the prominent Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams questioned the Catholic nature of Maritain’s political thought: “How, then, does M. Maritain, the Thomist and the Roman Catholic, manage to become here the apostle and the mentor of the democracy of the future? He does it by ignoring Roman Catholicism and by ignoring the antidemocratic heritage of pre-eighteenth-century Christianity.” No doubt there are many who would say that previous Catholic teaching on political matters has since been superseded by John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris and Vatican II’s pronouncements in Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium et Spes. But if we apply the hermeneutic of continuity proposed by Benedict XVI, we might discover that the story is far more complex than the hermeneuts of discontinuity and rupture would have us believe.

I did not wish people to get the idea that I have a negative view of Maritain’s thought in general because that is not at all true. So I also added this disclaimer: “Because I consider myself, along with [Donald] Gallagher [who wrote the Introduction] and Dennehy [who wrote the foreword], a student of Maritain’s thought I am not eager to criticize his work. Maritain’s contributions to metaphysics, epistemology, the interpretation of the history of philosophy, and to the Thomistic tradition generally are invaluable (if not infallible). But, as is evident from this review, I must say that I find his political theory wanting in several respects.”

If you are interested in reading the rest of my review, you will just have to wait till it comes out in StAR.

When I first posted the interview with Dennehy on the Maritain reissue, one of our readers, John Lamont, objected to the title I gave to the interview: “The Return of Thomistic Political Philosophy.” In the comment box he wrote:

Reprinting Maritain’s work is in no way a revival of Thomistic political philosophy, because Maritain’s thought was completely different from that of St. Thomas in this area. See Michel Villey, La formation de la pensee juridique moderne, on the topic.

In my response to Dr. Lamont I expressed my sympathy with his objection:

I think I share your concerns (or what I assume them to be). Personally, I am skeptical about attempts — like Maritain’s — to reconcile Aquinas’s political thought with modern ideas about rights. I don’t say that I dismiss them but I am skeptical. In referring to Maritain’s political theory in these two posts as “Thomistic” perhaps I conceded too much. I meant to be generous to the other side on which there are formidable thinkers such as Maritain with whom I agree on many other things. You may say: “Generous to a fault!” and you may be right.

I still share Dr. Lamont’s concerns (or what I assume them to be). The three points on which I criticized Maritain above also disclose some of the points on which he seems to depart from Aquinas. (1) I cannot find freedom of religion and conscience, as Maritain understands them, in Aquinas. (2) Nor can I find Maritain’s understanding of human rights in Aquinas. (3) And I am not aware of any place in Aquinas’s writings where he establishes a similarly privileged connection between Christianity and democracy.

But would Aquinas see these as legitimate developments of his political thought? Maritain does appear to try to draw 1 and 2 out of Thomistic natural law. I think you can make a probable argument for this development but I doubt whether you can make a conclusive argument. As for 3, I don’t believe even a probable argument is possible.

Perhaps we could say that, at best, Maritian’s political philosophy is what Weisheipl calls “eclectic Thomism.” Maybe I should have titled the interviews “The Revival of Eclectic Thomistic Political Philosophy.” But that’s kind of a clunky title. I’ll have to think of a better one.


UPDATE: A friend of mine has pointed out that in Man and the State Maritain distinguishes between the possession of an inalienable right and the exercise of that right. The distinction is a familiar one that is not peculiar to Maritain. Still, it might seem prima facie to give Maritain a way of getting around my objection to his making the right to life a right that man possesses “because of the simple fact that he is a man.” I proposed that we consider this not a right that man has qua man but that man has qua innocent (in some relevant context). Before going further, let’s look at what Maritain says in Man and the State

[Natural human rights] are inalienable since they are grounded in the very nature of man, which of course no man can lose. This does not mean that these rights are by nature incapable of limitation, or that they are the infinite rights of God. Just as every law — notably the natural law, on which they are grounded — aims at the common good, so human rights have an intrinsic relation to the common good. Some of them, like the right to existence or the pursuit of happiness, are of such a kind that the common good would be imperilled if the body politic could restrict in any measure the possession that men naturally have of these rights. We may say that they are absolutely inalienable … Yet even absolutely inalienable rights are liable to limitation, if not in their possession, at least in their exercise … Even in the case of absolutely inalienable rights, we must distinguish between possession and exercise — the latter being subject to conditions and limitations dictated in each case by justice. If a criminal can be justly condemned to die, it is because by his crime he has deprived himself, let us not say of the right to live, but of the possibility of justly asserting this right. He has morally cut himself off from the human community, precisely as regards the use of his fundamental and “inalienable” right of which the punishment inflicted upon him prevents this exercise.

You will find these remarks on p. 92 of Man and the State. So Maritain takes the distinction between possession/exercise of a right and applies it precisely to the case of capital punishment to justify it in principle.

In this way Maritain can agree with Catholic teaching on the moral permissibility of capital punishment. But is Maritain’s distinction between possession/exercise of a right cogent here? I don’t think it is.

Maritain speaks of life as being an “absolute” and an “inalienable” right that we humans have. If I can morally lose the ability to exercise an absolute or inalienable right, then it does not seem to me that it was absolute or inalienable in the first place. How else could a right be relativized or alienated except by losing the ability to exercise it?

I don’t ask this as a rhetorical question but I have to say that at the moment I cannot see how Maritain can answer it without conceding that it makes no sense to talk about an absolute or inalienable right that cannot be morally asserted. (I am open to being persuaded otherwise.) It is interesting that at the end of the above passage, when Maritain affirms that I can be cut off from the use of an inalienable right he puts “inalienable” in scare quotes. Perhaps he himself had doubts about his argument.