New Book: Thomism and Predestination

A new book entitled Thomism and Predestination: Principles and Disputations is now available from The Catholic University of America Press. See below for more details. 


"There is perhaps no aspect of traditional Thomistic thought so contested in modern Catholic theology as the notion of predestination as presented by the classical Thomist school. What is that doctrine, and why is it so controversial? Has it been rightly understood in the context of modern debates? At the same time, the Church's traditional affirmation of a mystery of predestination is largely ignored in modern Catholic theology more generally. Why is this the case? Can a theology that emphasizes the Augustinian notion of the primacy of salvation by grace alone also forego a theology of predestination?

Thomism and Predestination: Principles and Disputations considers these topics from various angles: the principles of the classical Thomistic treatment of predestination, their contested interpretation among modern theologians, examples of the doctrine as illustrated by the spiritual writings of the saints, and the challenges to Catholic theology that the Thomistic tradition continues to pose. This volume initiates readers―especially future theologians and Catholic intellectuals―to a central theme of theology that is speculatively challenging and deeply interconnected to many other elements of the faith.


Steven A. Long is a professor of Theology at Ave Maria University and author of Teleological Grammar of the Moral Act (Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University Publications). Roger W. Nutt is an associate professor of Theology, codirector of the Aquinas Center for Theological Renewal, and editor-in-chief of Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University. Thomas Joseph White, OP, is the director of the Thomistic Institute at the Domincan House of Studies. He is the author of several books including The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology (CUA Press), and coeditor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera."

Criticism of My Maritain Post

In mid-August I wrote a post with some pretty tough criticisms of Jacques Maritain’s political thought (“Some Critical Comments on Maritain’s Political Philosophy”). Last week Leonard Ferry offered a response in the comments box. Ferry writes:

The chief criticism articulated is becoming increasingly common, but that should not blind readers to the fact that it is rather unfair to Maritain. Tracey Rowland, Marc Guerra, and now Joseph Trabbic have made similar criticisms about Maritain’s advocacy of democracy. There are at least two problems with the criticisms. First, Maritain distinguishes between democratic practice and democratic philosophy. What he advocates is the latter, not the former (though, to be fair, it is not always clear that he is doing so, and his enthusiasm sometimes gets the better of him). Second, it is worth pointing out that, though Aquinas clearly does not endorse democratic practice, his preference for a mixed regime does point to a strong claim for the need to incorporate what I take to be at the heart of Maritain’s advocacy of a “democratic philosophy”.

This is a thoughtful response. I would like to hear more about Maritain’s distinction between democratic practice and democratic philosophy and how this rebuts the criticisms that Rowland, Guerra, and I have made, and about what constitutes the heart of Maritain’s advocacy of a democratic philosophy. This would help to advance the debate.

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.

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.

The Return of Thomistic Political Philosophy, Part I


Two volumes of Jacques Maritain’s political philosophy are being re-issued by Ignatius Press. The books in question, Christianity and Democracy and The Rights of Man and the Natural Law, are being released as a single volume. We spoke with Raymond Dennehy, professor of philosophy at the University of San Francisco and author of the foreword to the re-issue. Below is the first part of that interview. Part two of the interview will appear shortly.

*** When were Christianity and Democracy and The Rights of Man and the Natural Law originally published?

Dr. Dennehy: Both works were published in French in New York by Editions de la Maison Francaise, Les Droits de l’ Homme et la Loi Naturelle in 1942 and Christianisme et Democratie in 1943. Could you tell us something about the context of these books? Why did Maritain write them? How do they relate to his other work, including his other work in political theory?

Dr. Dennehy: When the outbreak of World War II made it impossible for Maritain and his wife to return to France from his lecture tour in Canada and the United States, he continued to support his countrymen by working with the Free French in New York City. Through radio addresses and publications, he called the attention of Americans to the condition of the French people, appealing for food and money for French relief. Throughout the war, Maritain also worked with the New School in New York City, producing works of a more philosophical and scholarly nature on the subjects of democracy, totalitarianism, and human rights, such as Les Droits de l ‘Homme et la Loi Naturelle; miniature editions of Christianisme et Democratie were dropped by British Royal Air Force planes over occupied France in 1944.

One way that these works relate to other of Maritain’s works is that the theme of the relation between philosophy and faith constitutes an idee fixe in his writings. Consider, for example, his Integral Humanism, the chapter in his Man and the State entitled “The Democratic Charter,” Scholasticism and Politics, and An Essay on Christian Philosophy. Maritain was convinced that the ideals of modern democracy are Christian in origin and that the values of Christianity energize its institutions. (See my foreword in the Ignatius Press edition of Christianity and Democracy and The Rights of Man and the Natural Law for an account of how Maritain sees the relation between faith and speculative philosophy and faith and practical philosophy and thus for what he understands the term “Christian philosophy” to mean.)

None of which diminishes Maritain’s personal drama in reconciling faith and reason. Despairing of ever finding truth (their teachers at the Sorbonne were skeptics and materialists), Maritain and his wife, Raissa, entered into a suicide pact: if they could not find meaning in materialism within one year, they would kill themselves. Fortunately, their discovery of the lectures of Henri Bergson at the College de France showed them that the human mind could transcend the physic-mathematical symbols of mechanistic science and know reality as it is in itself. Bergson’s doctrine, seemed to Maritain and his circle, to promise a new metaphysics: “…Bergson revived the worth and dignity of metaphysics in the minds of his listners, minds engaged in their sorrow by agnosticism or materialism, when he said, with an unforgettable emphasis, to those minds brought up in the most depressing pseudo-scientific relativism, ‘it is in the absolute that we live and move and have our being.’”

While strongly attracted to Bergson’s doctrine of intuition, Maritain eventually arrived at the point where he could no longer accept Bergson’s critique of the concept and his identification of the real with absolute becoming. It was, interestingly enough, Martain’s conversion to Catholicism that led him to this repudiation. The Maritains were baptized in the Catholic Church in 1906. Leon Bloy was their godfather. With his introduction to Catholic doctrine, Maritain found himself unable to square Bergson’s critique of the concept with the “conceptual pronouncements of the religious faith.” The precise difficulty was this: God presents the transcendent truths of revelation, truths that are “inaccessible to our reason,” in the form of conceptual propositions. Now if, as Bergson contends, the concept is incapable of grasping the real as it is and is only a practical instrument for symbolizing it, then Divine revelation is impossible. Maritain rejected this conclusion, concluding instead that the Bergsonian critique of the concept rests on an error.

This moment in Maritain’s life testifies to his personal integrity. Entering the Church with the conviction that philosophy contained inherent errors that made it incompatible with revealed truth, he was prepared to abandon the intellectual life altogether. What was at stake here was Maritain’s search for absolute truth, and, believing that this was found only in Christian doctrine and that philosophy was essentially incompatible with that doctrine, he would give up his philosophical interests. For two years after his conversion, Maritain gave himself over mainly to the study of theology and religion.

Although his initial reasons for repudiating Bergsonism were theological, there were also philosophical ones. Like Bergson, he wished to defend our direct and veridical knowledge of the real in all its dynamism and diversity; but, unlike him, he sought to defend the conditions of intelligibility, viz., conceptual knowledge, on the ground that otherwise we could have no knowledge at all. His introduction to the writings of Thomas Aquinas in 1908, thanks to Father Clerissac, provided him with metaphysical and epistemological principles that persuaded him that his position on the concept was philosophically defensible and reconcilable with divine revelation. What is Maritain’s thesis in Christianity and Democracy? What is his thesis in The Rights of Man and the Natural Law?

Dr. Dennehy: Maritain’s main thesis in Christianity and Democracy is, as I stated above, that the ideals of modern democracy are Christian in origin and that the values of Christianity energize its institutions. However, as Donald Gallagher points out in his global introduction to the volume, besides offering support for the war effort against Nazi Germany, the two books contain a number of ideas central to Maritain’s philosophy; “ideas whose ramifications extend to every aspect of philosophy and which are inspired by theology.” Among them the reader will find ideas and themes that include “the dignity of the human person, the person and the common good, the rights of the person and natural law, organic and personalist democracy, equality and the free society, the ‘terminal freedom’ of autonomy and fulfillment, the inspiration of the Gospel in the socio-temporal order. All these are expressed trenchantly in Christianity and Democracy and Rights of Man and are developed fully in works published by Jacques Maritain in the 1940s and early 1950s.”