Saturday, November 01, 2003

Challenging the "Democratic Faith" of Jacques Maritain

I read a rather provocative article today by Thaddeus J. Kozinski on "Jacques Maritain's "Democratic Faith": Heretical or Orthodox?" -- in which he criticizes Maritain's philosophy of "personalist democracy," reflecting an idealistic faith which has been rendered passe in light of America's moral degeneration. Kozinski argues that the proper attitude one should adopt in this day and age would be that of the ultramontane English Catholic, William George Ward ("Towards the prevailing national spirit ., . . our only reasonable attitude is one of deep jealously and suspicion; because it is charged with principles which, for the corruption of human nature, are sure to be more false than true, and from which we should keep ourselves entirely free, until we have measured them by their only true standard, the Church's voice").

According to Kozinski, Maritain's believed that in spite of our diverse cultural and religious backgrounds mankind, in reaction to the horrible experience of Facism and Nazism, could come together in agreement on the existence of the protection of certain goods ("truth and intelligence, human dignity, freedom, brotherly love, and the absolute value of moral good.") 1 According to the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, "What Maritain wished to affirm a modern version of Aquinas' thesis that every human being has within him or herself a natural knowledge of divine law and hence of what every human being owes to every other human being." But MacIntyre disagrees, contending that while those engaged in such discussion employ the same terminology ("freedom", "justice", "human rights", et al.) the intended meaning would be contingent upon one's philosophical background and worldview.

As MacIntyre has shown, rationality itself is a "practice" that takes its shape in a particular, lived-tradition of rationality, informed by religious, philosophical, anthropological, epistemological commitments that in turn inform the precise manner in which that rationality is practiced by the individuals habituated into a particular tradition. For MacIntyre, then, the post-World-War II consensus on the goods constituting the democratic charter was not really a consensus at all, even though the consenters evinced a common lexicon of "human rights" and "democratic values"; for, it was built on sand, on entirely disparate understandings of that lexicon in virtue of their disparate traditions of rationality: Thomist, Humean, Kantian, Rousseauian, Nietzchean, Deweyean, etc.. But even if all the consenters had indeed been rooted in the same tradition (perhaps as the children of a dysfunctional Enlightenment family!), it was not rooted in that one tradition of rationality without which, Maritain insisted, the particular goods of the democratic order would have never even been recognized, let alone become attainable, the scholastic tradition of Christian rationality. 2

Kozinski argues that in this day and age it is no longer possible to maintain any kind of democratic concensus on such matters as envisioned by Maritain. A prevalent example is the way our society (and our courts) have redefined human persons in a similar manner as the Nazis, so as to justify murder of the unborn, "all under the banner of the "freedom" and "rights" afforded by the democratic charter." He also argues, along with Dr. David Schindler, that the practical, secular consensus of liberal democracy and "neutrality" towards religion displays a tendency "to undermine the priority, in first public and then private life, of supernatural or spiritual reality, and even to invert the proper subordination of the mundane to the spiritual."

As it is impossible for one to serve both God and mammon, what would happen to a religious believer who attempts to serve a democratic faith that requires the sacrifice of the public, temporal significance of his religious faith? It would be perfectly natural for him to interpret his obligatory devotion to the publicly celebrated, legally enforced, and socially respectable democratic faith as less important than his voluntary devotion to his publicly neglected, legally ignored, and socially eschewed religious faith. The consequence of prolonged habituation in such a regime is obvious. It is not possible, without a heroic amount of grace, effort and vigilance, to hold both the "theologically-neutral" theological premise of the democratic charter and the theologically charged premises of a Christian political theology. For this reason we should be very hesitant to accept the purported neutrality of even Maritain's Christ-inspired democratic charter. Maritain, of course, would never had wanted any part of such a trivialization of Christian belief -- on the contrary, he explicitly called for a new Christendom! But one mustn't ignore the possibility that he may have promoted this very obsoletion when he denied the need for truth as a basis for social order in the modern world.

I have not read enough of Maritain's political philosophy to sufficiently respond to Kozinski's indictement at this point in time, although I question whether Maritain was truly dismissive of the need for truth as a basis for social order. (In fact, Kozinski himself admits towards the end that he may be off-base in his reading of Maritain, simplifying his thought to make his critique easier). In any case, I may address his points later after I have read some more of Maritain's work.

One more thing that I would like to touch on is the matter of Kozinski's proposed remedy to the "imminent dangers of pluralism":

The American spirit, in spite of its original goodness, has now been taken over by evil forces, forces that can not be exorcised by anything other than an unadulterated, vigorous, politically-relevant faith in Jesus Christ and the Church that He founded, a Church that must be, for the sake of both the Church's honor and the temporal common good, the publicly recognized guide for men in both individual and social life. And for the latter to occur, we need to work for a nationwide conversion to the Catholic faith.

Kozinski's proposal for the establishment of a visible "Kingdom of Christ" and the physical subordination of all mankind to the Church is widely held and advocated by "traditionalist Catholics". However, it is also one that many Catholics would disagree with. Being the first article I'd ever read by Mr. Kozinski, I decided to research him further and came across this brief correspondence with Fr. Neuhaus in First Things. 3 Fr. Neuhaus's responds to Kozinski on "the distinction between the ideal and what is prudentially judged to be possible or desirable" and directs him to his article on The Liberalism of John Paul II (First Things May 1997) for further explication. 4

  1. See Christianity and Democracy, an address at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in New York on Dec. 29, 1949.

  2. See Macintyre's Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Dec. 1989). Also, Edward T. Oakes' introduction: The Achievement of Alasdair MacIntyre First Things August/September 1996.

  3. Responding to Neuhaus' three part column "Proposing Democracy Anew," October-December 1999, which I have added to our archive.

  4. Cardinal Dulles' article Religious Freedom: Innovation and Development (First Things Dec. 2001) is also of relevance.

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