University of Notre Dame
Jacques Maritain Center   


Christianity and Democracy

December 1949

[From a typewritten manuscript by Jacques Maritain, who gave this address at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in New York on the 29th of December 1949 and again at Gettysburg College under the auspices of the Adams County Round Table of the National Conference of Christians and Jews on the 19th of February 1950.]


The French writer Léon Bloy, who called himself the Pilgrim of the Absolute, and who was a dear friend of mine, took pleasure in telling the following story: Once, in his youth, he was sitting at the table of a café with another poet, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. A passer-by, who was a practical man, accosted the poet: "Hello, my dear fellow," he said to him with a patronizing smile, "always a poet, a beauty lover, always climbing in the clouds?" "And you." answered Villiers with a malicious smile, "you, my dear fellow, always going your way downwards?"

Léon Bloy liked also to comment on the sententious sayings used in the common language. Many people who are good heathens but want to be assisted by religion on their deathbed, are apt to say: "Je ne veux pas mourir comme un chien; I don't want to die like a dog." Léon Bloy commented: "I have never understood why a man who lives like a pig does not want to die like a dog."

These stories have no connection with the purpose of our meeting except as concerns the fact that any discussions dealing with religious matters must be tactful, polite and harmless.

Before embarking on my subject, I should like to make two preliminary remarks.

The first relates to the ways in which Christianity acts on terrestrial history. Christianity is at work in the social life of people according to two very distinct modes of action, which could be called the movement from below and the movement from above.

The movement from above has its source in the teachings of the Church, which are essentially concerned with revealed truth and eternal life, but which are also concerned with the supreme moral principles that hold away over the affairs of the human community. As regards the Catholic Church, a well-known social doctrine, for instance, has been taught in Papal encyclicals for three quarters of a centuny.

The movement from below consists in the germination naturally produced in the depths of the secular, temporal consciousness under the stimulus of Christian leaven. Such a germination took multifarious forms, sometimes disfigured by errors. From the time of Jean Jacques Rousseau on, the world has contemplated an extensive process of secularization of the Gospel, in which good and evil were intermingled and developed together. Yet that very process is inconceivable without the Christian element from which our civilization sprang.

It is the basic factor in the second movement, in the movement from below, namely the awakening of the secular consciousness by the Christian leaven at work in human history, which I shall especially consider in this paper.

My second remark deals with the fact that the philosophical theories -- say, for instance, John Locke's philosophy -- which prepared the ideological formulation of the democratic claims, and which were far from being Christian philosophies -- they were, in actual fact, empiricist or rationalist philosophies -- should be sharply distinguished from the real content of democracy, and from the growing development of common consciousness and common moral experience on which the advent of democracy in modern history has actually depended. My point is that that deep historical process has been preyed upon, and associated with ideological errors, by non-Christian, even sometimes anti-Christian philosophies, which were tied up with contingent and transitory political or cultural conjunctures. To the misfortune and confusion of ideas of the modern world, Rousseau and Kant dressed up democratic thought in their sentimental and philosophical formulas. We know, however, "how much Kant owed to his pietism, and Rousseau to an interplay of Protestantism and Catholicism." [Christianity and Democracy, p. 59, quoting Bergson.] In actual fact, the deep historical process which I am pointing out has been that very transformation of the secular consciousness brought about by the influence of the Gospel to which I alluded a moment ago. Chateaubriand was aware of that. The forefathers of American democracy were aware of that. As the French philosopher Henri Bergson put it, the democratic sense or feeling is, by its very nature, an evangelical sense or feeling, its motive power is love, the essential thing in it is fraternity, it has its real sources in Gospel Inspiration.


II

Christianity announced to the peoples the kingdom of God and the life to come; it has taught them the unity of the human race, the natural equality of all men, children of the same God and redeemed by the same Christ, the inalienable dignity of every soul fashioned in the image of God, the dignity of labor and the dignity of the poor, the primacy of inner values and of good will over external values, the inviolability of the consciences, the exact vigilance of God's justice and providence over the great and the small. Christianity proclaimed that where love and charity are, there God is; and that it is up to us to make every man our neighbor, by loving him as ourselves and by having compassion for him, that is, in a sense, by dying unto ourselves for his sake.

What then are the thoughts and aspirations which the Christian message has by degrees awakened in the depths of the consciousness of peoples, and which moved along underground for centuries before becoming manifest? However misunderstood. and distorted they may have become in the course of this hidden journey in the secular consciousness, what are those truths of evangelical origin which this consciousness henceforth linked and identified with the very idea of civilization?

If we seek to consider them in themselves, separating them from any erroneous contexts, we would say that by virtue of the hidden work of evangelical inspiration, the secular consciousness has understood that human history does not go around in circles, but is set toward a goal and moves in a certain direction. Progress is not automatic and necessary, but threatened and thwarted; it tends to the carrying over of the structures of consciousness and the structures of human life to better states, and this all through history. What at any rate has been gained for the secular consciousness, if it does not veer to barbarism, is faith in the forward march of humanity.

Under the inspiration of the Gospel, the secular consciousness has understood the dignity of the human person and has understood that the person, while being a part of the State, yet transcends the State, because of the inviolable mystery of his spiritual freedom and because of his call to the attainment of supra-worldly possessions. What has been gained for the secular consciousness, if it does not veer to barbarism, is faith in the rights of the human person, as a human person, as a civic person, as a person engaged in social and economic life and as a working person; and it is faith in justice as a necessary foundation for common life, and as an essential property of the law, which is not law if it is unjust.

Under the inspiration of the Gospel at work in history, the secular consciousness has understood the dignity of the people. The people are not God, the people do not have infallible reason and virtues without flaw, the will of the people or the spirit of the people is not the rule which decides what is just or unjust. But the people make up the slowly prepared and fashioned body of common humanity, and the living patrimony of the common gifts and the common promises made to God's creature. What has been gained for the secular consciousness, if it does not veer to barbarism, is the sense of men's equality in nature and the relative equality which justice must establish among them, and the conviction that by means of the functional inequalities demanded by social life, equality must be re-established on a higher level, and must fructify in everyone's possibility of acceding to a life worthy of man, in everyone's assured enjoyment of the elementary possessions, both material and spiritual, of such a life, and in the true participation of each one, according to his capacities and his worth, in the common task and the common heritage of civilization.

By virtue of the hidden work of evangelical inspiration, the secular consciousness has understood that the authority of the rules, by the very fact that it emanates from the author of human nature, is addressed to free men who do not belong to a master, and is exercised by virtue of the consent of the governed. The dictates of authority are binding in conscience because authority has its source in God; but from the very fact that authority has its source in God and not in man, no man and no particular group of men has in itself the right to rule others. The leaders of the people receive this right from the creative and conservative principle of nature through the channels of nature itself, that is, through the consent or will of the people or of the body of the community, by virtue of the right to self-government which belongs to the people. And it is as Deputies to the multitude that the holders of authority lead the multitude, and it is toward the common good of the multitude that they must lead it. What has been gained for the secular consciousness, if it does not veer to barbarism, is the conviction that authority, or the right to exercise power, is held by the rules of the earthly community only because the common consent has been manifested in them, and because they have received their trust from the people; and it is the conviction that the normal state to which human societies ought to aspire is a state in which the people will act as grown-ups or those come of age in political life.

By virtue of the hidden work of evangelical inspiration the secular consciousness has understood that the political realm and the flesh and blood paraphernalia of the things that are Caesar's must nevertheless be subject to God and to justice, it has understood that the entire art of domination and all the crimes which the princes and the heads of nations carry out to conquer and consolidate their power can certainly give them power but inevitably turn out for the misfortune of the peoples. Machiavellianism and the politics of domination, in the sight of which justice and law are a sure means of ruining everything, are the born enemies of a community of free men. What has been gained for the secular consciousness, if it does not veer to barbarism, is the condemnation of the politics of domination and of iniquitous and perverse means in the guidance of nations, the profound feeling that justice fosters order and injustice is the worst disorder, and the conviction that the cause of the welfare and freedom of the people and the cause of political justice are substantially linked.

Under the often misunderstood or disfigured but active inspiration of the Gospel, the secular consciousness has awakened not only to the dignity of the human person, but also to the aspirations and the élan which are at work in his depths. The person, in itself a root of independence, but immersed in the constraints emanating from material nature within and outside man, tends to transcend these constraints and gain freedom of autonomy and expansion. When you know that we are all made for blessedness, death no longer holds any terror; but you cannot become resigned to the oppression and the enslavement of your brothers, and you aspire, for the earthly life of humanity, to a state of emancipation consonant with the dignity of this life. What has been gained for the secular consciousness, if it does not veer to barbarism, is the sense of freedom, and the conviction that the forward march of human societies is a march toward the conquest of a freedom consonant with the vocation of our nature.

Finally under the inspiration of the Gospel at work in history, the secular consciousness has understood that in the misfortunes and suffering of our existence, a single principle of liberation, hope and peace can stir up the mass of servitude and iniquity and triumph over it, because this principle comes down to us from the creative source of the world, stronger than the world: that brotherly love whose law was promulgated by the Gospel to the scandal of the mighty, and which is, as the Christian well knows God's own charity diffused into the hearts of men. And the secular consciousness has understood that in the temporal social and political order itself, not only is civic friendship, as the ancient philosophers knew it, the soul and the constitutive link of the social community (if justice is first of all an essential requirement, it is as a necessary condition which makes friendship possible), but this very friendship between citizens cannot prevail in actual fact within the social group if a stronger and more universal love, brotherly love, is not instilled in it, and if civic friendship, itself becoming brotherhood, does not overflow the bounds of the social group to extend to the entire human race. Once the heart of man has felt the freshness of that terrible hope, it is troubled for all time. If it fails to recognize its supra-human origins and exigencies, this hope runs the risk of becoming perverted and of changing into violence to impose upon all "brotherhood or death." But woe to us if we scorn this hope itself, and succeed in delivering the human race from the promise of brotherhood. The human race has been exalted by it; it will give it up only at the cost of becoming more fierce than before. This hope calls for heroism; it has a divine power for transforming human history. What has been gained for the secular consciousness, if it does not veer to barbarism, is faith in the brotherhood of man, a sense of the social duty of compassion for mankind in the person of the weak and the suffering, and the conviction that the political work par excellence is that of rendering common life better and more brotherly.

The ideas and the aspirations of which I have just spoken characterize the democratic state of mind and the democratic philosophy of man and society. And it is under the influence of the evangelical ferment at work in the world that they took shape in the secular consciousness. During the nineteenth century and particularly in Europe, as a consequence of the most absurd of historical contradictions, these ideas and aspirations were involved in a so-called philosophy of the emancipation of thought which drained them of all substance, disavowed and disintegrated them, all the while pretending to "put out the stars" in the name of science, as a French statesman put it half a century ago, and to make of man a soulless ape for whom the accidents of zoological mutations turned out favorably. In themselves, however, these ideas and these aspirations remained and will always remain essentially linked to the Christian message and to the action of hidden stimulation which this message exercises in the depths of the secular consciousness of the world.

That is why I said earlier that the democratic impulse burst forth in history as a temporal manifestation of the inspiration of the Gospel.

Not only does the democratic state of mind stem from the inspiration of the Gospel, but it cannot exist without it. To keep faith in the forward march of humanity despite all the temptations to despair of man that are furnished by history; to have faith in the dignity of the person and of common humanity, in human rights and in justice -- that is, in essentially spiritual values; to have, not in formulas but in reality, the sense of and respect for the dignity of the people, which is a spiritual dignity and is revealed to whoever knows how to love them; to sustain and revive the sense of equality without sinking into a leveling equalitarianism; to respect authority, knowing that its wielders are only men, like those they rule, and derive their trust from the consent or the will of the people whose vicars or representatives they are; to believe in the sanctity of law and in the efficacious virtue -- efficacious at long range -- of political justice in face of the scandalous triumphs of falsehood and violence; to have faith in liberty and in fraternity, an heroical inspiration and an heroical belief are needed which fortify and vivi[f]y reason, and which none other than Jesus of Nazareth brought forth in the world.

Democracy lives on justice and law. If there is no superior moral law by virtue of which men are bound in conscience toward what is just and good, the rule of the majority runs the risk of being raised to the supreme rule of good and evil, and democracy is liable to turn to totalitarianism, that is, to self-destruction.


III

What is needed, in a democratic society, is that a secular common faith make people adhere to the common democratic charter, the tenets of which -- freedom, human rights, equality, etc. -- are only practical points of convergence, which are the objects of a common practical agreement. The justification of those tenets depends on the philosophical or religious creed of each individual, and ideologies or on spiritual lineages which are, as a matter of fact, quite different, even utterly opposed to each other in our contemporary societies. My contention is that the true and efficacious justification of that secular common faith in the democratic charter is the Christian religious faith, the recognition of the transcendent value of the Gospel inspiration, and the Christian philosophy of man and society. Well, that particular justification of the democratic tenets, can by no means be imposed on or required of the citizens by the state, for no philosophical or religious creed can be imposed on or required of the citizens by the state in a democratic society. If we believe that democracy needs Christianity, it is only by means of freedom, and on the basis of the equality of rights of all citizens, that this need for the Christianization of temporal life can be satisfied, and democracy be revivified in its genuine sources.

I should like to make only a few observations about the practical issues involved.

First, we have to confront the problem of Church and State, and to realize that the body politic needs the cooperation of the Church, or the Churches, for its own temporal good and for the very task of democratic revivification I just mentioned. May I be permitted to point out in this connection that the expression, "separation between Church and State", does not have the same meaning in Europe and in this country. In Europe it means, or it meant, that complete isolation which derives from century old misunderstandings and struggles, and which has provided most unfortunate results. Here it means, as a matter of fact, together with a refusal to grant any privilege to one religious denomination in preference to others, or to have a State established religion, a distinction between the State and the Churches which is compatible with good feeling and mutual cooperation. Sharp distinction and actual cooperation, that's an historical treasure, the value of which a European is perhaps more prepared to appreciate, because of his own bitter experiences. I hope that you keep it carefully, and do not let your concept of separation veer round to the European one.

Secondly; The role of education, with regard to the task in question, Is obviously of prime importance. Here again it is not a question of making religious instruction a required matter in secular schools and colleges or State institutions. A satisfactory solution, it seems to me, would be found if every facility for serious religious education were offered, either in the school or outside the school, to those children whose parents desired it. With respect to the institutions of higher learning, the youth who is being prepared to become a free citizen should be given an opportunity to know his religion as perfectly as the other fields of knowledge, and to avoid remaining an infant -- or becoming a dwarf -- in regard to the things of God while becoming a man in regard to the things of the world. That means that even in nondenominational colleges or in State colleges, courses in theology, which would be a matter of choice, should be given, according to the diversity of creeds, by professors belong to the main religious denominations, each one addressing the students of his own denomination. This would be but an application of the pluralist principle which is needed in a society of free men.

My third remark deals with the ways in which Christianly-minded citizens can work to make the Christian spirit and the Gospel inspiration penetrate and quicken democracy. I think that the agencies really competent in the matter are the Church, or the Churches and that the really appropriate means is the preaching of the word of God, in words and in deeds. But as concerns the political, economic or educational agencies, or the big organizations which would like to help in this task at home or abroad by subsidizing or propagandizing the religious effort, I am afraid that with the best intentions they would be more likely to fail than to succeed. Spiritual affairs cannot be dealt with as ordinary business. The sincerest devotion in promoting the most beneficial external activities, are of little use in this domain. Because it is an internal awakening that is at stake here.

The ways in which Christianly-minded citizens can work at the task of Chritianizing the world are on the one hand a temporal testimony to the Gospel spirit in human affairs, I mean an effort to make social justice, freedom and responsibility in everyday life, and all that favors the ends of human personality, shape and animate the structures of terrestrial existence. On the other hand the ways in question are a direct contribution to the Christian renewal which we hope for, and this means a recasting of our scale of values, and an awareness of the fact that what matters most in human civilization is spiritual experience, as well as the inner union with divine truth which is provided by living faith and love, and that call of the heroes in spiritual life and the gift of oneself which awakens man to what is eternal in him. Finally nothing can replace in this regard the personal commitment of each individual.

Jacques Maritain
Princeton University
Princeton, N. J.
December, 1949