A “Mea Culpa” for Jacques Maritain: A Personal Memoir

One of the continuing scandals in the intellectual life of the Roman Catholic Church today, especially in the United States, is the all but complete eclipse of the great Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) from any serious consideration or renewable study in both the annals of Academe and in what are taken to be our most notable and enlightened journals of opinion.

I have been reviewing books long enough to remember the rather shameful treatment which greeted the publication of Maritain’s last positional statement — practically in fact his last will and testament as perhaps the finest Catholic intellectual of the century — in the volume wistfully titled The Peasant of the Garonne (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York, 1968). One says wistfully for three reasons: (1) that Maritain was well aware, as well he must have been, of his octogenarian status; (2) that he proudly considered himself to be “an inveterate layman”; and (3) the figure of his title is clearly that of a man who says what he means.

Just as bluntly, we ought to wake up to the realization that The Peasant of the Garonne must be ranked as one of the outstanding Catholic books of the century. As much as Jacques Maritain’s reputation seems to have waned, there still seems little doubt that he will survive his critics. The fashion has long since proclaimed Teilhard de Chardin not only in the, ascendancy, of course, but also solidly in the position of that almost total dominance which was once accorded to the Thomist scholar and moral theologian. However, it is the general folly of critics and their rivalries that they should feel compelled to play the game of mutual exclusion. Let us, for the time being, at least try to hold to the principle of simultaneity; which is to say, that Maritain and Teilhard can indeed exist simultaneously and that it is not required of their followers to cancel each other out in battles of mutual extermination. Time will take care of all that.

Historically speaking, the culmination of Maritain’s career came at as bad a time as his earlier career has come at a most fortunate period — I mean at that tremulous and crucial moment between the Wars. The depletion and ennui of the times had all but demanded a clear and clarifying voice, a kind of reassuring intellectual effort that would be in tune with the mind of the Church itself; and a whole French school of writers and artists rose to meet the occasion in a display of faith, hand in hand with reason, which has seldom been equaled in any other national culture. There were indeed significant English and German contributions to the European Catholic renascence, but Maritain was in the vanguard of a group which included Georges Bernanos, Leon Bloy, Francois Mauriac, Paul Claude!, Charles DuBos, and the memory of Charles Peguy — a formidable resurgence by any standards.

It is therefore all the more curious that a Vatican Council, called after World War II and based on the very principle of aggiornamento itself, has failed utterly, in some twenty years or more, to produce a similar resurgence in Catholic art and thought. Instead, we are beginning to realize that there was perhaps too much of a mere desire for change without any found substance for an authentically developed renewal. This is why the first item on the agenda of the Council turned out to be a “must” reform of the liturgy — but which instead turned out to be the least intelligently reformed, because indeed left uninformed by any of the great psychic riches and creative intuitions of Catholic worship itself.

All this is not beside the point when we consider the beginning eclipse of Jacques Maritain even before the convening of Vatican Council II. The desperation for change clearly indicated, if nothing else, that we had to get rid of old eminences like Maritain. It was a calculated and artificial act that we had to get rid of Thomism just as we had to replace the ‘old’ or perennial liturgy with a largely artificial one. As part of the general condition, then, no intellectual vacuum had been more subtly prepared than that into which would rush the heady new theology and scientific acceptability of Teilhard de Chardin.

At this point, certainly, I am not attempting to argue the case against Teilhard de Chardin. But we shall not begin to come of age in the postconciliar era itself if we do not readily admit that a serious Teilhardian critique remains clearly in order. We should no longer have to submit to the minor chastisements of ex-editors from Commonweal who still default the official Church for not having been dramatically present at the very graveside of Teilhard, in 1955, after his sudden death on the Easter weekend, when he was buried some sixty miles from New York City.

In a word, then, it is almost transparently clear why the reputation of Jacques Maritain started to decline just before the convening of Vatican Council II. A Vatican Council was no doubt a wholesome and perhaps necessary idea, but it was clearly untoward that we should have been delivered into the hands of the experts. The progressives in those days were beginning to gather in full force. These were the preconciliar liberals (I was one of them), or whatever else you may want to call those to whom the custodianship of the new enlightenment is presumed to fall; but, in any case, it was the felt need that we must now have a new cosmology to replace the long reign of Thomison that was based on an outmoded Aristotelian physics. Hence: Maritain was out; Teilhard in.

I remember saying as much to the editors of Commonweal — that, in effect, Scholasticism had to go as the dominant and almost exclusive discipline of the Church among the new intellectuals — and I proceeded to establish my petty credentials in this enterprise with a review, in Commonweal (July 6, 1962), of Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism and The Frontiers of Poetry. My lead sentence indicates the insouciant tone of mind I suffered that time: “The present eminence of Jacques Maritain has an almost intimidating effect upon even those — one might say especially those — who may approach this newly reissued classic with something less than the hushed demeanor of folded hands.”

In the main, I held as suspect the capacity of Thomism to deal with the Dionysian element in poetry and therefore questioned the idea that a complete theory of art on Christian principles was possible at all. The argument, of course, valid or not, had nothing much to do with what Maritain would later so magnificently define in his Creative Institution in Art and Poetry (1953), but it had everything to do with discrediting Thomism itself as a viable enterprise in the postconciliar era.

I was chagrined, years later, to learn from one of the editors of Commonweal that Maritain had written to the then most avant-garde Catholic periodical on the continent to say how disappointed he was in the review of his re-issued book. The last thing I had in mind, whatever of mind I had at all, was to offend this great Thomist of our time and a Christian of the most exquisite sensibility. Frankly, I did not consider myself capable of offending him, because, in order to offend anyone, you have to be taken seriously. At this late date, I find it a benign irony that I should have to say that I am not now, and never have been, anti-Maritain as such. I have a considerable shelf of his works and treasure especially such titles as Ransoming the Time (1948), The Range of Reason (1952), and Reflections on America (1958), and many others. I consider Raissa’s Journa (1974), by Maritain’s extraordinarily gifted Jewish-convert wife, to be one of the two or three authentic spiritual classics of our time.

I was nevertheless part of the mental furniture in that preconciliar zeitgeist which perceived Thomism as a hindrance to progressivism, under the rubric of the new Teilhardism, and which was about to be certified as the philosophy now acceptable to thinking Roman Catholics in the postconciliar era. And because Maritain was the leading Thomist of the period, he would simply have to take his raps. It turned out to be a bad rap. There is still something very substantial about Thomism and the beautiful and incandescent clarities of thinkers like Maritain himself and Etienne Gilson.

The attempt to reconcile Maritain to modernism was almost comically demonstrated in his 1966 visit with the Cistercian monk and social activist Thomas Merton, at the Abbey of Gethsemani, in Kentucky. The late John Howard Griffin has provided an account of this visit in Jacques Maritain: Homage in Words and Pictures (Magi Books, 1974). He reveals Merton in one of his typically endearing and enthusiastic, if embarrassingly uncritical, moments when he insisted on blaring some Bob Dylan records (“as an important new voice”) at Maritain and the other guests. One deeply sympathizes with Griffin, who “found it almost unbearable in that setting.” The irrepressible Merton also felt compelled to read some of his late ‘anti-poetry’ aloud, which Maritain and Griffin said they liked, but which is considerable part must honestly be regarded as a desolate exercise in mere affectation. All in all, the visit epitomized the perennial Thomist and scholar in forced juxtaposition with modernism for its own sake. So it is to be hoped that as the affectations of the age recede, we shall once again perceive something of that pristine beauty and wholeness of Thomistic thought which is itself sourced in both the right order of human reason and in the infinitely rich mysteries of the unknown God.

In any case, there are straws enough in the wind to indicate the beginnings of a Jacques Maritain restoration. Again, the attempted critical damage to Maritain’s reputation and life-achievement, in the last decade of his life, was a disgraceful performance in Catholic intellectual circles. It was a kind of damage which readily gave lip-service to the achievement, but never clearly understood it in its relationship to the greater wholeness of Catholic life and thought. New generations of Christians shall come to realize that the peasant of the Garonne was in truth an aristocrat of the mind and soul sent into forced exile. It is not a question of coming home again, but of our own return there in due time.


Thomas P. McDonnell is the editor of Blaze of Recognition:Daily Meditations from the Writings of Thomas Merton