Jacques Maritain and Reinhold Niebuhr: Theorists of Democratic Pluralism

In the pages of Catholicism and Crisis, and in a few other iconoclastic journals of neo-liberal opinion, readers have been treated to frequent references to the writings of Jacques Maritain and Reinhold Niebuhr. Why have these two theologians, who lived and wrote in the turbulent period between 1920 and 1970, achieved such prominence? What do they have to contribute to the pursuit of political theology?

This essay is an attempt to suggest the dimensions of contemporary Christian political theology by examining the work of these two twentieth-century theologians, one Roman Catholic and the other Protestant. Jacques Maritain was a French Catholic philosopher, a metaphysician, who elaborated a political theory based on the philosophical vision of Thomas Aquinas. He became one of the preeminent spokesmen for democratic pluralism and human rights in the contemporary era. Reinhold Niebuhr was a German-American Protestant pastor and seminary professor of social ethics whose voluminous writings on political issues were infused with a distinctive moral and theological viewpoint. He became the primary representative of the realist school of twentieth-century American political philosophy. Maritain and Niebuhr came from divergent backgrounds and must be understood, in the most fundamental sense, as intellectuals standing firmly within mainstream Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, respectively. Yet, they elaborated a similar political ideal: a democratic pluralist society with social and legal safeguards for the full range of human rights. In their mature writings, both theologians defined the just society as one with a differentiated system of political liberty, economic liberty, and moral-cultural liberty. It is the task of this essay to compare their similar political visions, the distinct theological roots from which they emerged, and to show the complementarity of their ideas.

A capsule statement of Christian political theology which illumines its relevance to the modern situation is not easily found. What is the essence of the just society? Maritain and Niebuhr each devoted the greater part of their life’s energy to the exploration of this problem. They are remembered for their realistic views of human nature, their sense of the dual human capacity for justice and injustice, and their commitment to a “progressive” or “liberal” political ethic. The essence of the political theologies of both Maritain and Niebuhr is democratic pluralism. Two revealing theses summarize their political theologies; they can be found in the single most enduring aphorism from each man’s writings. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”1 Jacques Maritain wrote, “The state is for man, not man for the state.”2 The spirit of each man shines through these words. Not only do these statements exhibit a fundamental consistency and complementarity, but also they reflect a spirit which is essentially biblical and Christian: man is capable of good and evil, he is also called to create a political society of mutuality and love. This was the vision of Maritain and Niebuhr.

The Public Dialogue

The interaction in print between Niebuhr and Maritain consists primarily of three book reviews written by Reinhold Niebuhr in the late 1930s and the early 1940s.3 The three books are Maritain’s Freedom in the Modern World, True Humanism, and Ransoming the Time. On the whole, these reviews by Niebuhr suggest deep intellectual affinities between the two theologians, and they also point up some basic differences in their presuppositions. The first two reviews are directly relevant to the theme of democratic pluralism. Therefore, it will be necessary to comment on each of them momentarily.

Beyond these three book reviews, the printed dialogue between Maritain and Niebuhr is negligible. There are only passing references to one another’s thought in their writings. However, it is also true that a great deal of verbal interaction between Maritain and Niebuhr took place. During the many years in which Maritain lived and worked in North America, the two theologians frequently crossed paths. Raissa and Jacques Maritain were occasional dinner guests of Ursula and Reinhold Niebuhr, and vice versa. Given the outgoing and intense personalities of these individuals, there was surely a substantial amount of serious conversation about common concerns and issues of the day. Unfortunately, the content of these personal encounters is lost forever to scholars who would compare the ideas of Maritain and Niebuhr.4 We can assume, however, that these were very special occasions quickened by the clash of great minds and spirits, sometimes agreeing, sometimes differing, but always congenial.

Reinhold Niebuhr first reviewed a book by Jacques Maritain in 1936.5 Niebuhr finds Freedom in the Modern World to be a useful attempt to solve the “cultural and social crisis” of Western civilization through a balanced and theistic brand of humanism. On the one hand, Maritain “is able to escape the individualism of secular liberalism with his emphasis that the good of the community is the highest value ‘in the scale of terrestrial values.’” On the other hand, Maritain “avoids the final subordination of the individual to the community as an end in itself by his insistence that the ultimate possibilities of personality transcend the social purposes for which individuals are claimed in their various political and economic collectives.”6 Maritain’s warning that the communist path leads to the abuse of individual persons resembles the criticisms which Niebuhr himself had begun to level at his fellow Marxians.

The second review by Niebuhr of a book by Maritain appeared in 1939. The book is Maritain’s True Humanism. Neibuhr describes Maritain as “a profound Catholic philosopher with a genuine appreciation of the social problem.”7 He finds in Maritain a genuine political liberal who challenges the presuppositions and consequences of Marxism.

He is critical of Marxism at precisely the points where we have been critical. He sees that Marxist utopianism is a necessary consequence of its naturalism and materialism. It desires to establish the Kingdom of God in history and thus expects the unconditioned good within the relativities of history. But unlike most Catholic critics of Marxism, he has a genuine understanding of the fateful and necessary role which the workers must play in the reconstruction of society and of the genuine contributions which Marxist philosophy has made to their discovery of that role.8

Why is the challenge of Marxism so central to the task of constructing a Christian political theology? Niebuhr’s statement suggests that learning from, and ultimately rejecting, Marxism is the key to true liberalism.

Maritain’s “Pluralism”

Maritain’s philosophy of “integral humanism” places primary emphasis upon the creative activity of human persons coming together in a multitude of institutions and social movements. These institutions are the social structures which mediate between the individual and the state. Every individual participates in them. They are the fundamental forms of expression for the individual, and they serve a crucial psychological function by facilitating the formation of personal identity.

Maritain recognized the importance of mediating institutions for the proper functioning of a pluralist body politic. He was especially appreciative of the social differentiation which he found in the United States. “There is in this country a swarming multiplicity of particular communities,” he wrote. In such a society the idea of community is more at home than the idea of the state. Pluralism is its watchword. Maritain called it “organic multiplicity.” Several types of associations were identified by Maritain: labor unions, vocational or professional associations, religious brotherhoods, interest groups with myriad causes.9

The significance of social institutions independent of state control becomes especially clear in Maritain’s analysis of industrial civilization. His reading of the history of democratic capitalism is central to his political vision.

Maritain’s mature view of the ideological conflict hinges on his understanding of two mediating institutions which he considers indispensible in a modern, free society: the labor union and the business corporation. It is here that the significance of democratic capitalism in a pluralist society, the place of economic liberty, comes into bold relief.

“The old merciless struggles between management and labor,” Maritain writes, “have given way to a new relationship.”10 Both management and labor are discovering the virtue of “intelligent collective self-interest”. He is referring specifically to the history of struggle between the American labor movement and the business establishment, and the way in which that history resulted in the particular situation of the 1950s. But his analysis is applicable to all pluralist societies. “Corporations are becoming aware,” he says, “of the primacy of welfare and the political common good.” “Organized labor,” also, has a “growing power … and a growing sense, too, of the primacy of the general welfare and the political common good.”11 “Free enterprise and private ownership function now in a social context and a general mood entirely different from those of the nineteenth century.”12

Maritain wrote much more about pluralism in the political and cultural spheres than about economic pluralism. Would that he had said more. For most of his life, Jacques Maritain did not look kindly on corporations. He had considered industrial civilization an “inhuman and materialist” form of idolatry.13 But his thinking underwent a change. He wrote in 1958 that the corporation played a vital role in pluralist democracy. “I do not assume that corporations have reached a stage where they would prefer the common good to their own particular good.” Maritain, like Niebuhr, always emphasized the permanent tendency of each individual and social grouping to seek its own interests, even at the expense of the rights of others. “These big organisms … are still fondly thinking, to be sure, of the dividends of their stockholders — but not as the unique, even as the first thing; because they have understood that, in order simply to exist, and to keep producing, they must become more and more socially minded and concerned with the general welfare.” And this, “not by reason of any Christian love, but rather of intelligent self-interest.”14

Likewise, Maritain saw labor unions as institutions which were taking on more and more social responsibility. He believed that the labor union was “becoming more deeply and organically basic in the whole economic process … evolving from a merely antagonistic force … into a necessary and responsible counter-balancing power.” Furthermore, “it confronts big corporations as an equal.” And the leaders of the labor union “try to get the best possible conditions without putting the progress of production in jeopardy,” for “the very power of labor needs great industry as the very prosperity of great industry needs labor.”15

Niebuhr’s “Democracy”

Similarly, Niebuhr’s appreciation for reformed capitalism ripened in his later life, when he also had the opportunity to reflect back on decades of political activism.

The economic security of the so-called “free” nations is not as established as the proponents of “free enterprise” would have us believe. Nor has perfect justice been established. But it is now perfectly clear that the “capitalistic” culture which was also a democratic one had more moral and political resources to avoid catastrophe than either the Marxists or their Christian fellow travelers believed. . .

We Christian “prophetic” sympathizers with Marxism were as much in error in understanding the positive program of socialism as we were in sharing its catastrophism.16

Capitalism, according to Niebuhr, has managed to reform itself through the tutelage of political democracy. Democratic capitalism provided a realistic view of the distinction between self-interest and self-seeking.

It was the great achievement of classical economic liberalism to gain recognition of the doctrine that the vast system of mutual services which constitute the life of economic society could best be maintained by relying on the “self interest” of men rather than their “benevolence” or on moral suasion, and by freeing economic activities from irrelevant and frequently undue restrictive political controls.17

Furthermore, capitalistic democracy, through the agency of trade unionism, evolved to a point where big business and big labor are “fairly evenly balanced” and have “acquired semi-governmental functions.” Here two mediating institutions counterbalance each other in a creative tension which leads both to a greater sense of public spiritedness and an ethic of service. Here a new reality has emerged, a democratic capitalism which can produce prosperity and equality through the application of incentives and the ideal of community service.

Bourgeois democracy, said Niebuhr, had greater moral and political resources than one would have imagined.

Bourgeois democracy is highly regarded in the West as the best form of government because it checks every center of power, and grants no immunity to any form of prestige…. Force remained a minimal instrument of government, for the pretensions of any particular government could be challenged in the open society which (the early democratic idealists) created, so that confidence that the government would establish justice was not destroyed. Bourgeois democracy is, therefore, in a more impregnable position, not only in the West but in the world, than are the bourgeois interests which first gave birth to it.18

Clearly, Niebuhr believed that the checks and balances of democratic pluralist society prevent the injustices which would follow from the hegemony of any one class.


For Maritain and for Niebuhr, the essence of political responsibility is the conservation and transformation of political culture. Every political structure must change as it advances toward its goal of the common good. It must also maintain hard-won advances toward justice. For example, history has decreed a new status for the working class within the modern balance of social forces — a status championed by both Maritain and Niebuhr. The economic rights won by the bourgeoisie were necessarily broadened to include the rights of the wage workers. The case is exemplary. The dignity of the person and his vision of the common good demand the continuing transformation of the existing structures of power. Personal dignity and human rights are a prominent aspect of the political philosophies of Maritain and Niebuhr.

But Maritain was more inclined than was Niebuhr to believe that it was possible to form a global consensus concerning human rights or to construct a legitimate, global political authority. Niebuhr was more pessimistic about the ability of democratic pluralism, with its commitment to human rights, to encircle the globe. Both men struggled for this end. Both viewed history as open-ended; both believed in the personalist vision of human agency building a just social order. Both presented a dialectical view of the person as an intelligent, willful, and responsible locus of political participation.

The liberty and equality of persons must be complemented, according to Maritain and Niebuhr, by the fraternity which makes social cohesion possible. Political society, said Aristotle, demands a measure of friendship between citizens who consider themselves equals. The common good thus includes the contributions to society made by each person and each institution, even when they operate in competitive relationships. This necessary measure of fraternity is present whenever the people share a common civic faith in certain fundamental principles — in Maritain’s words, “truth and intelligence, human dignity, freedom, brotherly love, and the absolute value of moral good.”19 In our time these principles of civic faith are embodied in systems of democratic pluralism. Authority is extended and controlled democratically, through the participation of individual persons in the process of representational self-government. There is, or should be, a balance between individual and collective demands. In a democracy there is a plurality of interests and powers, balanced according to the principles of respect for the person and service to the common good. Every ethnic group, every subculture, has a rightful share in the plurality of power. Mutual toleration does not contradict true cultural fidelity, since it is out of the diversity of a nation that its unity develops. True freedom and order coexist in such a system. Both Maritain and Niebuhr argue that the primary laboratory of political participation and societal transformation is the contemporary system of democratic pluralism. Similarly, they see the very negation of participation and transformation manifested in the totalitarian system. Both men warn of the serious threat to civilization posed by totalitarianism and statism in all its forms. Both men applaud democratic pluralism for partially solving the problems of power and authority.

Maritain and Niebuhr elaborate a remarkably similar defense of democratic pluralism in their respective political theologies. Each offers a realistic and morally engaged understanding of the political order. The practical content of political theory in Maritain and Niebuhr is almost identical. What distinguishes them are the styles of moral reflection, the inherited languages, the controlling images of their philosophical systems. In their styles of thought we discover the distinguishing characteristics of the political theologies of Maritain and Niebuhr, but even here we find not opposition but complementarity.



1. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of its Traditional Defense, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, Scribner Library, 1944), p. xiii.

2. Jacques Maritain, Man of the State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Phoenix Books, 1951), epigraph on the cover of this 1951 paperback edition.

3. “Thomism and Mysticism,” review of Freedom in the Modern World, by Jacques Maritain, and Freedom and the Spirit. By Nicolas Berdyaev, Saturday Review, 8 August 1936, p. 16; review of True Humanism, by Jacques Maritain, in Radical Religion 4 (Spring 1939):45; and “Bergson and Maritain,” review of Ransoming the Time, by Jacques Maritain, and We Have Been Friends Together, by Raissa Maritain, in Union Seminary Quarterly Review 3 (March 1942):28-29.

4. Niebuhr refers in print to Maritain’s concept of natural law, arguing that there is “a permanent structure of human personality,” but that there are “always historically contingent elements in the situation which natural-law theories tend falsely to incorporate into the general norm.” See Faith and History: A Comparison of Christian and Modern Views of History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949), p. 180. Maritain writes in a letter to June Bingham dated 9 May 1958 which is on file in the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. It is a good idea to write a life of Reinhold Niebuhr. I have much admiration for his person. From the point of view of theology there are many differences between him and me (he is Protestant, I am Catholic), that which I especially appreciate in him is his breadth of vision and the spirit of faith with which he approaches contemporary problems, especially social problems, and his profound sense of the responsibilities of the Christian in temporal matters (author’s translation).

In a letter to D. B. Robertson dated 25 March 1982 Ursula Niebuhr writes, “The Maritains certainly were good friends. We saw quite a lot of them…. Reinhold thought him perfectly delightful, but found him a little bound by his scholastic categories and also less vigorous and irreverent than, for example, Etienne Gilson . . . (They) talked about politics a good deal, after all it was wartime and the fate of the world was in the balance .. . (They) were very sympathetic and both of them obviously enjoyed talking to each other.”

5. “Thomism and Mysticism, p. 16.

6. Ibid.

7. Review of True Humanism, p. 45.

8. Ibid.

9. Jacques Maritain, Reflections on America (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958; reprinted, New York: Gordian Press, 1975), pp. 162.63.

10. Ibid., p. 109.

11. Ibid., p. 197.

12. Ibid., p. 101.

13. Ibid., p. 21.

14. Ibid pp. 106-107.

15. Ibid., pp 103-105. 109.

16. Reinhold Niebuhr, “Biblical Faith and Socialism: A Critical Appraisal,” in Religion and Culture: Essays in Honor of Paul Tillich, ed. Walter Leibrecht (New York: Harper & Bros., 1959), p. 51.

17. Reinhold Niebuhr, Faith and Politics: A Commentary on Religious, Social, and Political Thought in a Technological Age, ed. Ronald H. Stone (New York: George Braziller, 1968), p. 139.

18. Note is Missing

19. Maritain, Man and the State. p. 111.


In 1983, Dr. John W. Cooper was Dean for Academic Affairs, Bridgewater College, VA.