The Philosopher and the Provocateur, Pt. 1.

(I was recently asked by a fellow pastor if I had located a model for reform in church history that I thought would be beneficial for Southern Baptists asking questions about the openness of our institutions, the rigidity of dogma, and the irrelevance of our prophetic witness. I have discovered one interesting, albeit inadequate, paradigm in the mid-20th century collaboration between the French Philosopher and Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain and the iconoclastic, often irreverent Jewish agnostic, Saul Alinsky. I offer these thoughts for blogger cud-chewing)

Jacques Maritain was born in Paris on November 18, 1882, as the son of a wealthy lawyer and descendants of the founders of the Third French Republic. Growing up in a liberal Protestant home, Maritain was allowed to cultivate a strong humanitarian impulse that grew throughout his years of study at the Sorbonne. Soon after graduating with his degree in philosophy, Maritain married a Russian-Jewish girl, Raissa Oumansoff. In 1906, the Maritains were received into the Catholic Church through a series of friendships that raised their interest in spiritual discipline and simple faith. Six years later Maritain began teaching philosophy and theology at the Institut Catholique. Over time, Maritain began to cultivate a rigorous commitment to justice and peace, and his uncompromising application of the principles of the Gospel to questions of social and political justice earned him bitter enemies and loyal friends both within the magisterium and the Christian world at large.

By the time the Second World War broke out, Maritain was living in Greenwich Village and lecturing around the United States. He declined an offer from Charles de Gaulle to serve in the French government during the war, but once the war ended Maritain became the first ambassador of France to the Vatican, a post he held for two years of considerable conflict and turmoil. The pope in Rome during Maritain’s service was Pius XII, a man as strongly defended as ridiculed for his uncertain posture regarding the Jews during the height of Nazi power. Elected by the College of Cardinals in 1939, Pius XII, formerly Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, served as the head of the Church during the entirety of the Second World War. Prior to his papacy, Pacelli had served as the papal nuncio to Germany and as the Secretary of the Vatican foreign affairs office, during which tenures he gained the reputation as a compromiser able to negotiate with deft political instincts.

The Vatican was facing considerable stresses both from within and without the Church when Pacelli was installed as pope. Pacelli’s predecessor, Pius XI, had already brokered a deal with Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini to preserve the Vatican as a separate political entity in exchange for Italian military protection. As the war continued, the Nazis, however, turned their attention toward the Vatican, and the German armies pressed toward Rome. With the threat of losing the Vatican to Nazi invaders, and thus ensuring, at least from his perspective, the “fall” of Catholicism, Pius XII made a series of decisions to remain silent, or at best cryptic, in his public statements as it related to the Jews being tortured and exterminated in Europe.

The same year that Pacelli was elected pope, Jacques Maritain published his seminal work on anti-Semitism and began raising concerns that the Church had too long neglected, even persecuted the people who are their most spiritual kin. Maritain did not, however, criticize the Vatican for its moderated position on the Jewish question during the war, but once the war was over, he became convinced that it was time for the Church to begin a sustained theological and social reassessment. He was willing to grant the pope grace when the threat of Nazi retaliation was imminent, but once the Nazis were defeated, Maritain pushed for more. Sadly, Maritain was to discover the depths to which the papal conscience had fallen.

In the summer of 1946, just two months into his service as ambassador, Maritain drafted a letter to his longtime friend and the Vatican Secretary of State, Giovanni Montini (the future Pope Paul VI). Was it not now time, the letter argued, for the Vatican to issue a solemn declaration against the anti-Semitism evidenced in Nazi Germany? The letter was directed to Pius XII with the prayer that it might move the pontiff toward “filial and profound devotion.” For many years, Maritain argued, the Jewish people had been the target of the most violent and insidious campaigns of genocide. “During the war six million Jews have been liquidated,” he wrote, “[and] Nazism proclaimed the necessity of wiping the Jews off the face of the earth.” Maritain wrote with passion, pleading that “what Jews and Christians need above all is a voice—the paternal voice, the voice par excellence, that of the Vicar of Jesus Christ—to tell the truth to the world and shed light on this tragedy.” Regrettably, he noted, “this has been…greatly lacking in the world today.” The letter continued:

For reasons of prudence and a higher good, and in order not to make persecution even worse, the Holy Father had abstained from speaking directly to the Jews and from calling the solemn and direct attention of the whole world to the iniquitous drama that was unfolding. But now that Nazism has been defeated, and the circumstances have changed, could it not be permitted to transmit to His Holiness to appeal of so many anguished souls, and to beg him to make his voice heard? It seems to me a particularly opportune moment for such a sovereign declaration of the thought of the church.

Maritain further referred in his letter to the “part that many Catholics had in the development of anti-Semitism both in the more distant past, during the war, and in the present.” The true Church, therefore, must “be a work of enlightenment, striking at a cruel and evil error, as well as being a work of justice and reparation.” Within one week, Maritain had an audience with Pius XII to present his request in person. What was the Pope’s reply to Maritain’s earnest and impassioned request? Quite simply, the pontiff stated that he had “already spoken” on such matters. And while some would argue that Pius XII’s reply was “normal Vatican idiom,” Maritain was nonplussed, indeed remorseful.

Later that summer, Maritain recorded these words in his journal, “Visit to Montini. I speak to him of Jews and anti-Semitism. The Holy Father never even named them. Catholic conscience is poisoned, something has to be done.” Other letters were sent to Montini in which Maritain argued that the anti-Jewish prayer pro perfidies Judaeis should be stricken from the Good Friday liturgy. Still other letters reveal the degree to which Maritain, while he had a “growing affection for the person of the pope,” was experiencing a “growing disappointment with regard to his actions.”

What lay behind the pope’s steadfast refusal to speak out concerning the atrocities of the Holocaust? Many scholars suggest it was on account of deep-seated supersessionist theology coupled with “an unwillingness to extend any particular effort on behalf of the Jewish people.” The degree to which Church tradition in general, and the teaching of Aquinas in particular had explicitly condemned the Jews to the outer edges of society cannot be discounted. For instance, in the Summa, Aquinas made two biblical arguments for natural slavery: 1) Adam’s fall made the majority of mankind hereditary slaves; and 2) Christ’s blood is on the head of the Jews, who are therefore born slaves of the Christian Church, which may dispose of their goods as it pleases her. Other Catholic theologians had articulated that Jewish prisoners could be beaten in expiation for Christ’s death. For the remainder of his intransigent papacy, Pius XII refused to speak on the Jewish question. But once his successor, John XXIII, ascended to the Holy See, the hard soil of inertia and indifference had been sufficiently busted up, thus preparing the way for an aggiornamento that would take seriously the institutional sin that had allowed, and at times encouraged, the abuse of the chosen descendants of Abraham.

Jacques Maritain’s views about the Jews changed after the war, even though he was an exception to the prevailing nonchalance about Jewish identity before 1939. In 1937, Maritain wrote an essay entitled, “The Mystery of Israel” in which he refers to the “basic weakness of the mystical communion of Israel,” which is “its failure to understand the cross.” He continued, “Israel thus suffers the repercussion of the activation it produces, or which the world feels it is destined to produce.” In some way, then, the Jewish people are responsible for the calamities which have befallen them. If Israel would only accept Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah, Maritain held before the war, then Jewish suffering would cease. After the war, however, he writes on the seventh beatitude of Jesus—blessed are they that suffer persecution—and he argues that salvation for the Jew might be found in suffering rather than in conversion. He wrote:

Where lay the consolation of these persecuted innocents? And how many others died completely forsaken. They did not give their lives, their lives were taken from them, and under the shadow of horror. They suffered without having wanted to suffer. They did not know why they died. Those who know why they died are greatly privileged people.

Maritain further explored how a suffering so meaningless and indiscriminant causes people of faith to reevaluate the principles of justice and mercy upon which it has been assumed God rules the world. Jews, therefore, who join Christians in their suffering and in solidarity with the Christ who suffered unjustly may find eternal life and peace. “Like strange companions they have journeyed together,” Maritain writes, “along the road to Calvary. The great mysterious fact is that the sufferings of Israel have more and more taken the shape of the cross.” After Vatican II, Maritain elaborated this point:

What I mean is that for a long time we loved non-Christians—truly and sincerely—although they were not Christians. In other words, we loved non-Christians primarily inasmuch as, having the misfortune not to be Christians, they were called to become so; we loved them primarily not as men or for what they were, but as Christians to be or for what they are called to become. We loved them primarily as people sitting in the shadows of death, toward whom our first duty of charity was to strive to convert them to the true faith. But now, by virtue of the great inner reversal I am stressing, we love non-Christians above all because they are, at least potentially, members of Christ; we love hem primarily as human persons who are members, at least potentially, of this incarnate Truth whom they do not know and whom the errors professed by them deny.

The notion that “others” share in the redemptive work of Christ apart from explicit knowledge or personal commitment was not new in Maritain’s thought. For years other modernizers within Catholic theology had been grappling with the question of anonymous Christianity. Maritain’s statements demonstrate clear affinity for the doctrine– or at least the possibility – of anonymous Christianity; and it is here that Maritain, while searching for ways of solidarity and liberation, might perpetuate in the end the sort of Christian triumphalism he so wanted to reject.

Did Maritain mean that Jews become Christians, albeit anonymously, through the sufferings of genocide? Such a consolation seems hardly promising to millions of Jews gassed in death camps. Surely the hope offered them must rise above the assurance that at death they will spend eternity with the ones who persecuted them in Jesus’ name. Nevertheless, it is clear that Maritain’s push for recognized Jewish identity and a corresponding Christian conscience have made an indelible mark on the trajectory of Catholic theology, politics, and social humanism. The church cannot live, Maritain argued, if it holds to the Constantinian structures of Christendom, by which he meant the institutions of religion that seek conversion at the edge of a sword rather than through the awakening of the conscience.

For years, the Church had enjoyed complete hegemony on the European continent, having driven out Islamic invaders centuries earlier. But Europe had experienced the success of diaspora Jews and had suffered a blow to its sense of unity through two world wars. If the Church was to exert influence in the new political and religious context it must update, it must go through aggiornamento. That the Church had saved its skin during the world wars was clear, but in the process, Maritain feared, it might have lost its soul. That Pius XII would regard buildings over souls is an error never to be repeated, and to that end Maritain labored with a calm vengeance. By the time his longtime friend Cardinal Montini was elected Pope Paul VI, the church had moved forward beyond Christendom toward justice for all, but especially for those who most need it, i.e., the poor and oppressed.

Then, at eighty five years old, Maritain published his most controversial work, The Peasant of Garonne, written at the close of Vatican II when the Church was still questioning what had happened and what it meant. Hailed by some as a tremendous vindication of the right, and ridiculed by many as the product of published senility, the book leaves readers wondering exactly what Maritain thought about the Council in the aftermath.

Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things magazine and himself a converted Catholic theologian, read the book and comes to the conclusion that little question exists about Maritains obedience to the Magisterium. Nevertheless, Neuhaus asserts, Maritain was clearly frustrated that the Council had not done as much as possible to counter those who might abuse it for their inadequate agendas. While he welcomed the opening of the Church to the “others,” Maritain grows skeptical that the superficial dialogues which followed could not be dialogues around the eternal truths of which the Catholic Church was primary holder. But the summary criticism expressed in The Peasant, Neuhaus argues, is the “denial or suppression of the transcendent—of life understood as premised upon what Maritain calls, ‘the intuition of being’ and the ordering of all humanity to the Being who is God.”

But where the Council had its most controversial and ultimate impact was not on ecclesial liturgy and piety, the themes most sounded in The Peasant. Rather, Maritain’s earlier thought regarding the themes of social justice and evangelism and poverty bear upon the continuing dialogue to come from the Council, namely, liberation theologies, and his close association with non-Christians in the struggle for social justice provides an ample illustration. In other words, Maritain was not just concerned to reinvigorate Catholic social thought by publishing his thoughts. He was firmly committed to taking his place alongside those who labored for real justice in real places.

Maritain’s work on the dignity of every human person in Integral Humanism is built upon his firm belief that the common people are the soul of society—those who bear the moral reserves necessary to transform the temporal order. He spared no indictment against Marx and Rousseau, however, and held great hope that capitalism might provide the means by which the working classes could arise.

The church also had to reevaluate how she helps the poor, for whom Maritain argued there should be a preference and with whom there should be solidarity. This preference should not take the form, as in the past, of benevolent charity, as Maritain argued, “Before doing good to them, and working for their benefit, before practicing the politics of one group or another…we must first choose to exist with them and to suffer with them, to make their pain and destiny our own.” By people, he meant, “a community of the under-privileged, centered around manual labor, characterized by a certain historical patrimony, of suffering, of effort and of hope…by a certain way of understanding and living out poverty, suffering and pain….by a certain way of being always the same ones who get themselves killed.” And in whom did Maritain find this greatest of Christian virtues? He found the truest “Christian” in this sense in a rough, agnostic Jew named Saul Alinsky.

To be continued…

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