University of Notre Dame
Jacques Maritain Center   

Western Civilization and Religious Faith


7. The next issue should deal with Church and State. But since I have discussed it at length in a book recently published{1}, I prefer not to touch upon it today -- in a manner which would necessarily be too succinct and incomplete.

Passing, then, to another order of considerations, the conditions peculiar to the temporal or political society, we may observe that a democratic body politic needs, in order to be alive, a common charter or a kind of common faith -- not religious, but civic, lay or secular in nature -- in the basic tenets of democracy; but such a common charter, such a common human creed, the creed of freedom, is only practical, not theoretical, it deals with practical tenets or practical points of convergence, quite independently of the theoretical justifications which the human mind can try to offer -- more or less successfully, that's another affair -- from utterly different philosophical outlooks, and which pertain only to the individual freedom of minds and consciences.

Thus it is that men belonging to quite different spiritual lineages, and possessing quite different, even quite opposite philosophical or religious outlooks, can agree in practice upon the practical tenets in question, -- which they justify or claim to justify in the most various, even opposite ways -- and can, consequently, work together to the common good and at the common task of the democratic politic.

Yet the fact remains that, in the background of this common practical democratic charter, there is a certain analogical similitude in practical principles, or, in the broadest sense of this word, a certain unformulated, unwritten common law, a certain common inspiration, by virtue of which they similarly revere, perhaps for quite diverse reasons, such things for instance as truth and intelligence, human dignity, freedom, justice, and love or friendship between members of the human race and between the members of the human society.

What is now, as a matter of fact, the depest source of this common inspiration? At this point we meet with our second issue, namely the temporal impact of Christianity.

8. Before discussing this issue, I should like to make a preliminary remark.

This remark has to do with the fact that the philosophical theories which prepared in modern centuries 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 moral experience on which the advent of democracy in modern history has actually depended. My point is that this development has been preyed upon by ideological errors which were tied up ith contingent and transitory political or cultural conjunctures.

John Locke's political philosophy remained, contrary to his speculative philosophy, in a certain continuity with the heritage of Christian thought worked out during the Middle Ages. But Locke conveyed to modern times the practical commonplaces of this traditional heritage wither in warping them through his sheer individualism, or in depriving them of their rational consistency. Later on, to the misfortune and confusion of ideas in the modern world, Rousseau and Kant dressed up democratic thought in their sentimental and philosophical formulas.

Not to speak of the work of the great mediaeval and post mediaeval theologians who laid the foundation of democratic philosophy, we know, however, "how much Kant owed to his pietism, and Rousseau to an interplay of Protestantism and Catholicism." In actual fact, a much deeper historical process, starting long before, and not in the brains of the philosophers, but in the heart of the common people, has developed all through Christian centuries, and is still developing, -- I mean a repercussion of the Gospel's good tidings on that level, not spiritual but temporal, not religious but terrestrial, of what may be called the secular consciousness of Western civilization. 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 evangelic sense or feeling, its active power is love, the essential thing in it is fraternity, it has its real sources in Gospel inspiration.

Christianity has been at work in the social life of peoples according to two distinct modes of action, which might be called the movement from below and the movement from above.

The movement from above -- that is, from the Church teachings and from the very level of faith -- is in itself the most important. But it is the movement from below -- in other words, that slow transformation of the common consciousness of people on the terrestrial level to which I alluded a moment ago, the germination naturally produced in the depths of the secular, temporal, lay consciousness under the stimulus of Christian leaven, -- it is this movement from below, considered in its basic normal trends, which I shall especially point out in this part of my lecture.

9. Christianity has 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 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, what are those truths of evangelic origin which secular consciousness has 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 under the inspiration of the Gospel 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; the good and the evil, the wheat and the tares grow together all through history, until the final harvest; but the energy of the good is greater than that of evil.

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. The idea involved is the idea of human rights.

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 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 premises made to God's creature. The idea involved is the idea of human equality.

Secular consciousness has understood that the authority of the rulers, 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 held by virtue of the consent of the governed. The dictates of human 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 of itself a right to rule others. It is as Deputies of the people that the holders of authority lead the people, and it is toward the common good of the people that they must lead them.

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. The idea involved is that 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.

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.

Finally, 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 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.

10. The ideas and 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 Gospel ferment at work in the world that they took shape in 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 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.

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 the 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 vivify 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.

Thus it appears that Christian inspiration, just as it has been the deepest motive power in the historical development of the democratic persuasion, also is its deepest force of preservation. We see, then, that if it is true that in the secular consciousness of modern peoples trends depending on genuine Christian inspiration and trends depending on corrupted Christian inspiration and sheer materialistic inspiration have intercrossed in actual fact, -- and that the democratic philosophy has similarly been subject, in actual fact, both to a process of normal growth and a process of self-deterioration caused by parasitical errors which have preyed upon it, -- as a result the most crucial question which confronts freedom-loving peoples and Western civilization is to have democratic philosophy purified of these parasitical errors, and the genuinely humanistic trends at play in secular consciousness quickened by a profound re-awakening of the Christian sources in the souls of men, in the very order of religious and spiritual life.

{1} Man and the State, University of Chicago Press, 1951.

<< ======= >>