May 21, 2021 - 4:36pm

What’s in a name-drop? In the case of Joe Biden’s reference, made in yesterday’s interview with the New York Times, to Jacques Maritain, the answer is: a lot. As the interviewer, columnist David Brooks, put it:  

Another piece of [Biden’s] basic worldview comes from 20th-century Catholic social teaching. He said that his father loved the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, and later in the conversation mentioned that he, too, was guided by Maritain.

Like most of the major figures of Catholic social teaching, Maritain placed great emphasis on social solidarity, the organic interdependence of people and communities. If you’re drenched in Maritain, you believe we have serious responsibilities for one another.

- David Brooks, NYT

Somehow, one doubts that Biden has read a great deal of Maritain’s work. But such was the philosopher’s influence that you can feel it even if you haven’t delved much into his voluminous writings. Post-war Christian Democratic politics was heavily influenced by Maritain; so was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Second Vatican Council and what became the European Union.

Another reason Maritain looms so large is that he managed to simultaneously represent both sides of modern Catholic politics: what you might call the Nice and the Scary.

Nice Catholic politics emphasises that Christ came as a healer and a preacher of justice. It takes inspiration from the Catholics who have worked patiently for the common good in non-Christian societies, like the Jesuits who advised the Ming Emperor. It advocates cooperation among different nations and classes; freedom, human rights and social justice.

Importantly, Nice Catholic politics looks to build bridges, to find common ground with non-believers. Democracy, for instance, seems to echo Christian ideas about the universal brotherhood of man; thus Maritain believed that “democracy is linked to Christianity and that the democratic impulse has arisen in human history as a temporal manifestation of the inspiration of the Gospel.” Human rights make most sense if we have been created in God’s image; so Maritain was excited by the 20th century’s “progress in human consciousness and in moral knowledge, which illuminates more vividly than ever the idea of the human person and of human rights.” Christianity is meant to bring peace and friendship among nations; consequently, Maritain rather optimistically predicted that a European political union could eventually develop into “a new Christendom”.

In some ways, the proudly Catholic Biden stands in the Nice tradition. In his concern for the poorest; in his support, repeated in the New York Times interview, for workers’ unions – a cause so often stressed by modern popes; in his Maritain-esque plan for a coalition of liberal democracies around the world.

What’s wholly missing from Biden’s platform is any hint of Scary Catholic politics. Scary politics keeps constantly in mind that, as Christians repeat every week in the Creed, Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” It sees the world in terms of a spiritual battle, a contest with evil spirits. It is unsurprised when the darkness in the human heart rises to the surface in shocking crimes and atrocities.

For all his Niceness, Jacques Maritain sometimes went in for Scary politics as well. World War II was the result of secularisation, he wrote, a “horrible war that the Pagan Empire has unleashed”. Late in life, Maritain warned that, while the non-Christian world had many virtues, “insofar as it…encloses itself in the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of the spirit, it is the adversary of Christ and his disciples, and hates them.” Many Catholics, he claimed, were making the “insane mistake” of forgetting this.                                                                

Maritain would probably count Joe Biden among the insane. Biden gives off no hint of such dramatic views. Right-leaning Scary Catholics are disturbed by the rise of wokeness, detecting in it a rejection of morality, authority and reason; Biden views it as an awkward but basically reliable ally. 

Left-leaning Scary Catholics, meanwhile, are appalled by American capitalism, seeing its inequalities of health and wealth as the kind of scandal denounced by the Old Testament prophets; by contrast, as David Brooks observes in the New York Times, while Biden wants to rein in corporate excess, he has no “comprehensive critique of capitalism”. And all faithful Catholics, Left and Right, look upon abortion as something unspeakable, whereas Biden has notoriously transformed himself into Planned Parenthood’s favourite politician.     

The US bishops are currently pondering what to say about Biden. They could be Nice, and praise his dedication to social justice; they could be Scary, and declare that as his support for abortion makes a very public mockery of his Catholicism, he should be denied Communion. 

There is, of course, no reason why they couldn’t do both.

Dan Hitchens writes the newsletter ‘The Pineapple’ and is former editor of the Catholic Herald