by Dan Hitchens
Friday, 21
May 2021
Spotted
16:36

Jacques Maritain: Joe Biden’s favourite Catholic thinker

The President seems unaware of the scarier side of the philosopher's Catholicism
by Dan Hitchens

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.

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Aaron Kevali
Aaron Kevali
1 year ago

“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”
Today even the poor are grossly overfed, have shelter and clothing, even while sometimes live profoundly unchristian lives (gambling, laziness, drug abuse, casual fornication, drunkenness). Sorry to sound like a 19th century preacher here but in the UK and USA I have almost never seen actual poverty. The relative poverty I have seen is self-inflicted, in large part through complete loss of faith/any understanding of a higher purpose to life. Lefty Catholics are scary because they offer to turn stones to bread, if you will just bow down to something other than Christ.

David D'Andrea
David D'Andrea
1 year ago

For a short and very powerful rendition of what the author is calling “Scary” (Christianity, more broadly than Catholicism), listen to Johnny Cash’s stunning song The Man Comes Around

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
1 year ago
Reply to  David D'Andrea

I always thought that was a very menacing song, akin to something Nick Cave would write.

Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

Lyrics adopted from the Book of Revelation, end-time language.

Paul Davies
Paul Davies
1 year ago

So Joe Biden has been reading a Catholic philosopher? Come on man, you believe that you will believe anything – he said to an aide give me a speech which appeals to Catholics and makes me look smart – you know it, we all know it. The man is an intellectual lightweight with alzheimers.

Rick Sharona
Rick Sharona
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Davies

Biden couldn’t spell Maritain if you spotted him Marit…

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

What is this ‘Scary’ cr*p? You mean Christianity as it always was – Christianity is not Hippies putting flowers in peoples hair. Onward Christian Soldiers is a great part of it. Christ believed soldering was not an impediment to Christianity.

Most soldiers from the 400AD onward, Christian, societies were believers. ‘No Atheists In A Foxhole’.
Christianity is DUTY first of all. It is struggle, it is to be fought for when attacked, and it is hard, not easy. To become Christian means your life is harder than not having such standards of actions, thought, and duty. It is sacrifice. It is also forgiveness.
Biden’s protestations of Christian beliefs are possibly true as the worst person may also be Christian, as we all know – God told us the sinner may always be saved, that sin is part of being human, that Free Will is our burden, and most can not resist the bad choices as we are weak.

But still, I do think it likely that Biden is more of a crocodile tears case than anything, also I think he is out to divide America, NOT to bring it together, because this is what every action of his administration is doing.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I agree with much of what you say but I would say that Christianity is a relationship first of all rather than a duty.
‘Nice’ often seems to equate with doing what you want, not acknowliging sin (except in others) and controlling ones own life (Anyone who thinks after the past 15 months that we have control has been in space!)
‘Scary’ often equates with responsibility towards others and the state making rules.

George Bruce
George Bruce
1 year ago

I would be amazed if Biden actually gives a s*it about Catholicism, other than as a means to attract voters.

Alex Delszsen
Alex Delszsen
1 year ago
Reply to  George Bruce

In his own words, it offers him an “hour” of quiet once a week. I think he also likes visiting his son’s grave at the church graveyard.

Jonathan Marshall
Jonathan Marshall
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Delszsen

Fair enough, but if that’s about all it does not make him a genuine Catholic.

Jonathan Marshall
Jonathan Marshall
1 year ago
Reply to  George Bruce

Exactly. “proudly Catholic” Biden is no more a genuine Catholic than I am “proudly Zoroastrian”. He supports abortion, same sex “marriage” and other positions quite contrary to orthodox Catholicism.

Aaron Kevali
Aaron Kevali
1 year ago

Democracy, for instance, seems to echo Christian ideas about the universal brotherhood of man;
There is no “universal brotherhood” in Christianity, this is an 18th century so-called Enlightenment idea. You are either with Christ (ultimately, in the final judgement) or you are not. Christianity does teach kindness and generosity as mirroring the love of Christ for Mankind, meaning Christians are called to show love to their neighbour, but this does not mean we are all one big happy family from the get-go.
Human rights make most sense if we have been created in God’s image;
True enough. I’m sure very few of us want to torture or boss others about in matters of religion, but it’s the enemies of Christ who push human rights like a new religion, and God Himself does not regard our freedom with much respect (see: Moses/Davidic Kingdom/Old Testament, see: Revelation, Second Coming)
Maritain was excited by the 20th century’s “progress in human consciousness and in moral knowledge,
He’d heard of Communism by this point, presumably.
TLDR: Nice guy, meant well. Intelligent, if not always wise.

Last edited 1 year ago by Aaron Kevali
rrostrom
rrostrom
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron Kevali

Christianity does provide for a “universality”, in that anyone, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, current religion, geographical position, skin color, social class, can be a Christian and receive the Grace of God. Furthermore, Christianity provides no explicit support for social or political hierarchy – unlike for instance traditional Hinduism with its caste structure, or classical paganism, which deified Caesars.
So Maritain had a point.

Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh
1 year ago

Scary? You have no idea. It should be. If it doesn’t scare you sometimes, you’re not paying attention. Freedom is scary. Justice is scary. Wisdom is scary. Love is scary. The Cross is very scary.
And a better word for “left-leaning” Catholic is “quisling”: Their concern isn’t the poor. They’re wanna-bes, motivated by a craven need for validation by the secular left and by their terror of being caught uttering a word that wouldn’t pass the smell test by the kind of people who edit the NY Times.

Last edited 1 year ago by Michael Walsh
wayne.v.cox
wayne.v.cox
1 year ago

Joe Biden is living in public, unrepentant, mortal sin for his open and deliberately un-Christian support of abortion. He should be publicly denied Communion. In the early Church public sinners were not allowed entrance to the Church until they had confessed publicly that they had committed mortal sin in direct contradiction of the Commandments. Only after they had shown true contrition, confessed, and been absolved were they allowed to return to Mass. Nothing less should be expected here. That is if he can even understand at this point that his support of abortion is scandalously sinful. Everyone, even the worst, can be received back into the loving arms of Holy Mother Church and Our Lord. Please pray for Biden.

Jonathan Marshall
Jonathan Marshall
1 year ago
Reply to  wayne.v.cox

Well said, Wayne – absolutely right. And I will.