Response to Vittorio Possenti in the debate on personalism and secularization – Analysis of “integral humanism”

Vittorio Possenti does not agree[1] with the opinion of Gianni Baget Bozzo about the Maritain of “Integral Humanism”, which would have superimposed the immanent level over the transcendent level by way of “temporal reality having become identical to Grace”. If Badget Bozzo was right there would be a fusion between immanence and transcendence, whereby, according to Maritain, the position between the two would be univocal. Possenti, on the contrary, retains that Maritain expresses an “insurmountable difference between immanence and transcendence”. However, if this second interpretation was correct, the position between the two ambits would be equivocal.  It appears rather evident that in both cases Maritain would have diverged from Thomism and Aristotelianism since classical metaphysics projects analogy between the natural and the supernatural. How do things actually stand? The only thing to do is to go directly to the text[2] of this great French philosopher.

Maritain is most nobly interested in the refounding of a new and future civitas christiana – a new Christianity – and throughout the book strives to sketch and outline its peculiar characteristics. The underpinning assumption is that this new civitas is not to be founded, however, on a “sacred Christian” conception of the temporal ambit, as was the case during medieval times, but on a “profane Christian conception” In other words, the “characteristic features” of this new civilization would, on one hand, have to be “opposed” to those linked to liberal and social-communist regimes, and, on the other hand, just the opposite of the ones embodied in the historical ideal of the medieval Sacred Roman Empire. If all this were to become concrete, argues Maritain, we would be in the mainstream of the “integral humanism” he proposed.

This thesis sounds a bit strange for various reasons.


Strange as regards social-communism


Maritain was both frightened and won over by the phenomenon of Soviet communism in which he was well versed. Many, perhaps too many are the pages dedicated to Marx, Marxism and the revolution, and this to the point of offering rather erudite overviews ranging from the faults of the lower middle class to doubts about surplus value. Maritain considered Soviet historical socialism to be one of the manifestations of that shortsighted “anthropocentric humanism” which in the modern age had replaced medieval “theocentric humanism”. Praiseworthy is the way our philosopher does his utmost to dispose of Communism, which he detests above all in its atheistic compulsion where the “dogmatism” of dialectic materialism turns it into a grotesque “religion, one of the most authoritative  ones”. Maritain’s critique extends to various aspects of Marxism and Soviet socialism, revealing their inhuman essence, errors, their “resentment against the Christian world”, and their claim to take its place.

Nonetheless, clearly coming across in Maritain is an immense attraction for the “great truths” – often betrayed – present in the thinking of Karl Mark and in socialism. In other words, he writes, “In socialist humanism there is a great thrust towards truths that could not be overlooked without causing great harm, and which have very much to do with human dignity”: these are the truths linked to demands of social justice, personal dignity, and the working class. Basically speaking, this is the reason why shining throughout Marx’s work would be “a great light of truth”.

This, however is where Maritain evidently confuses the “great truths” with the “semina Verbi”, the “seeds of the Word” present everywhere: in the cosmos, in doctrines, but also in social formations focusing on evil. In the case of concrete forms of totalitarianism, the presence of true affirmations does not make it possible to speak about truth, and even less so about ‘great truths’. For example, the fact that Nazism contemplated discipline and aesthetics demonstrates not the fact that there were ‘great truths’ present in it, but only that each creature bears a certain imprint of “unum, verum, bonum[3] – no matter what may be ethical choices.

Nonetheless, even if we wanted to speak about great truths, we could not overlook saying – otherwise everything we are saying would become ambiguous – that what saves man according to Catholic teaching are not the many or few individual truths contained in disciplines or religions, but the “fullness” of the truth that coincides with the Word. For these reasons it is entirely disproportionate to associate the word “truth” to the albeit argute and ingenious affirmations of Marx.

In this regard, and shortly after the publication of Integral Humanism, Pious XI declared in Divini Redemptoris (1937) that Communism is “intrinsically perverse”, and for this reason it would not be possible “to admit collaboration with it in any field on the part of anyone wishing to save the Christian civilization”. “Intrinsically perverse” means nothing is savable in Communism, not even the lights, just as nothing was savable in Arianism, Catharism, or other all-absorbing and totalitarian regimes, religious or otherwise, because as Pascal says, the godless person transforms even clear things into darkness[4]. It is opportune to recall that the Church has never exhorted people to isolate the “semina Verbi” of sects and base oneself on them because of the existence of such “seeds” of light.


Strange regarding liberalism


Our philosopher likewise takes his distance – and quite rightly so – from liberalism and lower middle class propositions. Curiously enough, the rejection in this case leaves no room for reconsideration: contrary to Communism, liberalism is disposed of in the book with no more than a few brief passages. Not a single aspect of liberal thought is explored, and not a single author examined. Maritain was most likely seduced by Marxian thought, whereby “the small middle class person” is “the man of sin” tout court, the old man to be destroyed, and who “appears as Pharisaic and decadent production”, or who “prefers juridical pretences to love” and “psychological pretences” to being.

In fact, explains Maritain, the future integral humanism does abhor the communist and atheistic revolution, but in any case it is a matter of a “revolutionary” movement in the sense of being “revolutionary with respect to the revolution”. The liberal ‘middle class man’ is “very compromised” and hence “his condemnation is deserved”. As far as the new humanism is concerned, he explains, it is necessary to “transform the middle class man”, making the “old man die” so there is room for the “new man”.

We therefore see that Maritain’s project foresees the recycling of the social-Communist propositions or suggestions and the obsolescence of liberal thought, which he does not feel he even has to mention in any greater detail. In particular, Maritain has a positive view of the “dialectic process” because “it culminates in a kingdom of God”, albeit secularized. Nonetheless, in our author’s eyes, “not understanding that history is in movement towards the kingdom of God, and not wanting this to come to be, is a betrayal of both man and God”. Very strong in this book is an eschatological tension which often seems to lead to historicism.


Strange regarding the Middle Ages


Where integral humanism seems to draw decisive inspiration is in the philosopher’s critique of the Christian Middle Ages. As Vittorio Possenti rightly remarks, Maritain’s humanism seeks to be a “theocentric humanism of the Incarnation of the Word” drawing inspiration from medieval Christianity. For Maritain, however, the almost unforgiveable shortcoming or fault of that period was its being “naïve”. What does this mean? An effort of interpretation is needed here because the language used in the original text is not really that helpful for our comprehension. This is specialized and assertive language which often takes for granted what should be demonstrated, and not only as far as the Middle Ages are concerned. Except for some references to St. Thomas, a rather annoying silence practically reigns supreme regarding the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, theologians, saints or the Magisterium, while, on the contrary, sufficient as regards such decisive themes would seem to be the presence of little known names like Gorki, Iswolski, Malraux, Arquillière or De Lagarde.

What we seem to understand is that “a sort of metaphysical apprehension or modesty” removed medieval man’s gaze from himself, and, in brief, “remaining were vast regions of shadow” because man was concentrated on God (theocentricity) and “was thereby under the hallmark of sacredness”. This, however, should not have been displeasing to Maritain, who didn’t like “anthropocentric humanism”. In any case, the “catastrophe” of the “heroic” medieval thrust would be followed by modern historical Humanism with its “cult of humanity” and generator “of a profane civilization”. All this is presented as a personal opinion, but with an assertive tone and without the support of any authorities.  

Nonetheless, if Maritain criticizes profane Humanism, why should the new “integral” humanism be “profane Christian”? Yes, medieval man was concentrated on God, but in no way did this deflect his gaze from himself. We see this in countless pages of theology on the virtues, the soul, free will, and Maritain himself demonstrates this when admitting that the Middle Ages “abounded with incomparable mystics”, where the mystic was someone with an in-depth knowledge of God and himself. Therefore, why take one’s distance from the Middle Ages and its sacredness? Is it not possible to grasp therein a well founded humanism all too often disregarded?


Analogy ill used


Jacques Maritain says he draws inspiration from St. Thomas of Aquinas and the philosophical-theological principle of “analogy”, but refrains from stating a clear position on one thing which would have helped sweep away any ambiguity: in keeping with the tradition of western thought, between the city of man and the city of God there is an analogical relationship. Maritain does use analogy, but deploys it in the book for marginal questions. For example, he writes that any future earthly regime which will want to construct the Christian civilization must not have characteristics unequivocal with medieval Christianity, but will only be analogous to it.  The problem does not exist: it is not necessary to inconvenience analogy to say history does not repeat itself. Only historicism is concerned about repeating – and this until sheer exhaustion sets it – how obvious it is that the world is in a state of perpetual development. Moreover, classical analogy did not see the light of day only for the natural ambit to show that an apple and a pear resemble one another, but that the natural is analogous to the supernatural.

What drives our author is something else: he wants to free himself completely from the medieval itinerary of ascent to God so that the new Christianity would not only have “means” other than those of the Middle Ages, but also different “ends”. In order to demonstrate this he cites St. Thomas, who observed the existence of cities with diversity of ends and means[5]. Nonetheless, in such an important chapter he omits a clear presentation of the core of Thomist doctrine on the proximate and ultimate ends of society and the State, which are the grounds for opposition to the error of political naturalism.

Maritain refrains from openly saying that, as St Thomas teaches, politics is only an “intermediary end”[6], while the “ultimate end” of man, society and States is the utmost Good, God Himself. The fact that there are different societies, diverse common goods, and even that the final cause whereby a society emerges coincides with its common good, does not mean that the natural end is the ultimate aim. Vice versa, for St. Thomas the natural end is only admitted in view of the supernatural end[7]. The Angelical Doctor is crystal clear about the fact that there is an ultimate end of human life[8], that a man cannot have numerous ultimate ends[9], and that said ultimate end is identical for all men[10]. Omitting such foundational considerations in the operation to want to recreate society in a Christian sense is tantamount to denying them.


Integral humanism has not come into being


Considering this cluster of premises it isn’t surprising that Maritain then lists the particular characteristics of his integral humanism which are very similar to the ideals of modern democratic Christianity and the social profile of a “Catholic adult”.

Consistent with the premises, a Catholic in politics according to Maritain should refrain from “political activity exercised by Christians” in order to give way to “political activity Christianly inspired” and “ordered to a Christian temporal ideal”. This ideal contemplates that established in “fraternal friendship” with non Christians is a “common doctrinal minimum” (or a common theoretical minimum) in such a way as to implement a “common practical endeavor”. Maritain is certain that a “Christian lay State” of this type is so “in a vital manner”, and is convinced that brought into being on the basis of such collaborative efforts will be the civitas cristiana able to draw up “long term plans”.

The historical and factual conclusion of such a beautiful illusion is well known. European Catholics active in politics have had to stoop to constant compromises, and the anti Catholic forces – not at all interested in friendship and the formulation of a “common theoretical minimum – have prevailed and thwarted any effort to reconstruct something similar to a Christian civilization. Non Christians have taken full possession of that common space, inculcating their own values and making laws contrary to natural human and divine law.

As Possenti argues, Maritain’s operation therefore seems to have done the impossible by separating transcendence and immanence precisely through the absence in the book of any clear exposition of the analogy between these two ambits. However, when a Catholic active in politics just goes along with what non Catholics also do, often supported by the same ends, it sometimes happens that the sacred requirements end up being superimposed on the temporal ones, thereby unduly merging the natural and the supernatural. Therefore, not entirely off the mark would seem to be even the reading of Gianni Baget Bozzo, who – regarding the Integral Humanism (and only in it) – grasps a “temporal reality having become identical to Grace”.


Silvio Brachetta




[1] In Vittorio Possenti, “È stato Maritain a dare il segnale più forte in ordine alla chiusura del ciclo filosofico moderno”, sul sito dell’Osservatorio Internazionale Cardinale Van Thuân sulla Dottrina sociale della Chiesa (, 15/03/2016.

[2] All the quotations from Humanisme intégral, are taken from: Jacques Maritain, Umanesimo integrale, translated into Italian by  Giampietro Dore, Borla, Roma 2009.

[3] “Uno, vero, buono”. Sono i “trascendentali dell’essere”. Cf. p. es. Tommaso d’Aquino, De Veritate.

[4] «Tutto si converte in bene per gli eletti, anche le oscurità della Scrittura, perché essi le onorano in considerazione delle luci divine. E tutto si converte in male per gli altri, anche le cose chiare, perché essi le bestemmiano, a ragione delle oscurità che sono loro incomprensibili». Blaise Pascal, Pensieri, L. 566, Br. 575.

[5] «La diversità delle città proviene dalla diversità dei fini o dai modi diversi di tendere allo stesso fine. Per il fatto che scelgono fini diversi o modi diversi per giungere ad un fine unico, gli uomini costituiscono vite comuni diverse e, di conseguenza, città diverse». San Tommaso, Commento alla Politica di Aristotele, L. VII, lcct. 6, cit. in Maritain, Umanesimo integrale, op. cit., pp. 175-176.

[6] Cf. S. Th. IIa IIæ, q. 58, a. 5.

[7] «[Quindi] il fine supremo del gruppo riunito in società non è di vivere secondo virtù ma, tramite una vita virtuosa, giungere al godimento di Dio». De Reg. princ., I, 14.

[8] S. Th. Ia IIæ, q. 1, a. 4.

[9] Ibid. a. 5.

[10] Ibid. a. 7.