The secularization of the Social Doctrine of the Church and the personalism of Maritain

On several occasions our Observatory has dealt with the theme of secularization, which has also assailed the Social Doctrine of the Church[1]. An interesting pathway for exploring this in depth would be to ask ourselves if Catholic personalism[2] may have represented a stage in this process.

Applied to secularization must be the criterion suggested by Benedict XVI with respect to Vatican II, a moment when the Church critically assessed modern secularization from its own viewpoint. The principle whereby a sovereignty of God exists also in the construction of social reality – what is ordinarily referred to as the “social kingship of Christ” – remains undeniably valid.  If secularization is meant to be the waning of this principle, it is to be rejected and resolutely contrasted. If, however, secularization means the end of the regime of the confessional State, albeit in historical recognition of both its reasons and its merits, then it is licit to retain that divine providence and the commitment of believers may provide other ways and means in the future to guarantee the centrality of God in the construction of political society, ever respecting the aforementioned principle of the primacy of the divine Lawmaker by which human lawmakers must abide.

A  corollary of no little importance to this principle is that secularization as opposition to the centrality of God in the construction of the political house, that is to say in the first meaning stated above, is a ceaseless process absolutely tending to radicalism[3]. This process will never stop if left to its own devices, because it consists in the corrosion of sense, and once the sense of God has become corroded, relentlessly corroded will be all the other surrogate or residual senses. 

If we follow Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians (2: 7-8) we may have the impression that “holding back” secularization is counterproductive. According to those verses, eliminating  what-is-holding-back (Kathecon) the Evil One would delay the Parusia, because, as St. Paul says, Christ will come when the apostasy will be compete, and with the breath of His mouth will kill the Rebel. In history, however, Christians can but do good. As Karl Löwith[4] recalled, it is true that the Kingdom of God will not come to be through the evolution of this history, but will storm into it. But this does not exempt Christians from acting according to justice, and, in so doing holding back the Evil One.

This also applies for secularization when it is understood not only as the historical surmounting of the phase of the confessional State, but as the ever more radical expulsion of God from political history as mystery of iniquity. One cannot but endeavor to capitalize on the possibilities provided to us in the various epochs of history in order to hold it back, reiterating the primacy of God in the construction of public life.  

The general picture depicted above requires a considerable amount of additional work and in-depth study. One interesting aspect to be clarified has to do with whether or not Catholic personalism has held back secularization or fostered it. This as  well is a research topic we can only outline here.

In his book “On the Philosophy of History”, Jacques Maritain argues that the passage from the “sacred” societies to the “profane” or “lay” societies is a law of history[5]. He sustains the idea that this passage it due to Christianity itself as leaven of civilization. It therefore follows that the new point of encounter between Church and State is “the selfsame unity of the human person, member at one and the same time of the political corpus and the Church”[6]. In this case, therefore, secularization and personalism are the same thing: secularization has produced the centrality of the person. But, and here is the crux of the matter, has the centrality of the person replaced the centrality of God? Insofar as it is impossible to answer this question in a few lines, maybe some food for thought would be helpful.

The first point has to do with the relationship between the person and the common good. Much of the criticism of Maritain’s position argues that he introduced an inversion: up until then, Catholic thinking had held that the person was there for the common good[7], while he retains that the common good is there for the person. Everything depends on what is meant by common good (and also by person, as we will see shortly). If the Christian religion and God Himself form part of the common good, it would therefore be incorrect to finalize it to the person, while it would be more consistent to think it is the criterion for the person, and not vice versa. In this case, however, it is necessary to think of it as finalized to the person “in the fullness of his/her vocation”, which implies the Christian religion and God. Resurfacing, therefore, is the concept of common good in the first meaning. A reduction or elimination of the presence of God in the concept of common good leads to a secularization of the concept in its own right. It seems as if Maritain’s thinking may have fostered this secularization. And since this is an unstoppable process, then witnessed has been a progressive corrosion of the substance of common good unto our present day and age, when, in ecclesial and theological circles as well, it is argued that a same sex relationship may contribute to the common good.

The second point has to do with the concept of person itself. According to some observers, Maritain would have erroneously distinguished between individual and person. In his book Trois réformateurs[8], even though considered as belonging to the pre-modern phase of his thinking, he had already separated what cannot be separated, envisaging the individual as the material pole of man and the person as the spiritual pole. According to Miguel Ayuso[9], this is due to the confusion between the principle of individualization and the principle of identity [10]. The principle of individualization is matter, the principle of individuality is the substantial form, the soul. By virtue of individualization man is subject to the laws of nature; by virtue of individuality he is superior to the entire universe. The person, therefore, must completely take his distance from political power, while for St. Thomas the person was in the condition of being party to it. This links us to the theme of common good since with this concept of the person, person as such cannot be judged by the common good, but assumes ownership of it.

Moreover, what justifies the submission of the person to political power if not the assurance that the latter will realize the common good? This assurance can only be given by political power’s admission of “the explicit and public acknowledgement of divine sovereignty”[11]. This, however, brings us back to the formula of the confessional State, which is an application (obsolete) and not the principle.  What Maritain had attempted to do was to give life to a “new Christianity”, striving to keep alive the sovereignty of God in the secular sphere, surmounting the application of the confessional State. He failed, but critiques regarding his unsuccessful efforts tend to lapse into identifying the principle with the application, the primacy of God with the confessional State.




[1] CREPALDI, Giampaolo, Sulla presunta irreversibilità della secolarizzazione; FONTANA, Stefano, Il destino dell’Occidente e la secolarizzazione.

[2] FONTANA, Stefano, La critica di Marcel De Corte alla Pacem in terris e i pericoli del personalismo.

[3] CREPALDI, Giampaolo, Il nodo non sciolto della Dottrina sociale della Chiesa, “Studi Cattolici”, n. 655, Settembre 2015, pp. 604-609.

[4] LÖWITH, Karl, Significato e fine della storia. I presupposti teologici della filosofia della storia, Il Saggiatore, Milano 2010.

[5] MARITAIN, Jacques, Per una filosofia della storia, Morcelliana, Brescia 19722, pp. 88-90.

[6]Ivi, p. 89.

[7] Non è il bene che si adatta alla misura della persona umana, ma è la persona umana che si adatta alla misura smisurata di questo bene incommensurabile. E’ per questo che si chiama bene comune (MEINVIELLE, Julio, Critica de la concepción de Maritain sobre la persona humana, NuestroTiempo,Buenos Aires 1948, p. 89, riferito inAYUSO, Miguel, Los antimaritainianosde la Rive Droite “Verbo”, LII (2014), nn. 520-530, p. 857.Vedi anche DE CORTE, Marcel, Sulla giustizia, Cantagalli, Siena 2012; AYUSO, Miguel, Los antimaritainianos de la Rive Droite “Verbo”, LII (2014), nn. 520-530, pp. 839-874).

[8] MARITAIN, Jacques, Tre riformatori. Lutero, Cartesio, Rousseau, Morcelliana, traduzione e prefazione di Giovanni Battista Montini, Introduzione di Antonio Pavan, Morcelliana, Brescia 20018, pp. 53-67.

[9]AYUSO, Miguel, Los antimaritainianosde la Rive Droitecit., pp. 856-857.

[10] Per una sua esposzione nella filosofia di san Tommaso vedi: GILSON Étienne, Lo spirito della filosofia medioevale, Morcelliana, Brescia 1988, prima edizione Parigi 1932, pp. 243-259: Il Personalismo cristiano.

[11]AYUSO, Miguel, Los antimaritainianosde la Rive Droitecit., p. 854.