A Dead Frenchman Reads Today's News

James P. Kelly III sees modern examples of Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain's thought put into action.

Some examples: The U.S. Supreme Court, the potential for democracy in Iraq, and UNESCO. An Atlanta attorney, he founded the Solidarity Center for Law and Justice, a public interest law firm specializing in religious liberty. He is director of international affairs for the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies and is the editor of Christianity, Democracy, and the American Ideal, a collection of passages from Jacques Maritain's works on political and social philosophy.

Kelly, who represents the Federalist Society as a member of the U.S. National Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), spoke with Register correspondent Joseph D'Agostino.

What inspired you to compile writings of Jacques Maritain?

In 1996, I left the private practice of tax and corporate law to serve as a legal adviser and philanthropic consultant to the Hanna Family Foundation in Atlanta. Initially, the work of the foundation focused on the issue of increasing parental choices in education, including charter schools and publicly funded school choice.

Jacques Maritain was one of the earliest proponents of having the state provide support for private religious schools, a practice that is common in most Western European nations. In his book, Education at the Crossroads, Maritain explained that education was as much a moral undertaking as an academic one. He wrote that the government should not have a monopoly over the moral education of children.

Instead, the state should support families who desire to educate their children for character in accordance with the dictates of their different religions.

As I read more Maritain, I came to appreciate the fact that he had spoken out and written a lot about matters pertaining to Church and state relations and the positive relationship between Christianity and democracy. He realized and noted the dangers of what he called anthropocentric, or atheistic, humanism.

I kept reading one book after another, highlighting important quotes that supported our work on religious and educational liberty. As a matter of fact, I was able to incorporate, directly or indirectly, Maritain's views on these matters into three amicus curiae briefs that we filed in religious liberty cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Over time, I read about 22 of Maritain's books — twice in many instances — and highlighted about 500 paragraphs relating to issues of relevance to the relationship between Church and state and the connection between Christianity and democracy.

You are a delegate to UNESCO.

Yes, I serve on the National Commission as the representative of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, a law association comprised of approximately 35,000 lawyers, judges and law student members.

The Federalist Society has been in the news lately. New Chief Justice John Roberts is a member, and the society's opinion was sought as part of the vetting process for Harriet Miers and now Samuel Alito. Is the Federalist Society an ideologically mainstream association, or is it well to the right of the mainstream trying to pull the mainstream rightward?

The Federalist Society is a group of conservatives and libertarians interested in the current state of the legal order. It is founded on the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be. The society seeks both to promote an awareness of these principles and to further their application through its activities. These activities include the convening of debates and seminars at which speakers holding a diversity of viewpoints are presented, including those that conflict with the society's philosophical principles.

Is there much receptivity to a Christian worldview at UNESCO?

At best, what you're hoping for is a neutral public square, a neutral platform. That's at best.

Wasn't the 20th century Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain one of the founders of UNESCO?

Maritain had an influential role in the creation of UNESCO and the drafting of the Universal Charter of Human Rights, but then so did Julian Huxley, who was one of the first avowed secular humanists. This is what made the founding of UNESCO so interesting as sort of a benchmark of the start of the culture wars.

On the one hand, you had Jacques Maritain, who believed that UNESCO should pursue its educational, scientific and cultural agenda with due regard for the Christian and other religious and philosophical views of its participants. On the other hand, you had someone like Julian Huxley, the first director-general of UNESCO, who approached UNESCO as a totally secularized undertaking. In the middle, you had someone like Teilhard de Chardin.

Maritain thought that Christianity was not only supportive but essential to any kind of human democracy?

Yes, absolutely. So while rejecting the idea of a Christian state, Maritain believed that a liberal democracy would not long survive in the absence of Christian inspiration and influence. He called for Christians to become “prophets of the people” in a democracy, prophets who would awaken their fellow citizens as to the need for contemplation, love, and action.

What would he think of the call today, by President Bush on down, for vibrant human democracies in the Muslim world? Is that really possible in non-Christian societies like that?

Honestly, I think Maritain would say that, but for the grace of Christ, it's not possible to build a credible democratic society. There is little chance that, after spending a lifetime articulating a theory of integral humanism that is rooted in Christianity, Maritain would just shrug his shoulders and say “whatever” when it comes to the relative value of different religions as means to democracy-building.

Maritain saw the Christian faith as being indispensable to the need for democratic citizens to properly order their society and to avoid the feelings of resentment or envy that naturally result in a free-market, capitalist society. Of course, Maritain would be the first to defend the right of all religious groups to pursue freedom and build a democratic system that respects human liberty and justice.

Also, in fairness to Maritain, his development of a theory of Christian democratic citizenship left him no time to even partially examine whether the Islamic faith and democracy are compatible.

For a long time, Christian societies were monarchical, or feudal or perhaps aristocratic republics. Did liberal democracy grow out of Christianity or in opposition to Christianity?

True liberal democracy grew out of Christianity. A false liberal democracy grew in opposition to Christianity. Let me explain that distinction.

Liberal democracy is philosophically rooted in natural law, which is divine in its origins. Throughout history, the Catholic Church has been the foremost authority on the rights and responsibilities emanating from natural law. Regardless of how they might classify their religious or philosophical beliefs, whether deist, Unitarian, or agnostic, 18th- and 19th-century democratic philosophers were profoundly influenced by Christian teachings on natural law. This is what I refer to as “true” liberal democracy.

On the other hand, in opposition to Christianity, 19th-century social scientists developed a form of liberal democracy that, while taking advantage of Christian sentiments still generally existing in society, called for a planned society that would address social problems with strictly scientific approaches.

Positivism in 19th-century France and progressivism in 20th-century America sought to build a just, democratic and, eventually, secularized social order. I label this a “false” liberal democracy in that, in order to achieve a monopoly over the management of society, adherents in academia, government, and secular charitable agencies denied religious groups equal access to funds for the promotion of their programs for social renewal.

In my opinion, this situation is being rectified through President Bush's efforts, consistent with Maritain's earlier writings, to level the playing field by insisting that faith-based organizations not be discriminated against in the federal funding of education, health, and social service programs.

Why did Maritain believe it wasn't possible to have a society governed only by reason and science and relegating faith to the private sphere? What happens to the human personality when that takes place?

The answer to this question relates to the final end of the “false” liberal democracy I just described. Government leaders and social scientists, who interpret as their mandate the building a perfect society, over time are inclined to view citizens as individuals subject to their techniques, rather than as persons whom God has created, in freedom, to pursue revealed Truth.

Maritain fully explored this distinction between the individual and the person in his book The Person and the Common Good, as well as in his other writings. For Maritain, a person has both temporal and transcendent ends, the latter of which should never be subordinated to the former. For this reason, Maritain lamented the standardization that arises from excesses in social planning, scientific experimentation, and vocational education.

I think that Maritain's writings in this area have significant importance in recent debates about embryonic stem-cell research and cloning.

Other than your own compilation Christianity, Democracy, and the American Ideal, what should an American interested in the topics we've been discussing read first by Maritain?

Well, let me start by saying that I know what they should end with, The Peasant of the Garonne. It's an amazing — on the one hand, hopeful, but, on the other hand, despondent — look back by Maritain on what had transpired in the few years since Vatican II. He was distraught, but not defeated, over the early trend of Catholics, especially clergy, to distort the teachings of Vatican II as an excuse for what he referred to as “kneeling before the world.”

As for the first book to read by Maritain, I suggest either Integral Humanism for those ambitious enough to tackle Maritain's foundational religious philosophy or Man and the State for those more interested in Maritain's political philosophy on the proper role of the state in the modern world.

Joseph A. D'Agostino is

Vice President for Communications at the Population Research Institute (www.pop.org) and a Washington correspondent for the Register.