Maritain and a Christian Response to Political Humanism

James P. Kelly on the Philosopher’s Contributions to an Ongoing Debate

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ROME, SEPT. 24, 2003 ( The current global consensus on peace and human justice is inconsistent with the Christian humanist vision of heroic democracy, says an expert on Catholic social and political philosopher Jacques Maritain.

James P. Kelly III, president of the Solidarity Center for Law and Justice, an Alpharetta, Georgia-based religious-liberty law firm, is making that point this week at the International Thomist Congress here.

He shared with ZENIT his analysis of Maritain’s thought on the challenges of Christian humanism.

Q: What is Jacques Maritain’s vision of «heroic democracy»?

Kelly: His vision is rooted in 13 foundation principles extracted from his many writings on the relationship between Christianity and democracy.

The principles of heroic democracy are: respecting each citizen as a person; rejecting a natural «anthropocentric» humanism; promoting the common good; living a supernatural «integral» humanism; cultivating prophets of the people; educating children for freedom; facilitating faith-based and community initiatives; practicing the principle of solidarity; protecting freedom of thought, conscience, religion and expression; engaging in divine contemplation; expecting and embracing persecution; seeking international cooperation; and recognizing democratic evolution.

Q: Briefly, can you explain what is anthropocentric humanism?

Kelly: The term includes several categories of natural humanist viewpoints, all of which share the feature of being «emancipated from every metaphysics of transcendence.»

At one extreme rests the idea of secular humanism, the idea that all religious thought should be banned from expression in the public square. At the other extreme rests the idea of ethical humanism, the idea that a full-bodied natural ethics should govern all relations in the public square.

As society enters into the third millennium, many politicians and social planners recognize that an empty secular humanism is incapable of maintaining the global social fabric. However, they likewise recognize that the global state is incapable of developing and implementing a normative ethical humanism that can be understood and practiced by all humanity.

Thus, these global agents are left with two alternatives: rely on the formative and remedial capacities of traditional religions; or, construct and promote what I refer to as «political humanism.» It is against this new political humanism that Christian humanism must compete in the third millennium.

Q: What are a few key features of political humanism?

Kelly: Political humanism is born out of fear and desperation because the state has offered no alternative to Pope John Paul II’s call for achieving global solidarity through subsidiarity.

It is relativist and utilitarian, and it is selective in that it protects and promotes only those human rights that further the social and commercial agenda of the international community. Therefore, political humanism is intolerant of peaceful and particular religious beliefs that cannot be reconciled with that agenda.

It is also developed and promoted by international bodies and their affiliated nongovernmental education and human rights organizations.

Finally, political humanism is coercive in that it relies on monopolistic school funding practices that handicap parents who seek to educate their children in peace-loving and peace-promoting religious schools.

These last features make it clear that the promoters of political humanism understand that children must be indoctrinated in this new «religion of humanity.» This indoctrination is being conducted under several names, including human rights education, education for a culture of peace, education for democratic citizenship and character education.

UNESCO, the Council of Europe, the United States Department of Education, Amnesty International, George Soros’ Open Society Foundation and university human rights centers around the world develop the political humanism education curriculum, train educators and coordinate the implementation of political humanism in state-sponsored schools.

For example, UNESCO presently has posted on its Web site a job opening for chief of its Section on Education for Peace and Human Rights. One of the listed main responsibilities of this position is to «ensure the intellectual coherence of a focused program on education for peace and human justice, which reflects and builds a growing global consensus.»

But, as members of the political section at the Thomist Congress, we must ask the question, «Is the nature of this so-called growing global consensus on peace and human justice consistent with Maritain’s Christian humanist vision of heroic democracy?» It is absolutely not.

The global consensus of political humanism dehumanizes the person by insisting on social conformity, stifles education for freedom, discourages subsidiarity and the formation of faith-based and community initiatives, denies freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and expression, and makes a farce of international efforts to promote a genuine common good.

These shortcomings of political humanism will be exacerbated if, as expected, world leaders justify the expansion of the political humanist education of youth as a means of addressing the root causes of international terrorism.

Political humanism defies Maritain’s belief that a sound pluralism must obtain in the means of achieving unity in the common adherence to the democratic charter.

He insisted that, in promoting the common good, the state must respect «the philosophical or religious traditions and schools of thought which are spontaneously at work in the consciousness of the nation and which have contributed historically to its formation.»

Many European political and social leaders have embraced political humanism to the exclusion of Christian humanism.

On this point, in his recent apostolic exhortation «Ecclesia in Europa,» the Holy Father asks that the future European Constitution refer to Europe’s religious patrimony, particularly Christian, and respect the rights proper to churches and religious communities. Pope John Paul II reminds Europe that, «The Gospel is not against you, but for you.»

Likewise, Maritain believed that the Gospel inspiration is the true living soul of democratic philosophy. He expressed confidence that, in the free competition among competing viewpoints as justification for the common good, «the Christian leaven would play an ever-growing part.»

Indeed, this is a competition, the ground rules for which are to be determined by the highest judicial authorities in each nation. In the United States, the Supreme Court has taken historic steps to level the playing field for the competition between political humanism and Christian humanism.

In 2001, the court decided that public school authorities must provide equal after-school access to classroom space to groups for the character education of youth.

In its decision, the court stated that it saw «no logical difference in kind» between the character education of children in secularized values and the character education of children in purely religious values. It rejected the local school board’s imposition of a penalty on the expression of the Christian humanist viewpoint.

In 2002, the court decided that it was constitutionally permissible for a state legislature to pass legislation permitting the issuance of publicly funded scholarships to parents who desire to educate their children in the schools of their choice, including religious schools.

While this is a standard practice in many countries, in the United States, historic anti-Catholic bigotry had created a seemingly impregnable «wall of separation» between church and state that was unjust and harmful to genuine democratic discourse and evolution.

Q: How must politically
active Christian humanists respond to the advance of political humanism?

Kelly: First, we must understand the nature and threat of political humanism. Then, we need to examine whether state authorities in our respective nations are imposing a political humanist agenda, particular in the schools. It is also important to educate sympathetic lawyers, lawmakers and judges regarding the reality of political humanism.

And finally, it is our duty to combat discrimination against the Christian humanist viewpoint by those seeking a coercive monopoly for the political humanist viewpoint.

Let me emphasize that state authorities are relying on two seemingly positive values as justification for promoting political humanism: tolerance and peace.

In this regard, we must consider the prophetic insight of Maritain: «It is not unusual to meet people who think that not to believe in any truth, or not to adhere firmly to any assertion as unshakably true in itself, is a primary condition required of citizens in order to be tolerant of one another and to live in peace with one another.

«May I say that these people are in fact the most intolerant people, for if perchance they were to believe in something as unshakably true, they would feel compelled, by the same stroke, to impose by force and coercion their own belief on their co-citizens. The only remedy they have found to get rid of their abiding tendency to fanaticism is to cut themselves off from truth.»

Political humanists attempt to avoid Maritain’s prediction by replacing truth with a relativist, utilitarian global ethic that they profess does not rise to the level of a belief imposed on humanity.

To Christian humanists commissioned to dispel this notion and offer the Gospel message to humanity, our Holy Father challenges and encourages us with the words «Be not afraid!»

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