Jacques Maritain's Evangelical Idea of Democracy

Piero Viotto Publishes Dictionary on Philosopher’s Work

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MILAN, Italy, MARCH 23, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Historians of philosophy have begun to realize the importance of Jacques Maritain, who they perceive as a most qualified exponent of Catholicism, says Piero Viotto.

Viotto, the author of «Jacques Maritain, Dizionario delle Opere» (Jacques Maritain, Dictionary of Works), teaches pedagogy at the Catholic University of Milan.

A member of the Scientific Commission of the Jacques Maritain International Institute, Viotto is a contributor to the reviews Studium, Humanitas and Vita e Pensiero.

Viotto, who gave this interview to ZENIT, describes his 478-page dictionary as a synthesis of the «strong thought» of Maritain.

Q: Is the «Dictionary of Works» meant to be a stimulus for all those who seek truth as Maritain sought it?

Viotto: Yes, certainly, because it is not a summary of Maritain’s works but a thematic index which attempts to give young people avenues for research to continue to explore the reality of all fields of knowledge, from law to politics, from mysticism to aesthetics, from philosophy to theology, from morality to pedagogy.

The files have been prepared from the first edition of each work and explain the developments that Maritain’s biography has undergone, who wrote his books at the height of the cultural debate and in the midst of political controversies and events of his life.

For Maritain, Thomism is the true existentialism, inasmuch as it offers the intellectual instruments to resolve, in truth, problems as they emerge in the unfolding of history.

Q: In what sense did Maritain renew 20th-century Catholicism?

Viotto: His reflection and testimony have made Catholics understand that democracy is not only a method of political coexistence but that it has ethical value in itself, because it is based on the dignity of the human person and his freedom of conscience.

In the Baroque period of the history of humanity, when a political conception of religion prevailed, Christianity was too connected to the ruling classes in an ambiguous alliance between throne and altar.

Maritain, instead, proposed an evangelical conception of religion in which the temporal does not protect the spiritual, but on the contrary, the spiritual protects the temporal. For Maritain, democracy, as a social regime of justice and equality, is the temporal fruition of the Gospel.

Much of this was taken up by the Second Vatican Council, as documented in the correspondence between Maritain and Pope Paul VI, and also through Cardinal Charles Journet, a great friend of Maritain.

Q: What does his thought say to us today?

Viotto: The 20th century was the century of ideologies, and it was dominated by Hegel and the Hegelian left and right which generated totalitarianisms. Even the United States was influenced by this primacy of society over the person, as we see in the spread of John Dewey’s philosophy.

Maritain is the teacher of the 21st century. He regards the person as the basis of society and sees in pluralism a fundamental connotation of the democratic state without falling into relativism, because conscience is connected to truth, but it cannot impose its moral convictions on others.

In an extreme situation, such as the case of a law considered unjust which is approved by the majority, the person must make a conscientious objection.

The democratic state can reconcile truth and freedom, thus surmounting the absolutism of a totalitarian state, which seeks to impose a platform truth, and the relativism of a liberal platform, which denies the truth.

The state cannot be neutral; laicism is also a fundamentalism. It must be neutral and guarantee all ideological and religious groups freedom of expression.

Maritain’s position, in regard to international law and world governance — elaborated with the Chicago group — is very important.

Q: Does Maritain occupy his rightful place in contemporary thought, or is he somewhat marginalized?

Viotto: An author who has been translated into all European languages including Norwegian and Croatian, who has been translated into Arabic and Japanese, cannot be easily shelved.

Historians of philosophy, including the so-called secular, have begun to realize his importance, because they perceive that Maritain is the most qualified and advanced exponent of Catholicism.

However, a certain part of the Catholic world, preoccupied with being abreast of philosophic fashions, forgets him somewhat, preferring phenomenology or hermeneutics to Maritain’s Thomism. They do not realize that one cannot do with Heidegger or Husserl what St. Thomas did with Aristotle.

Only an authentic philosophy of being is really compatible with Christianity.

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