An Interview with Jacques Maritain

From the Feb. 3, 1939, Issue

Just before M. Maritain’s last sailing for Europe (December, 1938), the editors of The Commonweal put to him a number of questions. M. Maritain took these with him and has just sent back to us his considered answers, which we publish herewith in translation from the French.

Commonweal: M. Maritain, there are some people who disagree with you politically, who have asserted that you are a Jew, a Mason, a Communist. It may seem impertinent to ask you whether there is any truth in these assertions, since we know that there is not, but to ask such a question gives you an opportunity to express your views on these matters. Are you, then, a Jew?

Jacques Maritain: Alas, no; I am not a Jew. I regret it, for it is a great privilege to belong to the same race as Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin.

Might I add that I have regard for authority and that I am distressed that a Minister of the Interior (even though he is a minister of General Franco's) should have lied in a sensational public speech in calling me a Jew. He called me a Jew because I am a Catholic and because I have no faith in a holy war which is ruining Spain with the help of the fascism of Signor Mussolini and the racism of Herr Hitler, let alone the Moors. That's perfectly clear, isn't it?

CW: And are you a Mason?

JM: That question offends me, for I should have a horror of belonging to Freemasonry. So much the worse for well-intentioned people whose anxiety and need for explanations would have been satisfied by believing me to be one.

CW: And a Communist?

JM: Being a Jew according to General Franco's press, how can I help being a Communist also? My case is more serious. In several of my books, I have very radically criticized Marxism and atheistic communism, but I think that fascism is the other horn of the same devil. And then, too, I have no desire to convert all communists into ashes; I should like them to become converts to God, and I love them, as my brothers. I remember that the Pope has said, "Let us then accept the outstretched hand, but in order to draw them to the divine doctrine of Christ. And how shall we draw them to this doctrine? By expounding it? No. By living it, in all its beneficence. The preaching of truth did not produce many conquests for Our Lord; it led Him to the Cross. It is by charity that He won souls and caused them to follow Him. There is no other way for us to win them" (Words addressed to the French Bishops in December, 1937). Such ideas are very inopportune, are they not? And having them is perhaps even worse than being a communist. For it so happened that communists have become fascists or national socialists—it's merely a matter of turning one's coat inside out. But to Christians who believe that Christ did not speak in order to say nothing, the temptation of totalitarianism is not attractive.

But your series of questions is incomplete. You have forgotten to ask me if I am a convert. On that count, Senor Serrano Suiier told no lie. Yes, I am a convert. It happened more than thirty years ago and since I have made it a practice to suffer some slight thing each day for Our Lord and His Church. To the ministers of General Franco the word "convert" is a term of abuse, even of vilification, almost synonymous with "Jew" and "Freemason." This is a relic of those happy times when in Spain people were forced into baptism under pain of losing their citizenship and goods and of being expelled from the country. From this there resulted many insincere conversions and the Spanish Inquisition. I suppose these same ministers do not much like Saint Paul or Saint Augustine. They must suspect them both of being Marranos. I also imagine that it gives them no great pleasure to repeat with Jeremias (again a Jew), "Converte nos ad te, Domine, et convertemur," and I freely grant that they have never converted themselves. Are they not born just? This is what a certain religious racism describes in curious jargon as being a "born Catholic." "You were born a sinner, like the rest of the world," said Monsignor Benson to one who boasted of being a born Catholic.

All this being said, please understand that the calumnies of the Franco press have not made me change my position which is that of "positive impartiality," so well stated by THE COMMONWEAL. I have taken sides neither with Barcelona nor Burgos. I believe that the duty of a foreigner is not to take sides in a civil war, but to strive, in every possible way, to come to the assistance of the victims of that war, to whatever faction they may belong, and to work for peace.

CW: So much for personal matters. Many of us today are troubled by the question of how we can prevent the domination of the world by force and the fear of force. By what means can this be done?

JM: By sanctity.

CW: In detail, then, what do you hope for and what do you expect from the present conflict in Spain?

JM: Count, if you can, the number of dead, the thousands of unfortunate people done away with on both sides, be it by the war itself, by the fury of the populace, or by police purges. Think of the priests slain, the nuns outraged, the churches burned and desecrated, the suspects of all kinds despoiled or murdered by the "reds" after the outbreak of the military insurrection. Think of the suspects of all kinds stripped of their goods, hunted, condemned to death or executed without trial by the "white" terror.  Think of the total war waged against fellow citizens, of the horrible treatment of the Basque country, the most Catholic part of Spain. Think of the women and children slaughtered by aerial bombardments, of the famine afflicting a whole civil population, of the thousands of children—Spanish  children—who are subject to disease and death in Catalonia by a war between Spaniards (and between Italians and Spaniards) . Think of the cities of Spain—among the noblest of cities—which have become proving grounds for international air forces. Picture the exhaustion of the country, the immense damage, physical and moral, done over a period of two years; the accumulation of hatred and bitterness amassed on both sides, the despair of so many souls. And tell me what good one can expect from such a civil war and its pitiless prolongation?

Let us not discuss here the question of whether or not, in July, 1936, the uprising of the Spanish military was justified by the political condition of the country. This is a question upon which people will doubtless never agree.  One thing is sure in any case. An insurrection is legitimate only if it does not create a greater evil than that which it sets out to remedy.

But even more than this! I think what you will concern the legitimacy of the military insurrection at the outset when the Spanish generals and their allies perhaps believed that they could succeed in a few days. What is astounding  (what would be astounding if one did not believe in original sin) is that today, after more than two years of slaughter and of  horrors, all parties do not see that the greatest evil is to continue this war and to refuse to consider the possibility of a peace of conciliation.

Peace of conciliation, on a purely Spanish basis, is what one must hope for if one desires that Spain should resume its characteristic mission in the world. If this does not take place, we must expect, in the political order, tragic results and perhaps in the spiritual order, an appalling religious crisis and an entire evangelization to be undertaken from the foundation. The gradual restoration of religious life which may be observed at the moment in Catalonia should not make us forget the deep hostility toward the Church which exists in most Spanish labor unions (except among the Basques) and the violent anti-clericalism which even before this war was so widespread among the people, and which seem to have arisen as much from disappointments and grievances as from the furious propaganda of militant atheism. And what will be the results in the future of the historic wound caused by a war of extermination for which many (and not only in Spain alas) have tried to make religion jointly liable? Anyone who cares about the evangelizing of souls can think of this only with profound sorrow. Then too, you know that in Nationalist Spain there is at present being manufactured a curious political and war-like "Catholicism," against the spirit of the Gospels, which offers an equally grave danger to genuine Catholicism.  In an important pastoral letter, the Patriarch of Lisbon felt it necessary to warn Portuguese Catholics against this political and un-Christian conception of religion [see THE COMMONWEAL of January 6]. Specimens of this state of mind abound. Was it not Senor Serrano Sufier himself who, in a speech made a few months ago on the feast  of Saint James, declared that that Apostle was a true Spanish Catholic because it  was he who begged the Lord that fire might descend from heaven and consume the wicked ? The answer of Our Lord, "You know not of what spirit you are," does not seem particularly to have caught His Excellency's attention. You know also that the phalangists find their inspiration in German National Socialism.

CW: What, Mr. Maritain, are the objectives and activities of the Committee for Civil and Religious Peace in Spain?

JM: The easiest way to answer that question is to quote a few sentences from the statement which served as constitution for the committee:

The committee is independent of political parties. It is in the name of a human duty that it was formed and it includes within it men of very different opinions, who all, however, believe that a civil war is the worst scourge which a nation can suffer. . . .

It proposes to cooperate from now on as various occasions come up, with any steps taken to make the consequences of the war less inhuman, or to initiate such steps.

It also intends, in case of a victory by either side, to apply the efforts of compassionate men who desire to spare the population from reprisals.

But another solution should be contemplated and worked for by those who wish to contribute to pacification—that of a peace which is not obtained by the force of arms alone and in which other governments might participate by offering their help, in the name of the community of nations, at a moment when the two opposing parties might make such a step possible. Without, for obvious reasons, aspiring to any other kind of influence in these matters than an indirect influence, and through the voice of public opinion, the committee plans to study the difficult problems raised by any undertaking of this sort, in particular by any scheme of mediation, which, in order to safeguard the rights of the Spanish people so as to be really effective, should avoid all foreign meddling in the political and social life of Spain; and which in order to make it possible for the country as a whole to express and freely realize its own will, should afford real guarantees of impartiality, such as an international board of control entrusted to powers which have remained aloof from the conflict.

Among those who have signed this statement, I should like to mention François Mauriac, Louis Gillet, Georges Duhamel, all members of the French Academy; Monsignor Beaupin; Ernest Pezet, deputy, vice-president of the Commission on Foreign Affairs; Dr. de Fresquet, Daniel Halevy, Gabriel Marcel, Louis Le Fur, professor in the Faculty of Law; Louis Massignon, professor at the Collège de France; Georges Bernanos, Charles du Bos, Yves Simon, Emmanuel Mounier, Paul Vignaux....You know that the French Committee, of which I am president, works in cooperation with a Spanish Committee under the presidency of Señor de Madariaga and A. Mendizabal, and a British Committee under the presidency of Wickham Steed. We have been able, particularly thanks to the intervention of the Vatican, to save many human lives. We have also worked at arranging means for harboring Basque children. Now the National Committee for the Aid of Basque Refugees, of which Bishop  Matthieu of Aire and Dax, is president, likewise is engaged, with the warm encouragement of Cardinal Verdier, in supplying food and medicine to the starving children of Catalonia. Then also the idea of a peace of conciliation has the support of a majority of French public opinion and has likewise made noticeable progress in international public opinion.

CW: In general, do you believe that liberty of expression in such countries as France, the United States, or England, to propagate communism, Nazism, and fascism should be curbed in the interest of preserving human freedom?

JM: You are not thinking, I suppose, of the suppression of plots and conspiracies against the safety of the state, a suppression to which any country may obviously have recourse in case of necessity. I presume you are speaking rather of a limitation of freedom for propaganda and organization.

Whenever a genuine democracy of human per­sons will have been born, a democracy freed of capitalist materialism, based on a proper organic and pluralist conception, and committed to the service of a historic ideal of brotherly love, it will be fitting, in my opinion, for this state to set certain clearly defined limits to the liberty of those who refuse to accept its social constitution and undertake to work their will upon it by violence.

At present the materialism of the modern world is such that a measure of this sort would, in my opinion, involve the danger of aggravating the evil it proposed to remedy. As long as the democracies have not rediscovered and purified their vital principle, which is not the individualistic liberalism of the bourgeois age, but rather a heroic sense of the dignity of the human person, the measures which they might take against the freedom of expression of their citizens, in order to preserve liberty, would run the risk of turning against liberty, of protecting only vested interests, and of serving fascism or communism or both at the same time. It is in positive and constructive undertakings that the remedy, above all, should be sought.

It seems to me, however, that there are two types of undertakings to be considered: (1) the restriction of ideological propaganda conducted in a country by foreign countries, particularly by means of the press and the radio (perhaps, as far as the radio is concerned, certain countries will be obliged to conduct an organized counter-offensive, a veritable war of radio waves); (2) the suppression of lies. Totalitarian propaganda, of whatever type, lives on lies; and, according to Hitler's maxim, the grosser the lie, the better the chance of its success. I know that it is more difficult than one might think to demonstrate the falsity of something invented out of whole cloth or of a fact grossly distorted. Yet it is not impossible; and one might conceive that a council of experts, chosen from among men universally respected, might help the courts in this connection.  Men who systematically lie to the public, and who thus poison the nervous systems of their countries, should be subject to strict sanctions.

CW: Since your last visit to our country, does it seem to you that the United States is nearer to or further from a solution of its political, economic, and social problems?

My last visit took place two years and a half ago. At that time the economic situation was notably better than it had been in preceding years, and I have the impression that this level has been maintained. As to a permanent solution of economic and social problems, I wonder whether these words have meaning as long as a "personalist," organic régime has not taken the place of our present régime of civilization. . . .

It is not for me to render judgment on the internal affairs of the United States. Yet I can assure you of the great popularity which President Roosevelt enjoys with us, and how grateful we are to him for his world influence.

You know how fond I am of America and what hopes I have for her. I believe that the feeling for liberty, which is so deep in your country, is of major importance for the future of civilization.

If the totalitarian dictatorships succeed in establishing a rule of darkness in Europe, or if they succeed in paralyzing for a time activities of the intelligence, it may be that civilization will find a place of refuge in America (a possibility which burdens you with great responsibilities, as you are aware). But courage, good-will, goodness, the love of liberty, and confidence in human nature are not enough. Nor a feeling for democracy. I believe that you will have to work out like us in France—a new political philosophy. To purify the democratic ideal of the errors of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to lead it back to the healthful region of a great Christian humanism—it seems to me that this is magnificent undertaking for the land of Jefferson and Lincoln. It will require much clarity of thought and much patience.

The horror of totalitarianism, the great wave of popular indignation set in motion by the anti-Semitic barbarism which rages in Germany, the generosity shown by the United States toward so many unfortunates Jews, Spaniards, Chinamen—do great honor to your country. But allow a European to tell you that the fear of fascism, in itself, does not eliminate the danger of fascism; on the contrary, it can even bring it closer. I hope with all my heart that this danger will never exist for you.  It is not any technical measures taken by a government to enforce a policy of social reform which seems to me to foreshadow fascism, at least not if one considers them in themselves. What I mean is that fascism or, more precisely, totalitarianism in all its forms is first of all a state of mind. It is the decay of democracy when it is breaking up and when, by virtue of a blind biological instinct, it illusively flies into dictatorship. Totalitarianism is created by the ignorance of the masses, fear and impatience, and the presence of a demagogue in whom the multitude seeks refuge in a sort of psycho-pathological communion. Moral health, patience, truth and virtue (strength of soul)—it is on these that the totalitarian idol breaks itself.

JM: Have you noticed any hopeful developments and tendencies in the philosophic life of the United States since your first visit some years ago?

It is precisely upon this that I base my fondest hopes. I have found among many groups of young people—teachers and students—a remarkable philosophic progress. And with what intellectual fervor, with what an appreciation of the seriousness of these problems, do they seek the truth? The metaphysical revival which is in progress in your country can have great historic importance.

I discovered this revival in very diverse circles, among non-Catholics as well as among Catholics. I greatly admire the work of President Hutchins at Chicago and the fight he is making for genuine culture and for higher education. "No friendly voice?"... Truly I found that his voice is heard throughout the land. In passing through Canada, I noticed with joy the further progress made by the Institute of Medieval Studies at Toronto; the thorough work there being accomplished by Etienne Gilson and Dr. Phelan is now bearing its fruit, and the United States profits by it as does Canada. Do I have to tell you of my admiration for Mortimer Adler? You know as well as I the essential part which he plays in the metaphysical revival of which we are speaking. You owe him a debt of gratitude. At Notre Dame, philosophical studies are receiving a great impetus, and much may be expected from the studies in political philosophy inaugurated by this year's symposium. New York has an excellent group of young philosophers at Fordham. At the University of Iowa the humanism of Norman Foerster has opened the doors of philosophic study to several young professors. Thanks to the zeal of Dr. Hough, Thomism is prospering among the Methodists of Drew Seminary. At the University of Virginia questions of speculative theology arouse intense; I have rarely heard Saint Thomas Aquinas spoken of with more feeling than at this university. And finally, there is the astonishing enterprise of Scott Buchanan and Stringfellow Barr at Annapolis. We should, it seems to me, attach high significance to this effort completely to revise your system of education and the rediscover a true conception of the liberal arts. Tied up with the liberal arts is a whole order of spiritual values of great importance to humanity and to cultural formation.

I speak only of the things which struck me in my travels. How can it be that all this should not seem to me burgeoning with great promise?

CW: One more question. What do you think of the position of Catholics in the United States?

JM: I think that much is expected of Catholics in America and that at the moment they have an incomparable opportunity to serve the common good. May it please God that they do not miss this opportunity!

CW: Perhaps you could be a little more precise on this subject?

JM: One always wishes many good things for those whom one loves. I should prefer that you make your own self-criticisms. From my conversations I gather the impression that the hopes of many Catholics among you are principally concerned, it seems, with the following: to intensify the intellectual, metaphysical, and theological life of  Catholics and to work out a true philosophy of modern history; to affirm more and more an apostolic rather than a political conception of religion, that is to say a conception which is truly Catholic (which before being  "anti-communist,"  and,  to the  same  extent,  "anti-fascist"  and  “anti-racist," is the calling of everyone to eternal life); on the level of  culture and of  the temporal life, not to constitute a separate world, but to cooperate with others—in short, and using the language of Father Gerald Vann, to practice a policy of "integration" and not a policy of "separation"; to think of temporal things from an American rather than a Spanish or any other European point of view, to devote oneself on the one hand to the spiritual life and contemplative goods, on the other hand to that social action by which the spirit of Christ descends into the depths of temporal things to give them life. From this point of view the work of Dorothy Day and her collaborators in the Catholic Worker seems to me very important.

I was not long ago discussing these things with Father Virgil Michel, with whom I found myself so much in accord and whose so sudden death gave me intense distress. He told me how hopeful he was of the young American clergy. And we agreed in thinking that as far as the preparations for and achievement of a new Christendom is concerned, the United States, like France and notably American Catholics like French Catholics have a great vocation and great duties.

[For more from our 1930s archive, click here]

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[For more interviews from Commonweal, see our full list.]

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