Sheed, Taylor & Maritain

No Hack

Thanks for the attention to Wilfrid Sheed’s inimitable style, wit, and way with a sentence (“Readers Will Always Be Grateful,” February 25). He was one of a kind. I read two of his novels, but didn’t think they were what he did best. It was the shorter pieces, the articles and especially the reviews, that sparkled. I would often read one through to see what he thought, and then find myself unable to resist reading the piece over a few times more just to savor the way he put things. And I must admit that when Sheed wrote for Commonweal, I usually read his bits first. I’ve read lots of reviews, written lots myself, and even been a book review editor, but I’ve never enjoyed a reviewer’s work more than Sheed’s.

Susan Gannon
Somers, N.Y.

Religion & Democracy

Charles Taylor’s “Religion Is Not the Problem” (February 25) is an excellent analysis of the errors of secularists who seek to exclude those with strong religious convictions from public discourse. He argues that the distinction between secular and religious reasoning is untenable, because reason alone cannot resolve certain moral and legal issues. I agree with Taylor’s assertion that secular governments should protect the practice of religion. But governments also have a right to expect that those who practice religion do not renounce political affairs and retreat to a social ghetto. Democracy requires participation as well as tolerance.

In Man and the State, Jacques Maritain argues that in a pluralistic democracy people of different religious beliefs can agree on practical principles that are necessary for a shared political existence. These include a commitment to truth, intelligence, and moral good, and a willingness to promote freedom, dignity, and equality. The state has no right to impose on citizens any “conformism” of reason as a justification for the principles. The resulting moral charter constitutes a secular faith but is not a replacement for religious belief.

Applying these principles without destroying the underlying consensus is difficult, as the persistent debate over abortion demonstrates. But it advances democratic participation by persons of different religious beliefs toward the common good. Maritain’s approach is an improvement over forms of political thought that assume antagonism between religious faith and secular governance.

Cornelius F. Murphy
Valencia, Pa.

Published in the 2011-03-25 issue: 
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