Lesson 10: Church and State

Maritain had high praise for the American constitution, describing it as "an outstanding lay Christian document tinged with the philosophy of the day."27 The American political tradition he saw as a viable example of the position he would sketch out of a sharp distinction between Church and State combined with their actual cooperation: "The spirit and inspiration of this great political Christian document is basically repugnant to the idea of making human society stand aloof from God and from any religious faith." He sought to avoid two extremes, extremes which had plagued Europe: on the one hand, were those who set forth a concept of civil intolerance, making non-Christians or non-Catholics second class citizens; on the other hand, were those who sought to marginalize the Church through isolating it from the activities of modern society. The former extreme could also take the form of maintaining clerical privilege and keeping up a façade of the Christian state. Maritain saw that such options would increase the bitterness and misunderstanding as well as nourish a high dose of Pharisaical citizens. To the latter extreme could take the form of indifference to religious affairs, or the historicist claim that the principles of prior ages are irrelevant and religion has no place at all in the modern world. Maritain finds the golden mean through a distinction between the fundamental principles, imperishable principles, and the conditions for application, historic conditions which call for analogous explication and application. That is, he does not merely say that the historic conditions are less than perfect requiring a prudential application and approximation, but that the very historic climate of the modern age, different as it is from the sacral age of the medieval time, requires a different analogous understanding of the principles at work. Thus he is neither a historicist on matter of principle nor an absolutist on the question of proper understanding of the relationship between Church and State.

Maritain bases his account of Church and State on the notion of degrees or orders of human achievement and flourishing. The common good civil life is "an ultimate end" but in a certain order, that is, the order of temporal achievement. It is an end "worthy in itself." In his first chapter Maritain derives from the Greek sense of the polis an account of the dignity of the political order. The common good of the body politic is constituted by justice and friendship, a form of association that "tends toward a really human and freely achieved communion. It lives on the devotion of human persons and their gift of themselves."28 The common good includes economic and political infrastructure but most of all "the sociological integration of all the civic conscience, political virtues and sense of law and freedom, of all the activity, material prosperity and spiritual riches of unconsciously operating hereditary wisdom, of moral rectitude, justice, friendship, happiness, virtue and heroism in the individual lives of the members of the body politic." It is important to note that Maritain distinguishes the "state" from the "body politic" the former being the instrument of the body politic to administer justice and good order. Thus the very notion of Church and State must recall this distinction during the discussion of their relations and cooperation, for the church finds a place within the notion of the body politic with its various associations and heritage. So the common good of the political society must include "an intrinsic though indirect ordination to something which transcends it." It is subordinate to a higher good because there is in human nature a higher aspiration. The seeds of such transcendence are to be found in natural human aspirations to "spiritual goods" such as truth, justice, and beauty which lead one beyond nation or state. The state can claim no sovereignty over the life of the mind. The political common good cannot be closed in on itself; nor should the state attempt to curb the impulse to truth and beauty, such is the basis for civil liberties for freedom of thought and expression. For the ancients, this aspiration was embodied in the philosopher who existed beyond the city, and who was even beyond that religion which was poetical or civil in nature. But the philosopher embraced a true philosophical religion, a rational or metaphysical religion.

The human person transcends the state and the body politic through "what is supra-temporal." Maritain recognizes a capacity for transcendence in all, not just the few, and that capacity finds an ultimate perfection in religion. From a Christian perspective the absolute ultimate end lies in the supernatural order, union with God through grace. But he is careful to explain each principle and each step of his argument from the standpoint of both the believer and the unbeliever. There will be an "unavoidable mutual misapprehension" between the two (186) but nevertheless a philosophical case can be made for the notion of "sharp distinction and actual cooperation."

Maritain develops three general principles which he says are "imperishable" or true always and everywhere, but they require historic conditioning in their application. The three general principles are: (1) the freedom of the Church to teach and preach and worship; (2) the superiority of the Church - that is, of the spiritual - over the body politic and the State; and (3) the necessary cooperation between the Church and the body politic and the State. He elaborates and defends each one in turn.

Maritain presents a variety of reasons for freedom of religion. It follows from his overall account of the transcendence of the human person. The perfections of intellect and will which characterize the full development of the human person have a terminus beyond political life in "supra-temporal goods" which "constitute the moral heritage of mankind, the spiritual common good of civilization or the community of minds."29 We can call this metaphysical ground for freedom of religion. Maritain also gives a more direct political argument. On the basis of freedom of association the freedom of religion or Church can be derived. Churches are one of the primary intermediate groups to which the human person is a member and derives much benefit; society as well derives such benefit. So too can we appeal to freedom of conscience, which Maritain calls "the most basic and inalienable of all the human rights." For the believer, on the other hand, there is a more profound basis for freedom of the Church. The Church is understood to be a superior society by virtue of its supernatural character. It derives from the mandate to preach the Gospel given by Jesus.

The second principle, concerning the superiority of the Church, derives from a historical, as well as a theological claim. Prior to the arrival of Christianity the political society would make divine claims for itself or for its ruler. The very distinction between Church and State is made possible by Christianity and the admonition to "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." As Maritain so eloquently puts it "the terrestrial and national frameworks in which the spiritual was confined have been shattered." The superiority of the spiritual is manifest in the very distinction - i.e. God is greater than Caesar. And yet Maritain points out, following Leo XIII, the de-divinizing of the state does not harm the state. The state is "autonomous" within its own order. The Church makes no claim for direct rule over temporal affairs on this account.

Finally, for the third principle, perhaps most controversial, is an argument based upon the benefit of the Church to society. All the Church asks is freedom - in return much will be rendered to the state in terms of moral influence. Of course it is now the very influence on morality that many resent. But the argument from the unity of the human person is brought in precisely at this point. It would be unnatural for the church and state to ignore each other because it would amount to splitting the person in two halves - for the sake of the integrity of the person there must be cooperation between Church and state. What kind of cooperation is need requires us to consider the historic climate in which we now live in contrast to the climate of an earlier era.

Maritain's unique breakthrough on the topic of Church and State, and I might add an anticipation of the position adopted by Vatican II, derives from his account of history. Maritain proposes that we approach the issue in light of the "climate or constellation of existential conditions" dealing with juridical, social political and intellectual factors that define a given era. The application of the principles in each era calls for a different mode of application. That is, Maritain does not see the historical conditions as so many limits to a prudential application, which in more favorable conditions would allow for a greater achievement. Rather the new era requires an analogous application. The conservatives, if you will, do not grasp the historical climate or opportunities for a new style of Christian witness and a new style of Church state relations. They are abstract absolutists with respect to the principles, but have a univocal grasp of what they mean or entail. For their position would entail a denial of equal civil rights to the non-believer and it would ultimately entail a form of violence against them. The liberals, if you will, declare that the principles have now become obsolete and fall into historicism. Their problem stems from an equivocal understanding of the principles. It entails indifferentism and perhaps the aggressive attack on religion in the public square that we witness today. It is part of Maritain's life long philosophical and theological project to confront the modern world from the standpoint of the Thomistic tradition and to apply the basic principles and extend the basic principles to the problem of the day. He wishes to embrace the advances of the modern world, but by purifying the errors of its philosophy and first principles.

Maritain's understanding of the modern era centers on a distinction between the "sacral" versus the "lay" state. The distinction is most fully articulated in Integral Humanism and it is the centerpiece of Maritain's understanding of the achievement of Vatican II as explained in The Peasant of the Garonne, to be examined below. Maritain describes the medieval era as characterized by a distinction between the two powers, temporal and spiritual, but a unification of the two through the use of faith for the unity of the body politic. Religious creed was used as the basis for unity in the body politic, so a rupture in belief was seen as a rupture in the body politic. The heretic therefore was seen as threat to the political order. The methods of the inquisition served both the church and the state; the state could use it as an instrument for state unity; the Church could use the temporal power as a means for its goals. The temporal therefore was subordinated to the spiritual as a means or an instrument for a spiritual end.30 The medieval era was also characterized by what Maritain calls "fortitude in the service of justice" as its public ideal. The public servant aimed at the embodiment of a noble ideal. With the fragmentation of the religious unity of the state by way of the Reformation, the "Baroque era" attempted to refund the unity of the state through the absolutism of the ruler whose faith would guarantee the unity of the spiritual and political order. Maritain views this as a halfway house, unworkable in the long run. The true modern era is described as a lay state whose two guiding principles are the differentiation and autonomy of the temporal sphere, from economics to politics and the public ideal of the conquest of freedom and human dignity. The unity of the state could no longer be grounded in a spiritual and religious unity, so it must be based upon a temporal goal as such. The notion of human dignity and the use of temporal power to empower or liberate human beings from bondage to nature or oppressive rule became the public ideal. The autonomy of the secular affairs Maritain says is a rightful unfolding of the very distinction of the affairs of God and Caesar. The new climate therefore requires the analogous application of the imperishable principles. The entailments are as follows. The state is no longer viewed as the "secular arm" of the church. The state is "autonomous and independent" within its own sphere.31 Second, the equality of all members of the temporal society is recognized as a fundamental tenant. The holding of office or the enjoyment of the civil rights is the same for all. Third, the Church and state both recognize the importance of "inner forces" as a preferred mode over coercion. Faith cannot be imposed by force, but neither can political persuasion or other fundamentals of belief. This leads to the highlighting of conscience as the great key to the new era. Freedom of conscience entails freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression.

In these new conditions Maritain sees a great new era for the relation of church and state, traced back to the unity of the person. There are three aspects to the argument. First, the person is characterized by a unity or integrity - and although living in various orders with various pursuits, has one conscience. The person is simultaneously a member of the body politic and a member of the Church. Hence "he would be cut in two if his temporal membership were cut off from his spiritual membership."32 The wholeness of the person should incline us towards cooperation rather than antagonism. Second, the religious pursuit is essential to the "pursuit of happiness." Therefore the common good of society, which includes the flourishing of its members, but be favorable towards the religious pursuit. Third, through the influence on conscience "Christian truths and incentives" would pass into the sphere of temporal existence and thereby assist the democratic state in rousing the "inner strength and spiritual stronghold of democracy" (176). The religious beliefs and practices will have a "leavening effect." They should uplift morality and sensitive moral conscience. The civil rights movement of the 60s would be an example that Maritain has in mind. Maritain anticipates the communitarian critique of liberal philosophy - the attempt to develop a neutral, thin theory of the raison d'etre of the political society is impossible or weak. The pluralism of religious belief can be turned to the state's advantage if the various religious traditions can agree on concrete practical principles, but provide a more full-bodied understanding and defense of the principles at a higher level. The educational efforts of the Church are very important for the well being of the political society (see 121-122). The students could see "the entire convictions" and personal inspiration behind their principles of government and social practice (122). For this reason Maritain says that the isolation or separation of church and state would "simply spell suicide."

The very distinction between Church and State grants to the Church her new found influence. She stands for universality and for the higher supratemporal good to which the human person aspires. The superiority of the Church is therefore not the basis for the use of coercive methods or for the dictation of public policy, but it should operate through the springs of conscience and persuasion. In a poignant passage Maritain says, "A superior agent is not confined or shut up within itself. It radiates. It stimulates the inner forces and energies of other agents - even autonomous in their own peculiar spheres - whose place is less high in the scale of being. Superiority implies a penetrating and vivifying influence. The very token of the superiority of the Church is the moral power with which she vitally influences, penetrates and quickens, as a spiritual leaven, temporal existence and the inner energies of nature, so as to carry them to a higher and more perfect level in their own order."33 So the autonomy of the temporal sphere is recognized and even celebrated, and the influence of the Church is to stimulate within the very political order its own proper excellence and achievement of its own proper end. It requires a distinct metaphysical conception, analogous to the relation of nature and grace - that grace does not destroy but rather builds upon and perfects nature.34 Maritain's prophetic term for the new relation of Church and state, from the standpoint of the Church, is called the "sanctification of secular life." The temporal itself bears within itself the mark of the divine, a "quid divinum."

The Church therefore seeks to persuade and to revive the inner energies within the human person, within conscience. It thus forever forswears the use of coercive power. Rather the Church now asks for freedom, the freedom to pursue its spiritual mission. No special privilege is required, just an acknowledgement that the temporal common good of the state is advanced by granting to the Church her freedom. It is a temporal good for the reasons mentioned above, the essential component of the pursuit of happiness and the leavening effect of Christian conscience within society at large. This constitutes an in-principled argument against state coercion for religious purposes. In addition there are prudential reasons for limiting even the legitimate secular reasons for morality as mediated through religion. Maritain explains the Thomistic adage that law should be proportionate to the capacity of the people. Thus not every moral standard will be legislated in full force.35

The actual cooperation should go beyond the negative freedom of the church to be allowed to pursue her mission to preach the gospel. Maritain says that the state should ask the Church to do more in domains where she can assist - such as welfare and education. The state can help remove obstacles and "open the doors" for the Church to assist the "social and moral work of the nation, to provide people with a leisure worthy of human dignity, and to develop within them the sense of liberty and fraternity" (179).

At the end of the day Maritain understands that their will always be an ultimate misapprehension between the believer and the non-believer. But he thinks that the task is now clear. The influence of the Church on liberty is for the good; she has forsworn the use of coercion for religious purposes. The blind forces, which have attacked religion in the name of freedom and the dignity of the person, must now drop their mask and appear, as they are - opponents of liberty and human dignity. Their anti-religious animus, their virulent secularism, now becomes the sole reason for attacking and excluding religion. Maritain has traced our way through the Tocquevillian dilemma: "Where then are we? Men of religion fight against freedom, and lovers of liberty attack religion; noble and generous spirits praise slavery, while low servile minds preach independence; honest and enlightened citizens are the enemies of all progress, while men without patriotism or morals make themselves the apostles of civilization and enlightenment!"36 And one hundred years later Maritain claims in his Man and the State: "Present times, however miserable they are, have the wherewithal to elate those who love the Church and love freedom. . . . The cause of freedom and the cause of the Church are one in the defense of man."37


27. Man and the State, p. 183.

28. Ibid. p. 10.

29. Ibid., p. 150.

30. See Maritain, Jacques. Integral Humanism. Translated by Joseph W. Evans. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1973a.

31. Ibid., p. 161.

32. Ibid., p. 176.

33. Ibid., pp. 164-165.

34. See the book by Maritain's theological mentor, Journet, Charles. The Meaning of Grace. Translated by A. V. Littledale. Princeton: Scepter Press, 1996.

35. Ibid., pp. 167-171.

36. Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Translated by George Lawrence. J. P. Mayer ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1988., p. 17.

37. Man and the State, p. 187.


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