4.3.1 Maritain on Christianity and democracy

Back to 4.2.4

Unit 4 Contents


What does modern Catholic Social Teaching have to say about democracy?  This is not an entirely easy question to answer because there is surprisingly little in the documents of CST that is directly about democracy!  Sometimes commentators say that the statements of the 1960s that marked the ‘Catholic human rights revolution’ (see 2.4.6 and 3.3.2) show CST making a clear affirmation of democracy.1. At least on the surface, however, it is not obvious that they do this.  In all the CST documents of the 1960s, there is only one use of either of the words ‘democratic’ and ‘democracy’.2. Moreover, there is no extended discussion of this in any subsequent papal encyclical, although John Paul II addressed democracy in two main places.  We shall look later at possible reasons for this relative absence.

But there is a strong emphasis on the importance of participation in political life, as we noted at the start of this unit, and we shall give close attention to this.  We shall assess whether this emphasis on participation implies commitment to democracy.

To begin, we shall pay attention to the philosopher and writer Jacques Maritain, one of the great Catholic intellectuals of the twentieth century.  Maritain probably did more than anyone to show that Catholic teaching about government gives good reasons for supporting democracy.

Maritain wrote a short book in the very dark days of the Second World War, called Christianity and Democracy.  Published in 1943 in French and in 1945 in English, it proved to be highly influential.  He argued, not only for the compatibility of the Christian faith with democracy, but also that, historically, Christianity was the inspiration for some of the main ideas in democratic thinking.  He had made this argument in earlier writing too, speaking about the “Christian leaven fermenting in the bosom of human history” that was the source of modern democracy.3

Maritain was well aware of the history of the ‘alliance of throne and altar’ and of the extent of Catholic opposition to democracy for a long time after the French Revolution.  But he argued that Christianity itself was the primary source of a set of convictions about human dignity, equality and freedom out of which belief in the possibility of democracy had very slowly developed.

You will be asked to read some of his writing shortly.  It will be worthwhile, first, to learn a little about Maritain himself.  The following article says near the beginning that he “is best known today for his role in guiding Catholic thought toward its rapprochement with modern political democracy”, yet this is not the article’s focus.  Rather, it outlines his long life and some of the other main interests addressed in his voluminous writing.


Reading (5pp)

Christopher Shannon, ‘Jacques Maritain’s Service to Truth’, Crisis Magazine, 29 Apr. 2013


The next reading is one chapter of Maritain’s Christianity and Democracy, entitled ‘Evangelical inspiration and the secular conscience’.  In this title, and several times in the book, he uses the word ‘evangelical’ in its literal meaning, which is ‘of the gospel’ or ‘arising from the gospel’.  Half way through the previous chapter, he summarizes the thesis about the relationship between the Christian gospel and democracy for which he argues in the chapter you will read:

[I]t is obvious that… Christian faith cannot be made subservient to democracy as a philosophy of human and political life or to any political form whatsoever…

But the important thing for the political life of the world and for the solution of this crisis of civilization [namely, the World War and “Nazi nihilism”, as he put it earlier in the book] is by no means to pretend… that Christian faith compels every believer to be a democrat; [rather,] it is to affirm… that the democratic impulse has arisen in human history as a temporal manifestation of the inspiration of the Gospel.


Reading (10pp)

J. Maritain, Christianity and Democracy, chapter IV, ‘Evangelical Inspiration and the Secular Conscience’ (pp. 25-34)

This link should take you directly to the start of the chapter at Google Books.  If it doesn’t, go the Google Books homepage for this book and scroll down to p. 25.




Near the start of this chapter, Maritain paints, with a broad brush, a picture of the ways in which he sees Christianity as having shaped beliefs and assumptions that are widely shared in modern Western culture.  He says:

Christianity… has taught [the peoples] the unity of the human race, the natural equality of all men, children of the same God and redeemed by the same Christ, the inalienable dignity of every soul fashioned in the image of God, the dignity of labour and the dignity of the poor, … the inviolability of consciences, the exact vigilance of God’s justice and providence over the great and the small.  It has taught them the obligation imposed on those who govern and on those who have possessions to govern in justice, as ministers of God, and to manage the goods entrusted to them to the common advantage [i.e. the common good]… (p. 26)

In the rest of the chapter, he sets out more fully seven ways in which “the hidden work of evangelical inspiration” has formed the secular conscience.  These do not correspond exactly with what that quotation mentions but they basically develop what that says.

From your reading, make brief notes of what these seven are.




Overall, Maritain’s argument is that some of the main ideas that are prerequisites of a democratic political culture are the legacy of Christianity, however obscure their connections with Christianity had become by the mid-twentieth century.  This was certainly a bold argument, for a number of reasons.

For one, Maritain was making it at a time when the Catholic Church had not made any formal statement of support for democracy – and indeed had, in the 1930s, become associated with anti-democratic regimes in some European countries, especially Spain and Portugal, and, less straightforwardly, Mussolini’s Italy.

Second, Maritain’s argument, as you have seen, was made in quite sweeping terms, without reference to concrete historical evidence to support it.  In principle, each of the seven contentions Maritain set out in that chapter assumed that it would be possible to give a long historical narrative justifying it.  Maritain could only write in such a way because, by the 1940s, his academic and public stature was already sufficiently well established that readers would recognize there was immense learning behind the panoramic vision he presented.  Nevertheless, the fact that his claims are very general makes his position vulnerable to critique.

In the early decades of the twenty-first century, there is no-one who could be seen as an equivalent to Maritain – a public intellectual widely known across the French-speaking and English-speaking worlds (and elsewhere), and who stands unambiguously for Christianity, specifically Catholicism, articulating its requirements for social life in ways that show how it can meet the best aspirations of people in liberal and democratic societies.

Yet a figure who is in some ways similar is Charles Taylor, currently one of the world’s most influential philosophers.  Taylor, a Canadian, addresses with vast historical learning very difficult questions about modern culture and politics, and the place of religion within them.  Taylor is a Roman Catholic and, even though his writing is not exposition or even exploration of Church teaching, his work can be interpreted as giving a very profound defence of the intellectual coherence of Christian belief.  Taylor is someone whom students in the field of Catholic social thought should know about.  Here is a short introduction to him.


Reading (2pp)

Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Charles Taylor


If you have time you might like to read a longer article about Charles Taylor and an interview that were both published in the British political magazine Prospect.  In the interview, it is especially fascinating that he refers to the way in which, in the early 1950s (when he was about 20), his convictions were formed partly by reading French Catholic writers who later influenced the Second Vatican Council.  It is very likely that both Jacques Maritain and Henri de Lubac (the latter will be introduced in the next unit; see 5.3.4) were among these.  Taylor said:

I think the really decisive thing in my religious development was that around 1950-52, a great deal of new French-written theology—which eventually inspired Vatican II—was circulating through the media in Quebec… I read all this stuff: it gave me a sense of what I felt…


Optional reading (4pp)

Prospect, 29 Feb. 2008, Profile of Charles Taylor

Prospect, 29 Feb. 2008, Charles Taylor Interviewed


I have brought in Charles Taylor immediately after our reading of Jacques Maritain on the relationship of Christianity and democracy because of Taylor’s two most significant books. These are both immense studies in the history of ideas: Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (1989) and A Secular Age (2007).  Appealing to a wealth of material, they bring out many ways in the liberal and democratic culture of modernity still manifests the legacy of Christianity.  While they are by no means only this, these works by Taylor can be read as a profound and extensive defence of the kinds of claim made by Maritain about “the hidden work of evangelical inspiration” that engendered ideas and beliefs which made democracy possible.4

We cannot explore this historical work by Taylor further, but we shall draw on another piece of his writing later in this unit.

As noted above, Maritain’s book Christianity and Democracy was first published in 1943.  The first significant papal statement about democracy was made in 1944; we now turn to this.


End of 4.3.1

Go to 4.3.2 Democracy in CST texts (i): Pope Pius XII

Module B outline

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  1. For example, John Langan refers to “the full embrace of the procedures and values of constitutional democracy, at least in the political order, which is found in John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris and Gaudium et Spes of Vatican II”.  See Langan, ‘The Christmas Messages of Pius XII (1939-1945): Catholic Social Teaching in a Time of External Crisis’, pp. 175-190 in Kenneth R. Himes, Lisa Sowle Cahill, et al. (eds),  Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries and Interpretations (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2005). 

  2. The one use is in Pacem in Terris, #52; we shall look at this later.  By the main documents of the 1960s, I mean Mater et Magistra, Pacem in Terris, Gaudium et Spes, Dignitatis Humanae and Populorum Progressio

  3. J. Maritain, Scholasticism and Politics (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1940),  

  4. Taylor has written directly on democracy, including, ‘Religion is not the problem: secularism & democracy’, in Commonweal, 18 Feb. 2011.  This article is not available free, but can be purchased from Amazon here or accessed by subscribers to Commonweal here