B 4.3.1 Response to Exercise


 1. History has direction and progress is possible.

Influenced by Christian faith in the final “advent of the kingdom of God”, the secular conscience has come to see history as having direction (rather than being cyclical) and also to think that there can be progress towards a better society.  This is even though progress is “not automatic and necessary, but threatened and thwarted” (p. 28).

2. The human person has dignity

It is under “the inspiration of the Gospel”, even if this is often misunderstood, that “the secular conscience has understood the dignity of the human person”.  He or she is part of, yet transcends, the political community.  “What has been gained… is faith in the rights of the human person, as a human person, as a civic person, as a person engaged in social and economic life, and as a working person”, and faith in the imperative of justice for him or her (p. 28).

3. Human communities also have dignity and must reflect human equality.

The third of Maritain’s contentions is a little less easy to understand than the first two.  I think his principal point can be put like this. Given that the Gospel has always called for the formation of a people together, of the Church in the sense of community – “[f]aithful people, God’s little people, kingly people, called to share in the work of Christ” – the secular conscience has come to understand the dignity, not just of individuals, but of people together as a body, and of the place of the “common man” within this, and so of fundamental human equality (p. 29).  In light of this, we know that “the idea of a caste, of a class or a race… as ruling and dominant must give way to the notion of a community of free [people], equal in rights and in labour” (p. 30).

4. Political power comes from God and this makes its holders accountable for their use of it.

Back in Unit 2, when we were studying the ‘just government strand’ in the Bible, we looked at what biblical texts say about the question, ‘Why should people accept government’s claim to authority?’ (2.2.7)  We saw that, in light of Romans 13, 1 Peter 2 and some other passages, the answer to this that we find in Church teaching is, in brief: we should recognize that political authority comes from God.

I noted there that to affirm this of course does not mean that government may do anything it likes, may just act arbitrarily.  Rather, it must do only what God has authorized – which is why the topic of Unit 3, the proper role of government, is so important.

Maritain’s fourth point fits against this background.  While what he says here can be difficult to grasp, its essence can be put like this.  It is because the Gospel has said that political power comes from God that the secular conscience has come to see that no-one, or no group, can legitimately claim to exercise it arbitrarily over others – because such a claim refuses to recognize accountability for its use to what transcends it.  From this, paradoxically, has sprung the idea that has become basic in democratic thought that government is accountable to the people as a whole, and so must be seen as subject to the consent of the people.  Political authority “is addressed to free men who do not belong to a master, and is exercised by virtue of the consent of the governed” (p. 30)

Later in the unit we shall examine the extent of the adequacy of this way of arguing for the idea that government is subject to the consent of the people.

5. Government must be just.

The fifth point is related to the fourth, and can be put more simply and briefly. “By virtue of the hidden work of evangelical inspiration”, the secular conscience has understood that the use of political power must be made “subject to God and to justice” – that is, to an external moral standard (p. 31).  Correspondingly, the use of power must not just be left as “the politics of domination”, as a power struggle in which no moral standard has a part (p. 32).

6. Humans are made for fulfilment in freedom.

When studying CST’s main principles of CST in Unit 1, we saw that CST speaks of fulfilled human living in terms of ‘integral human development’.  This principle “refers to the end or goal of people becoming as fully human as possible, in all the dimensions of their God-given humanness” (quoting 1.3.9).

Maritain’s sixth contention relates to this.  “It is that [u]nder the often misunderstood or disfigured, but still active, inspiration of the Gospel, the secular conscience has awakened not only to the dignity of the human person, but also to the aspirations and the élan which are at work in his depths” (p. 32) and which, by the person’s own free action, lift him or her up toward fulfilment.

The basic idea here is that the secular conscience has been formed by Christianity’s recognition both of human dignity, as a minimum standard for justice, and of the potential that persons have for exercising freedom in ways “consonant with the vocation of our nature” (p. 33).

7. Human sufferings can be transcended by brotherly and sisterly love.

“Finally, under the inspiration of the Gospel at work in history, the secular conscience has understood that in the misfortunes and suffering of our existence, crushed by… weight of the pride, injustice and wickedness of men”, a single principle in human relations can triumph over these: love for others as though they are sisters and brothers (p. 33).

Having in earlier points referred to equality and liberty, Maritain might have pointed here to the third term in the French Revolution’s triad, fraternity, of which the root is the Latin word for brother.

Speaking of the power of the hope that brotherly and sisterly love generates, he says,

Once the [human] heart… has felt the freshness of that terrible hope, it is troubled for all time.  If it fails to recognize its supra-human origins and exigencies, this hope risks becoming perverted and changing into violence to impose upon all “brotherhood or death”.  But woe to us if we scorn this hope itself, and deprive the human race of the promise of brotherhood. (p. 34)

Those are summaries of the seven ways in which Maritain proposes that “the hidden work of evangelical inspiration” has formed the secular conscience.  In relation to each he makes the same qualification: as long as the secular conscience “does not veer to barbarism”.  Writing in the midst of World War Two, he would have been acutely conscious of this possibility.  Yet Maritain argued that pervasively within Western political culture there are fruit of the Gospel that make democracy possible.


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