In his November 23, 2021, entry for the Postliberal Order newsletter, Catholic University of America theologian Chad Pecknold began what he promises to be a series of entries on the imago Dei as a political concept, ones which I will read with great interest. A common point of reference for Pecknold is the old debate between Catholic personalists like Jacques Maritain and their best critic, Charles De Koninck. Maritain was one of the most famous and well-regarded Catholic philosophers of the twentieth century. He argued that politics should be ordered to the person whose need for spiritual salvation could only be served by a government providing the freedom to live a religious life. In his 1943 On the Primacy of the Common Good: Against the Personalists, De Koninck objected (although not naming Maritain or any other personalist), arguing that the common good takes priority over the person.
Insisting on the person as the end for government for the Catholic cedes too much ground to a philosophically liberal anthropology. As Pecknold argues:
De Koninck was trying to warn us. He was pointing out that the liberal account of the person — in both right-and-left liberal terms — lacks a proper conception of our common desire for the good. He proposed that one of the reasons liberal anthropologies lack this proper conception of human desire is because they lack the conception of the Final End of the person. The putatively secularized and neutralized account of human dignity helps to ensure that the liberal goes on lacking this concept of the Final End — and then one imagines silly ahistorical end-of-history fantasies like liberalism-without-end, and transhumanism.
It is worth noting that there is a rather important gap between Maritain’s understanding of the human person and the liberal conception, although the degree of difference depends on the “liberal” in question. The late Canadian philosopher Leslie Armour offers a better account of De Koninck for our purposes:
There is thus a good of the whole and we must therefore ask how man is related to God and to that whole which is the universe. It is not enough that we should expand our personalities so as to master all our possibilities. Indeed, De Koninck argues here that a subtle inversion has taken place in the kind of argument used by many who would call themselves personalists: The good is not in our knowledge or our experience of it. This is especially true of the beatific vision. It is not our vision which is good but the object within it which is good. So, too, it is the things known which form a significant part of the good, not simply our knowledge of them.
Amour’s account is better because he appreciates that De Koninck’s reservation came from what he saw were the limits to a person’s understanding. Too great an emphasis on the person precludes what a person on her own cannot grasp, most importantly the common good. Common goods require pursuing over individual goods, since common goods benefit all and serve as a duty that requires persons to surrender their personal goods to serve properly.
Armour, however, does not take sides. He understands that the disagreement between the two came from two non-theological motivations. The first is that Maritain was French and De Koninck was Belgian by birth but lived in Canada. The dispute occurred during the Second World War, and Maritain wanted to offer a personalism that forged a Catholic social thought contrary to the fascist Vichy France, which was a puppet state of the Third Reich. As Armour recounts, Maritain hoped De Koninck would assist in this effort, but De Koninck declined. Because Maritain was French, his silence could be conveyed as support for Vichy. Given his Belgian and Canadian status, De Koninck had no such issue, or so Armour speculates, and had reservations about personality-driven politics, whether they be that of Vichy leader Philippe Pétain or French Resistance leader General Charles de Gaulle. Armour is generous here, since Belgium was already under Nazi occupation at this point, and Canada had been at war against the Axis since 1939, a little fewer than four years after De Koninck published On the Primacy of the Common Good.
The deeper difference, however, was one of worldview, as Armour vividly states:
Maritain, though he rejected the darker struggles of Pascal and Kierkegaard, came from a more sombre [sic] protestant [sic] background. There is a Calvinist earnestness in Maritain’s writings — a sense that salvation requires our constant attention and effort. The universe is a very serious place. De Koninck thought he would do better to spend a little time laughing at ourselves. This distinction has something to do with Maritain’s view of persons — for the task set for persons is herculean, nothing less than an expansion of content to include the whole universe. De Koninck thought that each of us must do his part, but, after that, humility dictates that much be left for the others and for God to accomplish.
For this reason, Armour sees Maritain and De Koninck very much in tension, but in a productive way for those who wish to read the two authors together. Neither fully professed a view that captured the very urgent circumstances of the Second World War, and readers should find in the disagreement between these two great minds an enriching encounter rather than an opportunity to take sides.
Sadly, Pecknold opts to take sides and in a way that is unfair to Maritain. More importantly, he does so in a way that is inconsistent with his own argumentation. He invites the reader to jump to conclusions that Maritain’s personalism was responsible for the secularism of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
De Koninck’s famous interventions apparently had little effect on Maritain, or at least his interventions didn’t persuade, since the United Nations’ 1948 declaration on human rights that Maritain influenced included no reference to God or the image of God at all. Nor did the declaration understand the person in relation to a proper notion of the common good. Instead, we find in most political uses of “dignity” a very individualized and secularized concept of the person which obscures rather than clarifies the good which to be protected and served.
Pecknold, in other words, encourages his readers to jump to conclusions with him—personalism leads to secularism, leads to a degraded anthropology, leads to governments no longer dedicated to the common good. Theology is a vital discipline, but it is not a substitute for good history. The drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is more than Catholic personalism equals secularization, but that is a different article for someone else to write.
Moreover, to be consistent, Pecknold would need to explain how De Koninck’s emphasis on the common good led De Koninck to support artificial birth control. In his 1965 “The Question of Infertility,” De Koninck argued:
Since infertility in some sense is needed for the good of the child, by intention of nature, and since nature cannot produce infertility to the necessary degree, it is man who is called upon, deliberately to produce the required infertility. Now it is the relating of means with action, and goal to be achieved—the goal of being first in intention but last in executive—which makes the whole procedure practical; and it is the goal, precisely in the respect here envisaged, which becomes the essential principle of the practical order. In the case which concerns us, if that which is most essential in the goal of marriage—the child as fed and reared—be not kept in view, the whole order of ends and means will collapse.
Indeed, De Koninck penned this months before he died in Rome, where he hoped to meet with Pope St. Paul VI to offer this position. At least Maritain did not intend the kind of secularism that eventually captured the UN, even by Pecknold’s account. De Koninck very much intended his position. As it happens, a few months after De Koninck’s death, Paul VI visited, of all places, the United Nations. Fewer than three years later, he issued Humanae vitae, his encyclical in opposition to birth control and abortion.
Should Catholics toss out De Koninck’s work because his idea of the primacy of the common good apparently requires permission to use birth control? After all, it is by this logic that Pecknold invites his readers to eschew Maritain’s ideas, since they lead, in his truncated history of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to secularism. By Pecknold’s standard, the answer is yes. However, Pecknold remains an enthusiastic supporter of De Koninck. Does this mean that Pecknold is a supporter of birth control use among Catholics? I do not believe he is.
So, one can see how this logic itself is the problem. Either Catholics consider the genius and limits of both thinkers, or they disregard them both. The latter is unacceptable, given that surrendering the genius is too high a cost. Rather, the best way forward is simply to incorporate the genius and leave out errors, in both cases. For this reason, I hope Pecknold will reconsider his rush to judgment not only on Maritain’s influence on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also on Maritain’s personalism more generally. As for De Koninck, he died young and might have seen in Pope St. Paul VI’s encyclical something he missed. After all, Maritain was once a supporter of the despicable anti-Semite Charles Maurras and his party, Action Française. When Pope Pius XI condemned Action Française in 1926, Maritain had an awakening that gave us his best work.