About Ignatius Insight
  Who We Are
  Ignatius Press
  Ignatius Press catalogs
  Catholic World Report
  Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  IP Novels site
  IP Religious Ed blog
  IP Critical Editions

Jacques Maritain and Dignitatis Humanae: Natural Law as the Common Language of Religious Freedom | Brian Jones, M.A. | Ignatius Insight

Print-friendly version

The Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain has been regarded by some (notably Professors Ralph McInerny and Jude P. Dougherty) as the greatest Catholic philosopher of the twentieth century. Maritain's achievement as a philosopher was rooted in his integration of Thomistic principles with the historical and cultural climates current in the modern world.

Not only was he influential in his native France, he also gained enthusiastic acclaim in North America, where he held visiting professorships at Princeton and the University of Chicago, and lectured at Notre Dame, Yale, Harvard, and the University of Toronto. Pope Paul VI readily admitted the profound influence of Maritain's thought on his Credo of the People of God (1968), and at the close of the Second Vatican Council on December 8, 1965, the pope's "Address to Men of Thought and Science" was dedicated to his dear friend and mentor. Pope Paul even offered Maritain a cardinal's hat, but the philosopher declined it. These things indicate the immense influence that Maritain had in political, philosophical, and theological circles during the last century.

The Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom—Dignitatis Humanae—is still, though often neglected and misunderstood, a prophetic document. Here, I should like to reveal how, on a foundational level, Maritain's presentation on "rights" in his book Man and the State (1951) is an authentic articulation of the language of "rights" that Dignitatis Humanae employs.

Although the book, and Maritain's involvement with the United Nations International Declaration on Rights in 1948, preceded Dignitatis Humanae by almost twenty years, Maritain's thought on the subject of "rights" is nevertheless significant and important here. His personal experience of the debilitating spiritual, moral, and cultural effects of the French Revolution and the two World Wars, as well as his acknowledged influence, indicate the likely merit of an analysis of his work in connexion with Dignitatis Humanae.

A specific focus on Maritain is in no way an attempt to see his work in isolation as the only useful source in considering the conciliar document. Neither does this essay claim that everything written in the area of "rights" by Maritain is to be accepted without scrutiny or further examination. Rather, my point is to highlight the foundational principles of Dignitatis Humanae, as articulated in Maritain's thought, in order further to establish a common language in the context of the modern discussion of the right to religious freedom.

The opening paragraph of Dignitatis Humanae states that "a sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man". The Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom, and "this freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power".

In his section of Man and the State concerning the "Rights of Man", Maritain states that there is no right of man "unless a certain order—which can be violated in fact—is inviolably required by what things are in their intelligible type or their essence, or by what the nature of man is, and is cut out for". [1] In other words, the discussion of "rights" only makes sense if the participants involved hold to a proper anthropology, one that contemplates what man is in his nature and what his destiny is. Maritain continues by saying that dialogue concerning the truths about man and his ends can only take place if we recognize that the foundation of these rights "exists in a separate Spirit, in an Absolute which is superior to the world, in what perennial philosophy calls the Eternal Law". [2]

Professor Mary Ann Glendon of the Harvard Law School has written that one of the greatest errors of modern culture, stemming from 18th-century Enlightenment philosophy, is its absolutizing of "rights"—as if "rights" were an autonomous licensed form of freedom that rejects any form of responsibility or duty. This is exactly the interpretive key that helps to unlock the "rights" language of Dignitatis Humanae, where the document warns against those "who seem inclined to use the name of freedom as the pretext for refusing to submit to authority and for making light of the duty of obedience". [3]

The Council affirms that the dignity of the human person rests on the truth that man is a being endowed with reason and free will, and this sacred reality is known through Divine Revelation and reason itself. This truth about man, that he has been created with intelligence and freedom, impels him to be an ardent seeker of truth, "especially religious truth". [4] Once this truth is known, man must assent to it, but only in a freedom that is removed from all forms of religious and/or civil coercion. The dignity of the human person reveals this: "the inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth." [5]

The philosophical anthropology that we have received since the time of the Enlightenment has built no solid foundations for the rights of the human person. The true rights of man have been squandered because "it [the Enlightenment] led men to conceive of rights as divine in themselves, hence infinite, escaping every objective measure, denying every limitation imposed upon the claims of ego". [6] This has led to the complete independence of the human subject, with his imagined absolute right to develop his human potentialities and abilities at the expense of all other beings.

Maritain believes that the best philosophy with which to refute this tendency is one that is rooted in a specific ontological structure, one which affirms that man possesses ends which necessarily correspond to his essential constitution and pertain to all. Since man is endowed with "intelligence and determines his own ends, it is up to him to put himself in tune with the ends necessarily demanded by his nature . . . this means that there is, by virtue of human nature, an order or a disposition which human reason can discover and according to which the human will must act in order to attune itself to the essential and necessary ends of the human being". [7]

This is none other than the Natural Law. The Natural Law is not only ontological, but also a social reality because it does not "exist separately, but in every human being, so that by the same token, natural law dwells as an ideal order in the very being of all existing men". [8] Here Maritain is talking about the natural moral obligations or rights that exist in all men, and that have a specific social character, which Dignitatis Humanae affirms by stating that the right to religious freedom
. . . is exercised in human society: hence its exercise is subject to certain regulatory norms. In the use of all freedoms the moral principle of personal and social responsibility is to be observed. In the exercise of their rights, individual men and social groups are bound by the moral law to have respect both for the rights of others and for their own duties toward others and for the common welfare of all. Men are to deal with their fellows in justice and civility. [9]
At this point, the question may be asked: what is the connexion between rights, natural law, and religious freedom? It is important to remember that up until the full development of Enlightenment thought in the eighteenth century, talk of rights was always connected with the Natural Law. A breakdown in the proper understanding of the Natural Law has led, and always will lead, to an intellectual disintegration concerning the origin of the rights of man.

Even in the area of interreligious dialogue, one of the greatest difficulties stems from the fact that there is no common language spoken by all the participants. The right to religious freedom must be protected and guaranteed by all societies, constitutions, and religions because the essential dignity of the human person requires it. Again, as the Council and Maritain have affirmed, to reject religious freedom or to force another to believe something against his personal free choice is a grave violation of the rights of the individual, and will also harm the common good of a society.

In light of the continuing attacks on the dignity of the human person through abortion, euthanasia, and religious persecution, it is becoming all the more necessary to return to the text of Dignitatis Humanae. The work of Jacques Maritain is an engaging and remarkable guide to help put flesh on the principles which the document enunciates. This discussion of "rights" is part of the dominant language being spoken in our current socio-political environment, and cannot be avoided. Dignitatis Humanae calls not only Catholics, but all those who hold to a religious tradition, to seek to ensure that as beings endowed with freedom and intelligence, men's right to religious freedom be protected, publicly and not just privately, for the common good of all society.

As Pope Benedict XVI stated in 2007: "Human freedom is always a shared freedom. It is clear that the harmony of freedom can only be found in what is common to all: the truth of the human being, the fundamental message of being itself, exactly the lex naturalis." [10] It is worth quoting the Holy Father's Address this year to the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences, wherein he states that the Church has always affirmed that
[Fundamental rights,] above and beyond the different ways in which they are formulated and the different degrees of importance they may have in various cultural contexts, are to be upheld and accorded universal recognition because they are inherent in the very nature of man, who is created in the image and likeness of God. If all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, then they share a common nature that binds them together and calls for universal respect. The Church, assimilating the teaching of Christ, considers the person as 'the worthiest of nature' (St. Thomas Aquinas, De Potentia, 9, 3) and has taught that the ethical and political order that governs relationships between persons finds its origin in the very structure of man's being. [11]


[1] Jacques Maritain, Man and the State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 96.
[2] Ibid., p. 97.
[3] Dignitatis Humanae, 8.
[4] Ibid., 2.
[5] Ibid., 3.
[6] Maritain, Man and the State, p. 84.
[7] Ibid., p. 86.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Dignitatis Humanae, 7.
[10] Benedict XVI, Pope, "Address to the International Congress on Natural Moral Law" (12 Feb., 2007).
[11] Benedict XVI, Pope, "Address to the Participants in the Fifteenth Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences" (4 May, 2009).

Related Ignatius Insight Links and Articles:

The Renewal of Vatican II: Distractions and Distortions | Douglas Bushman, S.T.L.
Pope John Paul II and the Christ-centered Anthropology of Gaudium et Spes | Douglas Bushman, S.T.L.
Vatican II and the Ecclesiology of Joseph Ratzinger | Fr. Maximilian Heinrich Heim
Was Vatican II "Pre-Conciliar"? | James Hitchcock
Vatican II and Religious Liberty | James Hitchcock
The Vatican, Ecumenism, and Tolerance | James Hitchcock
Understanding The Hierarchy of Truths | Douglas Bushman
The Role of the Laity: An Examination of Vatican II and Christifideles Laici | Carl E. Olson

A deeply saddened Cleveland sports fan, Brian Jones graduated in May 2009 with an M.A. in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Currently teaching 7th grade science at a charter school in Cleveland, Ohio, he hopes to pursue a doctorate in philosophy within the next few years. He is also preparing for his July 10, 2010, wedding to the best and most beautiful nurse in the country, Michelle Van Horn.

If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about every 1 to 2 weeks), which includes regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances, please click here to sign-up today!


World Wide Web


Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531

Ignatius Press | San Francisco
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:

Copyright 2018 by Ignatius Press

IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius