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Jacques Maritain and Dignitatis Humanae: Natural Law as the Common Language of Religious Freedom | Brian Jones, M.A. | Ignatius Insight
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
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".  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".
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". 
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".  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." 
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".  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". 
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".  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
. . . 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. 
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."  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
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. 
 Jacques Maritain, Man and
the State (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1951), p. 96.
 Ibid., p. 97.
 Dignitatis Humanae, 8.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 3.
 Maritain, Man and the State, p. 84.
 Ibid., p. 86.
 Dignitatis Humanae, 7.
 Benedict XVI, Pope, "Address
to the International Congress on Natural Moral Law" (12 Feb., 2007).
 Benedict XVI, Pope, "Address
to the Participants in the Fifteenth Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy
of the Social Sciences" (4 May, 2009).
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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
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