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The Person Of The Church And Her Personnel

May 21, 2014 Frontpage No Comments


At a time when the Church is accused of clerical malfeasance on both sides of the Atlantic, Maritain’s treatise on the Church and her personnel is worth revisiting. To speak of the “person” of the Church is to recognize a certain transcendence in time of a body that remains essentially the same. Just as a human being is not to be identified with the personality it manifests on a given day or at a given period in life, the visible Church cannot be identified with one council or one papacy.
Maritain’s reflections on the subject are to be found in his last complete book, On the Church of Christ: The Person of the Church and Her Personnel. Published in English translation from the French in the year of his death (1973) (1), it was ignored by the secular media and given scant attention in the Catholic press. It followed by seven years the publication of Le Paysan de la Garonne (2), which had earned Maritain the enmity of the Catholic left for its critique of some of the theology developing in the wake of Vatican II.
John Courtney Murray in We Hold These Truths (1960) (3) noted happily that the Church in North America was not divided between left and right as it was with destructive consequences in Europe. By the close of Vatican II, the European virus had spread to North America.
Maritain, who had been the darling of the liberal Catholic intelligentsia because of his social philosophy, was suddenly ostracized, his later work ignored. For Maritain a liberal social policy did not presuppose a liberal Catholic theology, certainly not one at war with the intellectual heritage of the Church. Many American scholars, otherwise cognizant of Maritain’s vast oeuvre, remain unaware of the publication of De l’Église du Christ.
In The Church of Christ, Maritain speaks of the “profoundly troubled moment” at which he was writing. (4) He calls himself “an old Christian philosopher who has thought about the mystery of the Church for sixty years.”
He is appalled by the appreciable number of Catholic intellectuals who in his judgment employ themselves to destroy the treasure of truth which is the Church’s responsibility to transmit. He would “have done with the tempest of widely diffused foolish ideas that have caused confusion among the faithful.” He would “have done with the demythization of doctrine and the secularization or profanization of a Christianity which our new doctors and spiritual guides would like to entrust to the hands of the sociologist, of the psychoanalysts, of the structuralists, of the Marcusists, of the phenomenologists, and of the pioneers of technocracy.” (5)
The subtitle of On the Church of Christ is indicative of a distinction that is crucial to an understanding of the Church. “Churchmen will never be the Church,” writes Maritain. “One can take a detached view, making positive and negative assessments of the activity of Churchmen throughout the centuries while remaining confident of the holiness of the Church itself.” (6) This distinction runs through the work, that is, the difference between the “person of the Church” and “her personnel,” i.e., the difference between the Church visible to the intellect and the Church as visible, one can say, in the eyes of the public who know it only through the media.
“The person of the Church,” writes Maritain, “can be holy while being composed of members who are all sinners to some degree.” Indeed, we can agree with Maritain that members who are holy can be guilty of gross error in their prudential judgments. Noble purposes can be pursued by ignoble means or frustrated by actions gone awry or by miscalculations and adverse circumstances.
The distinction made, Maritain defends the person of the Church while admitting the evils perpetrated in her name, in his account, by the Crusades, by the Inquisition, by the suppression of the Albigensians, by the imprisonment of Galileo, by the execution of Joan, and by the burning of Savonarola and Giordano Bruno. No critic or cynic is likely to draw a longer list of the “sins of the Church,” for the most part grievous errors of judgment by otherwise noble-minded “Churchmen.”
Maritain’s indictment of Churchmen in many cases may be a bit too harsh. Serious scholarship, largely published since Maritain wrote, has shown that most of the episodes he addresses are a bit more complex than he makes them out to be, and in some cases the Church comes off honorably by any relevant standard.
To focus only on the Galileo affair, writing from a purely secular perspective, Professor Giorgio de Santillana of MIT defends the Church against charges of gross mistreatment of Galileo, largely because the heliocentric theory advanced by Galileo was not demonstrated until the early 19th century. Bellarmine’s Aristotelian view of scientific explanation was pertinent to the demand that Galileo defend his view as a theoretical explanation of observed phenomenon and not as something he had demonstrated.
De Santillana’s reference to the social context in which the sometimes unpleasant Galileo was often out of bounds with his incursion into biblical theology places the whole episode into a more understandable light and is less condemnatory of the actions of the Churchmen than Maritain’s judgment.
William A. Wallace’s study of Galileo corroborates de Santillana’s judgment that Galileo brought most of his troubles upon himself by his intemperate behavior toward authorities who in fact censored him for reasons other than his espousal of the heliocentric theory, which theretofore had not disturbed ecclesiastical authority as long as it was advanced as a theory.
There is one area where Maritain forcefully comes to the defense of the Churchmen — namely, the treatment of the Jews. “The hatred of the Jewish people in the Middle Ages,” he claims, “was the deed of the populace and of many in the bourgeoisie and in the nobility and many in the lower clergy. The high personnel of the Church, the Papacy above all, remained free of it.” (7)
“The Popes,” he explains, “even the ones most severe in their legislation, never knew this hatred.” It was in the papal states that the Jews fared best. “During the whole of the Middle Ages and the darkest periods of the latter, it was the Popes who were their greatest protectors and defenders.” (8) The Bull of Callixtus II (1120) condemning the violence against the Jews and their Baptism under constraint was confirmed at least 22 times up to the middle of the 18th century.
That defense was continued through the much maligned papacy of Pius XII and is implicit in Dominus Iesus, published on August 6, 2000, with the approval of John Paul II and signed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. (9)
Maritain acknowledges that inexactness of language often leads some to attribute to the Church an act or decision of her directing personnel without distinguishing whether the act belongs properly to the perpetrator as its sole cause or as an instrument of the Church herself. He reminds his reader that “it is only the solemn Magisterium of the Pope speaking alone (and not through a Roman Congregation) or when he speaks conjointly with the bishops assembled in General Council (Ordinary Magisterium) that it is the Church speaking and acting, the Church one, holy, and infallible.” (10) The person of the Church is there, before our very eyes and manifestly at work, through the Magisterium when it teaches infallibly.
Maritain is convinced that even when one of its personnel uses badly his judicial or his moral authority, the person of the Church remains intact, although in a certain indirect manner, which does not render her responsible for that which the maverick who betrays her spirit. Before civil law, that is a different matter.
In the U.S. and throughout the Western world, corporations are given the status of persona ficta, insofar as they endure over a period of time and manifest a corporate structure. Judicial personality allows one or more natural persons to act as a single entity for legal purposes. In many jurisdictions, artificial personality allows that entity to be considered separately from its individual members or shareholders. Still, a corporate entity may be held responsible for unofficial actions on the part of its personnel and can be sued for malfeasance even though the deed of its employee is at variance with corporate policy. The Church in the United States has paid dearly for allegations of sexual misbehavior on the part of some of its clergy.
Interestingly, the doctrine of persona ficta has been attributed to Pope Innocent IV, who seems to have endorsed the notion in order to allow monasteries to have legal existence apart from the individual monks, thus enabling the monastery to have an infrastructure even though each monk took the vow of poverty. It was thought that the status persona ficta also protected the organization from being held accountable for negligence on the part of individuals within it.
That protection, of course, was not to be, certainly not in the United States where, for example, the pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfizer was forced to settle for a fine of $2.3 billion because a drug salesman promoted Pfizer’s drug, Celebrex, for usage for which it had not been approved by the relevant federal agency.
In speaking of the Church and her personnel, one cannot help, with the canonization of John Paul II, to take note of the difference between the thought of Giovanni Battista Montini, later known as Paul VI, and Karol Wojtyla. It is the difference between Maritain and Husserl. Montini as a seminary professor translated from the French into Italian at least two works of Maritain for classroom use. He also made use of the Thomistic studies of Etienne Gilson. By contrast, Wojtyla in professional philosophical circles is known for his major work, translated into English as The Acting Person. Eschewing the philosophy of the Schoolmen, Wojtyla chose to work as a phenomenologist. This sets him apart from Montini as well as Maritain and even Garrigou-Lagrange, the professor under whom he wrote a doctoral dissertation on John of the Cross.
In Scholastic terminology, a person is metaphysically held to be “a supposit of a rational nature,” whereas Wojtyla, while not rejecting that metaphysical insight, avoids the language of being, preferring to speak of the “the discovery of the human subject or person.” He will say, “In experience man is given to us as he who exists and acts.”(11) Placing the emphasis on acts, he speaks of the various empirical sciences that present man under many different aspects, providing ever-increasing material that enables us to enhance our understanding of man as a person. Taking into consideration this constant increase in the empirical knowledge of man, we need a philosophical reassessment and to some extent a reinterpretation of man as a person. It is true, we do inferentially find the person in experience, that is the subject, in all its phenomenal manifestation. Maritain in the tradition of Thomas would likely say, “Yes, there is more in the senses than the senses themselves are able to appreciate.”
The two approaches are not incompatible, but Wojtyla, given his empirical approach, will add, “The self constitutes itself as a person primarily through its conscious acts. [But then he cautions]: “Consciousness is not to be made an independent subject, although by a process of exclusion, which in Husserl’s terminology is called epoche, it may be treated as if it were a subject.”
Archbishop Wojtyla’s philosophy is to color his participation in the deliberations of Vatican II and is not without influence on his papacy. With Vatican II the scholastic tradition is set aside, some might say, “suppressed.” John Paul II often praises St. Thomas, but he does not explicitly recommend the study of Aquinas until late in his papacy. Perhaps the spirit of the day was summed up in the judgment of the French theologian, later Jean Cardinal Danielou, “Theological inquiry can no longer restrict itself to Scholasticism, which is immobile and doesn’t take into account the two principal aspects of modern thought: historicity and subjectivity.” In that light, he praises Teilhard de Chardin. (12)
A case can be made to the contrary. Whatever it is called, “realism,” “Aristotelian realism,” or “Scholasticism,” it is the only philosophy that at once can adequately account for the achievements of theoretical physics in the 20th century and the moral order found in nature. It is against this perennial philosophy that the insights of Danielou and de Chardin are to be measured. Vatican II may have been called by John XXIII to close the gap between the Church and the modern world. If anything, that gap has been widened. Certainly the Church seems less sure of itself than when the council was called.


1. Jacques Maritain, De l’Église du Christ, trans. by Joseph W. Evans (On the Church of Christ: The Person of the Church and Her Personnel) (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1973).
2. Le Paysan de la Garonne (Paris: Desclee de Brouwer, 1966).
3. John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960).
4. Maritain, On the Church of Christ, p. v.
5. Ibid., p. 241.
6. Ibid., p. 138.
7. Ibid., p. 167.
8. Ibid., p. 168.
9. Available at the Vatican’s web site,
10. Maritain, On the Church of Christ, p. 239.
11. Karol Wojtyla, “The Person, Subject, and Community,” Review of Metaphysics, vol. 33., p. 273 (1979).
12. Etudes, vol. 249, p. 2 (1946).

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(Dr. Dougherty is dean emeritus of The School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America.)

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