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The Sad Story of Thomism in America

Florian Michel, La pensée catholique en Amérique du Nord: Réseaux intellectuels et échanges culturels entre l'Europe, le Canada et les Etats-Unis (Desclée de Brouwer Paris, 2010).


Reviewed by Joseph Filipowicz

See what an evil it is to commit ourselves rashly to our enemies, and to conspirators against us. On this account Christ used to say, "Give not holy things to the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before the swine, lest they turn and rend you."

St. John Chrysostom, Resisting the Temptations of the Devil, Homily III

I have to agree with you that there are practicing Catholics who even seem devout in the eyes of others and are perhaps sincerely convinced, yet are naively serving the enemies of the Church. Into their very homes, under various names, invariably wrongly used — ecumenism, pluralism, democracy — has insinuated itself the worst adversary — ignorance.

St. Josemaria Escrivá

On July 30, 1934, Wallace Filipowicz received a letter from Rev. Wilfrid Parsons, S.J., editor of America: The National Catholic Weekly. Parsons informed Filipowicz, a 21-year old seminarian from St. Mary's of Orchard Lake, Michigan, that there was a potential research project in understanding the neo-scholastics. Until the 1920s, Thomism really only existed in the libraries of religious orders in North America. But, now, Thomism was going public. The term neo-scholastic was simply the term that everyone was using to revivify old-fashioned scholastic philosophy and introduce it to the halls of public discourse in the United States. Parsons ends his letter encouraging the young Filipowicz to study the books of Coppens, Turner, and Poland so that he will be "put on the right path for your studies . . . because philosophy is an essential part of the training for the priesthood."

If we were to guess about the names of the neo-scholastics that Filipowicz asked about or would certainly soon discover, we would probably not be far off the mark if we mentioned Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, and Charles DeKonnick. Florian Michel, author of La pensée catholique en Amérique du Nord, would agree with us. And, his book shows not only the influence of neo-scholastics in America beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, but also the influence that these three men had on intellectual life in North America over the next 35 years.

The book shows how American Catholics, under the leadership of Maritain, Gilson, DeKonnick, and to some degree Yves Simon, embraced Thomism. It also shows the way in which America's leading Catholic intellectual institution rejected Thomism, paving the way for Catholics in the United States to be absorbed by the dominant culture.

The story begins with Etienne Gilson's arrival at Harvard in 1926 as a visiting professor. The French Catholic philosopher's gentlemanly spirit and kindness amused professors Whitehead and Perry. And so, they tolerated him and his ideas with high-minded indifference. Allowing Gilson on their staff was an opportunity for them to show their liberality and largesse, even if they viewed him and his ideas as anti-modern, reactionary and opposed to any future development. After three years, they decided to offer him a permanent position.

Gilson thought deeply about the proposal. He had been almost completely rejected by the French Intellectuals of the 1920s and 1930s, and cultured indifference was better than hostile rejection. To be sure, coming to the United States was like coming to an "intellectual desert," a place lacking a serious intellectual tradition and a deeply rooted Christian culture. Still, tolerant indifference was a step up. It also offered interesting possibilities, for example, building up a Christian culture. And so, this man, who saw himself as being for North America what Alcuin was to Charlemagne's France, balked at the proposal. He rejected the position because at the same time he had received an offer to start an Institute for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto.

Despite thinking that Toronto was a "pur nil," Gilson thought that a nil was a better place to carry out his project than a desert. Alcuin in the 8th Century instituted a curriculum that became the foundation for the great intellectual achievements of the 12th and 13th Centuries. Toronto would be the place where Gilson would plant the seeds of what might become a flourishing intellectual culture in the next few centuries.

From its foundation through 1968, the Medieval Institute produced many good students who laid the foundation for Medieval and Thomistic studies especially at Catholic Universities in America, places like Marquette University and the University of Notre Dame. Toronto also became the conduit for other French Thomists to come to the United States. One such Thomist was Jacques Maritain. In the 1920s and 1930s he had a reputation for being a little combative and flamboyant, but also had a capacity to get himself or his friends an audience with the Pope. And so, as Gilson was having difficulties getting his institute started, an audience with the Pope would prove to be helpful, and calling on his friend to help him made sense.

When Maritain came to North America, he brought a particular attitude with him. He appreciated Gilson, but he held something between a great reserve to a hostility towards the Thomists of Quebec, led by Charles De Konninck. The problem, according to Maritain, is that the world was being led into an agony by the existentialists of France. And right at that very moment, Maritain's personalism told him, liberal democracy was the logical venue for establishing friends in this world. And yet, the intransigent Catholics of France were not directly attacking the existentialists. They were attacking the liberalism, individualism, and neo-pelagianism that were part of liberal democratic cultures. Maritain was "horrified" by this "obscurantist," and "traditionalist" approach. He carried this reserve towards anything that evoked traditionalism with him during his two stays in North America that lasted from the 1930s to the 1960s.

As an aside, Michel observes that not all French Intellectuals were as horrified by De Koninck as Maritain was. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of the The Little Prince came to Laval at De Koninck's invitation. Saint-Exupéry was so enamored with the beauty of his son, Thomas, that Thomas became the "model" for the little prince.

While Maritain could not tolerate Laval, he could tolerate Chicago, and so, in 1933, when Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler extended to him the invitation to him to come to Chicago and join them in the good fight, he jumped at the opportunity. Chicago in the 1930s was an early battlefield in what would become the culture wars of the 1960s to our own day. Hutchins sensed it. Adler called it a battleground of a civil war, and Maritain realized it almost as soon as he stepped onto the campus. As Michel describes it, the battle was between those who accepted Metaphysics as a science (Hutchins, Adler and Maritain), and those who did not (John Dewey, and his followers in philosophy and the social sciences). Those who did not called themselves pragmatists. Those who did called themselves Thomists.

Hutchins wanted to reform Chicago, making metaphysics the high point of the curriculum. To be sure, he realized on some level that he was opposing the foundational spirit of the place, as represented by John Dewey, whose philosophy was pragmatic, naturalist, evolutionary, relativist, and utilitarian.

Dewey and his intellectual progeny at Chicago were not the tolerant liberals of the Harvard that Gilson entered in the 1920s. They detested the initiatives of Hutchins and Adler to reinstitute a classical education at the school. And so, Maritain's arrival was like adding fuel to the fire. It is likely that if what began to emerge at Chicago in the 1930s had emerged at Harvard under Gilson, it would have lit a similar fire. Hutchins, after being appointed President of the University, began to plan for the creation of an Aristotelian curriculum in the Humanities with Mortimer Adler as his strong man.

By 1934 Adler was in open confrontation with the likes of Sidney Hook, Professor Shils, and Sociologist and social engineer Louis Wirth over the purpose of education, philosophy, the shape of the University, and the role of the United States in the upcoming war. Wirth thought that the university should do everything in its power to prevent even one Catholic from coming to campus. Thomism was the greatest threat to liberty. As a response to this threat, Wirth and company brought Rudolf Carnap and other members of the Vienna Circle to Chicago in 1935. They brought in Bertrand Russell to the philosophy department. Frank Knight joined in Chicago's anti-Catholic Crusade, eventually publishing: Natural law: Last Refuge of the Bigot. They, along with Professor Perry, saw Maritain as nothing more than an agent of Catholic Propaganda.


And what was Maritain's response to this? He and Yves Simon attempted to engage Wirth, Carnap, Knight, Russell, or Hook in dialogue during the next 20 years but to no avail. Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin did engage in some dialogue with the two neoscholastics later in the 1940s and 1950s. Strauss was by no means ultimately sympathetic to their position, seeing himself as trying to create a modern version of Marsilius of Padua to rival their brand of Thomism, in addition to chiding Catholics for their adherence to the natural law consequences of birth control.

Maritain must have become convinced at Chicago that something like the Hutchins-Adler version of democratic liberalism was destined to prevail in the United States. In fact, it seems that he began to see the United States solely through that lens. His personalism would lead him to see something of the spirit inspiring it. At different points in his career, Maritain saw that pragmatism leads to despair, that it denies intelligence, and that it leads to the disarmament of liberty, but he felt nonetheless that it could work in America if it were freed from British empiricism. Rather than leading him to give up on America, Maritain's experience at Chicago in the 1930s led him to become dedicated to the American cause, which he defined as purifying the pragmatists of their empiricism. In short, Maritain tried to reconcile what by that point had become an un-resolvable contradiction between the principles of the liberalism, as established during the time of the 18th Century and the principles of classical realism. The principles of 18th Century liberalism result in revolution. The two alternatives are mutually incompatible because the principles of classical realism put one on the road to embracing Logos, and the Church that He established.

Michel's book does not flesh out completely the position of Wirth and his colleagues. It was not the focus of the book. This material is available in the archives of the University of Chicago in the form of letters, memos, and notebooks. It would be interesting in a future study to determine to what extent Maritain was aware of the "project" of Wirth and his associates, and how he dealt with it. Of course, the outlines of Wirth's project have been examined and published, and part of their project was to directly attack the Catholic faith, which, in their minds, was, ironically enough, represented in the United States by Polish neighborhoods in Chicago.

The vitriol Wirth and his colleagues harbored against Maritain and what they thought Maritain represented had its source in something other than British Empiricism. Wirth was no longer concerned about the dead Protestant denominations or the bad philosophy that helped rationalize them. He saw them as culturally harmless due to their innumerable divisions and lack of cohesion. Hutchins and Adler, so long as they were not Catholics, could also be dealt with. They were conservatives. They needed liberalism as something to react against. The real problem for Wirth was the Catholics. They were not, simply speaking, a philosophical problem. Catholics lived close to each other in urban centers, in Polish neighborhoods in Chicago. But, even more than that, they were united by the same creed and the same system of morality. They refused to use birth control, and they refused to embrace alternative lifestyles. This made Catholics "suspect."

It does not seem that Maritain was aware of Wirth's deepest concerns, but Maritain was, throughout his career, ambivalent to or indifferent towards the Catholicism as represented by the Polish ethnic neighborhoods of Chicago. He does not seem to have been aware that, as he arrived in Chicago in the 1930s and during his entire time there, Wirth and the members of the Vienna Circle were laying the foundations for what they understood to be the great culture war of the 20th Century, a war that would overwhelm the likes of Maritain and his followers in the later 20th Century.

Maritain did not seem to know that Wirth was part of the psychological warfare establishment in the United States, and that in Wirth's conception of the future of America, all Catholics would be suspect. Wirth was part of the developing science that would use propaganda in newspapers, radio, television, and film to undermine Catholic morals before the likes of Maritain got them to read his philosophical writings. Wirth hoped to get the Catholics to see themselves first and foremost as middle class suburbanites. And then, through advertizing and other media, they would be more susceptible to the dominant ideology of America than any philosophy that Maritain could teach them.

And so, Wirth thought that dialogue with the likes of Maritain was unnecessary. Wirth had probably learned the same lesson that Wilhelm Reich had learned in Vienna around the same time, One could argue with a Catholic girl until one is blue in the face about the existence of God, and she will not budge, but get her to commit an act of self abuse and her belief in God will disintegrate without any debate at all.

Maritain probably did not know that Wirth admired the ethnic cleansing policies of Stalin and the birth control policies of Hitler, thinking that they had used unfortunate means for obtaining proper goals. He probably did not know that Wirth had a deep-seated hatred for Catholics because he lost his first job in New Orleans due to Catholic opposition to Wirth's public speeches promoting birth control. He did not know that while most Protestants in the United States saw Catholics as effectively marginalized, Wirth saw them as the major threat to the proper development of the United States and the world, as the enemies of rational and enlightened man.

Maritain did not know that Wirth would employ assimilation and subversion to disrupt communication between Catholics over time and that the first step in assimilation would be the social engineering of Catholic neighborhoods in American cities, beginning with Chicago in the 1940s. He probably did not know that all of this would be done in the name of encouraging all Americans to adopt "democratic values." This would be the first step in making Catholics into first class cosmopolitans, citizens committed to spreading the American Empire.

Wirth realized that the first step in this process would be detaching Catholics from their ethnic identity and replacing it with a middle class identity. He also hoped to turn the ethnic issue into a racial issue.

Maritain did not know any of this. It seems that few, if any, Catholic intellectuals of the time knew this. Even now, few seem willing to admit it. But, knowing it now allows us to put the rest of Maritain's political project in a new light. Maritain argued from early on and maintained consistently throughout his career that American democracy was worth saving. It descended, he claimed, from the philosophy of St. Thomas himself. And so, while he seemed to be on the opposite side of the metaphysical struggle against Louis Wirth and the members of the Vienna Circle at Chicago in the 1930s, his efforts at political theory played right into their hands.

Wirth saw the ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago as being a microcosm of the various nationalities in Europe: rooted, ethnic, and Catholic. He also saw that just as World War II would allow the occasion for suppressing national identity in Europe, it would also be the occasion for suppressing Catholic ethnic identity in the United States.

At times, both Maritain and his friend Yves Simon seemed to recognize that something was up, but they could never quite put their finger on the problem. In the 1950s, Simon wrote to Maritain that Chicago "was composed of intellectuals without roots, homeless." And although they tried to treat Simon as if he were one of them, he did not think of himself that way. Instead he attributed "an imbecility to the intellectualism here, the myth of culture, that profoundly destroys any sense of life in society. ... Intellectual tongues wag more and more at Chicago, and the implicit intention is to show that the American people are illiterate and that we can only learn from them." Chicago intellectuals, Simon thought, possessed a disdainful irony that itself showed a kind of unintelligence.

Maritain agreed with Simon. He thought Hutchins had intellectual insight and courage, but that the deracinated Germans, Cassirer, Arendt, Carnap, Strauss, Tillich, and Von Hayek had all taken over Chicago and that this could prove to be problematic for those who studied under them. When Maritain had to summarize his time in the United States for the French Government, he devoted much of his summary to explaining the debates between pragmatists and Hutchins at the University. Dewey, he thought, would lead Americans away from their ideal of disinterested service. He also noted that there was a strong opposition to Dewey's pragmatism in the United States rooted in love for the humanities, the liberal arts, and humanistic education. And so, Chicago was the best place for Thomism to enter American culture.

In his summary to the French Government, Maritain also argued that if Chicago was the best place for Thomism to enter the arteries of American Culture, then Notre Dame was the best place for Thomism to mature into an excellent philosophy. By the 1940s, it had started its own Medieval Institute on the Toronto model and had ties with Ottawa-Montreal, Laval, and Chicago.

Michel observes that the growth of Thomistic thought in the United States does not follow the lines that most contemporary Catholic philosophers and theologians think it does. They typically argue that an intellectual vitality first appeared among Catholics in the United States in the 1880s and 1890s, only to be crushed by Leo XIII's and Pius X's irrational fear of Americanism and Modernism. According to this story, John Courtney Murray revitalized both Americanism and Modernism, rekindling the possibility of a vital intellectual culture among American Catholics. But this story is more myth than reality.


Michel points out that there was no real Thomism in the United States until the 1920s and 1930s, suggesting that the reality is that the Americans were slow in putting the recommendations of Leo XIII and Pius X into effect. This conforms with the evidence in our letter of Parsons to the eventual Msgr. Filipowicz in 1934, that he could find no real evidence of Thomism unless he looked for it in the libraries of some religious orders in the late 19th Century. In addition, the so-called time of intellectual sterility was in fact the time when Americans experienced the first stirrings of an intellectual culture. In the light of Michel's evidence, the 1930s and the 1940s was precisely the time that a combination of a commitment to classical realism and an awareness of the attack on the Church could have led to a fruitful maturation of traditional ethnic Catholic neighborhoods. But, in the upcoming culture wars, Catholic ethnics would be treated by their own intellectual leaders with attitudes ranging from ambivalence to hostility. Rather than any sort of philosophical engagement that might lead to their protection, they were abandoned by their intellectual leaders.

But, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Notre Dame established its philosophy department in 1921. In the 1930s it established its own Medieval Institute with the approval of Gilson. On 4-5 November 1938, the department had its first ever philosophical symposium, during which "the shock of Totalitarian Doctrines and the principles of Democracy will be examined." Maritain, Simon, Carl Friedrich, Jerome Kerwin, Waldemar Gurian, and Mortimer Adler all spoke. When the bishops of the United States called on all Catholics to defend democratic institutions in January 1939, Notre Dame responded by starting the Review of Politics. Philosophy seems to have taken an early political turn at Notre Dame.

Maritain and Simon did what they could at Notre Dame to inculcate a love for America. Maritain called for a renewal of religious conscience, a confidence in the creative forces of liberty, and a hope in the earthly efficacy of the Gospel and Reason.

According to Michel, it is not the case that there was no philosophy at Notre Dame until the late 1950s. Instead, philosophy began in the 1930s and it developed and grew. By the early 1950s it had grown into a place that expressed genuine Catholic pluralism. It had a number of philosophers who were trained in and aware of all the modern methods.

While there was a general agreement on following the principles of St. Thomas, there was genuine disagreements between the followers of DeKoninck, Maritain, Gilson and others. Simon, for example, did not think that Notre Dame should have a Medieval Institute. Guerian started a controversy over Gilson's position that France should remain neutral during the Cold War because Russia was not really a military threat to France and that by adopting so strong an anti-communist position, France risked her Catholic identity. Simon did not like Fr. Mullahy, whom he saw as being insolent and aggressive after returning to Notre Dame from Laval, being subsequently named chairman of the philosophy department.

Maritain also had his strong dislikes. He warned who he could against the obscurantism of the Thomists in Laval and anyone who cast a sympathetic glance at Franco's Spain. He would not visit Laval or Fordham for these reasons. They had too many Franco sympathizers. He pressed President O'Hara of Notre Dame to clarify his position because O'Hara balked at inviting Alfredo Mendizabal, a suspected communist, to speak on campus.

Both Maritain and Simon discovered "Religion and Democracy" in America, and those two words became for them their "sole temporal refuge against despair." In America, "life can be beautiful. The word happiness still has a meaning. They do not mock industrial progress and democracy. ... They seek to promote the good. In America they call this the pursuit of happiness. This is a formula that could very well be egoist or materialist, but it is not necessarily egoist or materialist. ... We will see much later if there will be a reason to take the oath of Hannibal" (letter of Simon to Maritain, July 1940).

Perhaps the high point of Maritain's political career was to be one of the two Frenchmen invited to Senator John F. Kennedy's inaugural address on the cold snowy day of January 21st 1946. This was the democracy that Maritain loved, the democracy that somehow was the expression of the vitalist energies of the times. Somehow, JFK had come across and publicly showed a deep respect for Martain's writings, as manifested in Kennedy's address at Assumption College in 1955: "Too often, in our foreign policy, in order to compete with the power doctrines of the Bolsheviks, we ourselves practice what Jacques Maritain called 'moderate machiavellianism.' But, as Maritain pointed out in the showdown, this pale and attenuated version 'is inevitably destined to be vanquished by absolute and virulent machiavellianism' as practiced by the communists. We cannot separate our lives into compartments, either as individuals or as a nation. We cannot, on the one hand, run with the tide, and on the other, hold fast to Catholic principles" (June 3, 1955).

Perhaps a young Theodore Hesburgh at Notre Dame, who also became a friend of JFK, admired Maritain's general approach and hoped to see it implemented at Notre Dame? And just what was this approach?

After he returned to the United States following his time as French Ambassador to the Vatican during the mid-1940s, Maritain gave the impression that he was on a one-man crusade in the USA. He seemed to combine philosophical celebrity, diplomacy and an aura of sanctity. He prided himself on the dialogues he carried out with the likes of Cocteau, Chagall, Hugo, and Julien Green. Daniel Sargent told him that at Columbia he was well known by both the professors and the potentially rebellious students: "Jews desirous of knowledge, Protestants discontent with their heritage, and poets seeking to vindicate their rights." Sargent thought that Maritain could be a modern-day St. Stephen, bringing Christ to those lost intellectuals. Several other intellectuals expressed their hopes that Maritain would become the key figure for preserving the intellectual heritage of the West in the United States. He would lead the charge at Catholic Universities, enabling them to make deep in-roads in the areas of Medieval and Patristic studies. By doing this, they could make a lasting contribution to the development of American Culture.

Imagine Maritain's joy in the early 1960s when he attended the inauguration of now President Kennedy, and the University of Notre Dame established the Jacques Maritain Center to continue and refine his project in the United States.

But strange winds were blowing at Notre Dame in 1960 and 1961, winds that Martitain was probably also not aware of. Ironically, they were winds of a similar nature to those emanating from the Windy City in the 1930s, perhaps even some of the first effects of the winds emanating from the Chicago boys of the 1930s at Chicago. For example, Notre Dame in the early 1960s began holding secret conferences on campus to theorize possible ways to change the Church's teaching on birth control.

On the philosophical front, another battle in the culture war was taking shape. A young professor, Ernan McMullin, arrived at the University of Notre Dame in 1957, and he brought with him an animus against Thomism. Like John Dewey and Louis Wirth at the University of Chicago, McMullin thought that the real game was either to defend or demolish St. Thomas. Almost immediately after arriving on campus, he started rabble rousing for the latter of the two options. He sent off two letters, one of which was made public, advocating a philosophy department that did away with the Thomist pluralism that it had established.

He kept up the pressure so effectively that in 1960 President Hesburgh ordered an outside organization to evaluate the philosophy department. Phi Betta Kappa did so and refused to include the department on its list of great university philosophy departments. Not enough professors at Notre Dame knew the secret handshake. Initially, Hesburgh defended the department. It had professors who were trained at all the major research universities in the United States and around the world as well as places associated with Thomism such as Laval, Louvain, and Notre Dame. There were a variety of methods and opinions, healthy conflict, and an abundance of good research and teaching

Right at this moment, John Evans tried to make the Maritain Center the heart of the philosophy department because the Center represented everything good about America. But in 1962 more fuel was thrown on the fire that McMullin had started. Edward Manier instigated a debate about the Catholic heritage at Notre Dame in the light of its status with respect to great American secular universities. On the surface, this debate, like the one which had taken place in Chicago in the 1930s, was a debate over the place of philosophy and theology in the curriculum. Under the surface, it was a debate about sexual revolution. Manier questioned the close links between philosophy and theology. He claimed that docility to the Church would ruin good pedagogy. He also critiqued Notre Dame for failing to allow deviant subcultures a presence and influence on campus.

As this second fire was brewing, we also know now that, beneath the surface, Manier and the administration were getting involved in birth control politics. They, in fact, were leading the charge in what would become a capitulation that Louis Wirth or John D. Rockefeller would never in their wildest fantasies have thought possible from their offices in Chicago in the early 20th Century, that Catholics from a Catholic school would be working with them in implementing the birth control regime on American Catholics. While Wirth could only have fantasized this happening in the 1930s, it was a sign that his method of social engineering was much more effective than even he could imagine.


Three years after defending a Catholic and pluralist department, Hesburgh pulled an about-face. He did not defend the department and in 1964 installed a new chair, Harry Nielsen, a devoted follower of Ludwig Wittgenstein. According to Nielsen, philosophy began and ended with Wittgenstein.

In 1965, with Nielsen at the helm, the department described itself as carrying out Judeo-Christian philosophy. It was a pluralist but no longer a Thomist department. Manier took advantage of this concession to advance a further initiative. Now he argued that there was a crisis in Catholic undergraduate education. He argued that just as now there was religious freedom in civil society there should be academic freedom in Catholic institutions. The Catholic University should allow for a diversity of sub-cultures to exist. It should rethink the status of priests on campus who are given the authority to speak in the name of the Church. Because when they do, they censor ideas, and they lose scientific prestige. Of course, we know now that Manier's arguments were code for promoting deviant sexual behavior as normal: the use of birth control, masturbation, and sodomy to name a few that he has publicly supported since then.

Neilsen soon had difficulties with the new pluralism that he had helped inaugurate at Notre Dame. So much so, in fact, that by 1966 he was gone. Hesburgh then appointed Ernan McMullin as head of the department. This proved to be the beginning of the end for Thomism at Notre Dame. McMullin wanted to change the name of the Maritain Center to the "Center for the Study of Christian Philosophy," relegating all Catholic philosophers in his mind to this ghetto so that serious philosophy could be done in the department. Maritain and Evans both thought that this would be a disaster. After a heart to heart conversation with Hesburgh, Evans was able to avoid the renaming of the Center.

From this point on, McMullin only sought to hire analytical philosophers and disciples of De Koninck. McMullin was deeply anti-Thomist and anti-Maritain. By 1969 McMullin could pontificate that Neo-Thomism was in rapid decline. In fact, it had practically disappeared. It could no longer keep the optimism it once had. The Neo-Thomists had poorly adapted themselves to a philosophical quest for the truth that was contrary to the methods of Aristotle and Saint Thomas.

McMullin summed up the new spirit when he lectured to the American Catholic Philosophical Association that their goal in the 1970s would be to expose the oxymoron implied by the phrase Catholic University. He also hoped the association would show that terms like "intellectual apostolate" were slogans only used by fanatics. The spirit of the times sent Thomism into the intellectual catacombs. All Catholic philosophers had been rounded up into one hated camp and cast out of the halls of respectable academic professionals.

By 1971, Kritzeck could write to Maritain that "the university no longer has any regard for philosophy, Thomism, or truth. It has become the worst kind of secular university." He urged Maritain to withdraw his name from the Center. But, Maritain did not do this. Perhaps he did not do this because he was a personalist. Personalists have tended to hold to the position that somehow the Holy Spirit speaks to groups and institutions outside of the Church to move the Church this way or that in a given time. In the 1920s, many personalists chose to see these vital energies manifesting themselves in fascism. In the 1940s, they saw them either in Marxism or in Liberal Democracies. And so, perhaps now, Maritain saw them operating at Notre Dame.

In his last book, The Peasant of the Garonne, Maritain remained convinced that the sexual degeneracy of the left was for the most part insignificant. It would pass, or, at the very least, it should not be given much account. It came from a few rabble-rousers on the left. He also remained convinced that the Church's new position on the Jews would give the Church a great capacity to show its liberality in the upcoming years. In short, it seems that he was never capable of seeing what has been identified as the modern Jewish Revolutionary, someone like Louis Wirth, who still holds vestiges of the morality of the Talmud, even as he has thrown off the official practices of Judaism. That is, he advocated sexual politics to corrupt the morals of Catholics, while harboring a deep-seated hatred of Christ. By failing to be suspicious of men like Wirth or Catholics like Manier who were deceived by the psychological warfare campaigns of the 1940s-60s, Maritain and those who followed him fostered in many the false hope that somehow American Democracy and Catholicism were compatible.

Maritain, like Wirth and Hesburgh, helped American Catholics see themselves as Middle Class American Democrats first and Catholics second. And it seems as if the Maritain Center, according to Michel, has continued its activity leaving this aspect of Maritain's legacy unresolved. In 1979, Ralph McInerny took over the Center. In 1980 Ronald Reagan, with the help of the neoconservatives took over the Republican party in the United States. Again, from a personalist perspective, one could potentially see in the neoconservatives a vitalist energy outside of the Church manifesting itself.

From a more practical and political perspective, one could see the electoral strategies of Richard Nixon at work. Nixon realized that with the radicalization of the Democratic Party in 1968, that Catholics would increasingly find themselves looking for a party that at least spoke the language of the family and took a strong stand against abortion. Nixon encouraged Republican operatives to at least speak the prolife talk in their electoral campaigns in order to win a big chunk of the Catholic vote. Reagan did this, and it brought him the 1980 election.

Early on in McInerny's career as head of the Center, he was approached by a recent convert to Neoconservatism, Michael Novak. Novak had raised some money for starting a cultural magazine and gave this money to McInerny, who started what came to be known as Catholicism in Crisis, or later just Crisis. Neoconservative foundations instigated a similar initiative, though certainly under more dramatic circumstances, to found First Things. Later on in his career, Novak could say that, "our association with the Jacques Maritain Center is another symbol of our intention to occupy the large center of Catholic Thought." Maritain, according to Novak, was a symbol of Catholic Reaganites, the first Catholic Neoconservative. Bernard Doering has argued that these are misappropriations of Martiain's thought and achievement.

Thus, the question can be raised, did the Center misappropriate the agenda of Maritain? On the immediate political level, the answer is yes, Maritain, like the Notre Dame that harbored his center, seemed committed to bringing about a grand Democratic-Catholic Alliance in the United States. Maritain, unlike Hesburgh at Notre Dame, left the United States as the Democrats openly adopted the agenda of sexual revolution. Hesburgh still tried to work out a deal, and, to this day, the University seems committed to this deal. But it is a raw deal.

Seen from another perspective, the answer to Doering's dilemma is, no, the Center did not misappropriate Maritian's personalist agenda. It has correctly read the theological/political spirit of the times. On the level of implementing a certain kind of personalism, the Center is simply following the vitalist signs of the day. Just as some personalists attached themselves to the fascists in the 1920s, and then the Marxists or Americanists of the late 1940s and 1950s, now the Center attached itself to the next vitalist movement, the neoconservative movement.

But, Maritain, like Notre Dame under Hesburgh, was doing an intellectual dance with the devil. He, like Notre Dame, saw himself as someone who wanted to deal with the likes of Louis Wirth and Paul Blanshard. It is not clear in the case of Maritain that he knew Wirth's or Blanshard's real interest in destroying the Catholic Church.

Louis Wirth and his fellow conspirators at Chicago had no interest in keeping Thomism at the University, no interest in compromising with the Catholic Church in Chicago, and no interest in seeing the Catholic Church continue its mission in the United States or the world, at least not if it failed to accept Louis Wirth's agenda to promote birth control and sexual liberation among the population.

When McMullin dismantled the philosophy department at Notre Dame, he could draw on Maritain's brand of Thomism as the rationale for dismantling the department. Someone like Maritain could only emerge in an environment like France, an environment in which Thomists were reduced to an insignificant and hard-headed minority, one that could at best be tolerated with curious indifference. If this were the case, McMullin could justify creating an environment at Notre Dame in which Thomists found themselves a chastened and insignificant minority in a pluralist department that reflected the current philosophical fashions among academic philo-sophists.

McInerny never accepted McMullin's view of things. He saw the pre-1965 department at Notre Dame as a manifestation of healthy Catholic pluralism. It dealt with all contemporary trends in philosophy from a Catholic perspective, and Jacques Maritain was the symbol of how this could be done.

Maritain thought that he was able to achieve some degree of success with the pragmatists, as he understood them, at Chicago in the 1930s. He at least was able to establish helpful disagreement. This was the beginning of creating a fruitful cultural synthesis between pragmatism and Catholicism in the United States.

His second career in the United States, after the Second World War, was a chance to further develop that synthesis. It was during that time that he turned his house at Princeton into an environment open to painters, musicians, poets, religious, & mathematicians, in short, a wide reaching cultural environment within which he could introduce them to the philosophy of St. Thomas. From his home in Princeton, he could establish himself as a leader, especially in Catholic intellectual circles. From that stance, he could welcome non-Catholics in dialogue.

Maritain's dealings with Wirth at Chicago in the 1930s and then with radical intellectuals in the 1950s had a certain panache, but not all were impressed. Daniel Sargent feared that the position that Maritain took (in 1949) denigrated Our Lord and Our Lady. He wrote to Maritain explaining: "it seems you favor infidels, heretics, and Jews over Catholics. When you are among these people, you constantly denounce the errors of Catholics. Twenty years ago I could not get them to invite you to Harvard because you were 'too Catholic.' Now, the leftists at Harvard think that you are one of them and that you are an accidental Catholic. Philosophers who are not Catholic or anti-Catholic are able to think in unison with you. Catholics of little faith are in unison with you and they do not feel challenged. Maritainism is blinding a generation of Catholics. In my opinion, it is an insidious form of thought. I cannot imagine a mode of thinking more dangerous to our generation of Catholics. It has given thinkers of the left a new life by granting their positions intellectual dignity."

Maritain was not impressed. He responded to Sargent: "I prefer 10 pagans to one Catholic like you. You are not even a Pharisee. You are an idiot!" Maritain thought that Catholics in the US risked being hated by their non-Catholic fellow citizens if they were to affirm any form of theocracy. He also feared that they would become total liberals in the American sense. He pointed to Paul Blanshard as the kind of person Catholics should reach out to and appeal to. If not, they would risk being hated forever in this country and they would always be seen as opponents of liberty.

Maritain could not accept Sargent's correction. In retrospect, it seems that he should have accepted it, or he should not have rejected his fellow Catholic with such vitriol while running into the arms of the likes of Paul Blanshard. The likes of Paul Blanshard already hated Maritain and his fellow Catholics, and there was little Maritain could do to assuage their hatred, short of joining them in subverting the faith, or opening the door to them so that they could work directly with Catholics in subverting their faith. Blanshard, like Wirth, was fearful of any Catholic because that Catholic would not use birth control, would not promote the homosexual culture, would not accept divorce, would not accept eugenics, and would not accept abortion. In short, there was no compromise with Blanshard's ultimate goals as we now know them through his memoirs. But, in the 1940s and 1950s Catholic intellectuals were bending over backwards to welcome Blanshard into their circles, taking his positions seriously, and attempting to befriend him while remaining indifferent to or condemning their ethnic co-religionists.


Maritain saw himself as always treated with warmth in the United States. After the Second World War, he came to see that it was the only way left open to him after his time in Rome. France and the rest of Europe, in his mind and that of Gilson's, was a closed shop. In the West, their only hope was in the United States.

Despite what Maritain thought, the College of France offered him a chair in 1951, a position he refused. So, it seems that the truth is that he would not go back to France, and he was sad that he would not go back at the same time. He cultivated the image that he was in exile, suffering outside of France.

Michel also points out that Maritain was working for the French Government while he was here. He was an ambassador of religious and cultural affairs. This "bitter exile," as Journet called it, was financed by the French Government. The French, whom Maritian thought rejected him, were paying for his sojourn in the United States! Another project that Michel's book points to is research into the influence that the French government had on the thought of Maritain. Maritain was, after all, on the payroll of the same French Government that oversaw the dismantling of the Catholic Church in that country after World War II.

At Princeton, Maritain was never quite able to insert himself into the heart of the intellectual and cultural life on campus. He thought that there were fewer secularist prejudices at Princeton and that Thomism could find a place on campus, but not in the philosophy department. It was no man's land. The department there, he thought, had no leader or unity. It was supposedly "open" to all philosophical currents. The people there were friendly, but they gave rise to little light.

 Once at Princeton, Maritain's approach was not to change modern American philosophy, but to enter into its currents. From his perch at Princeton, he defended John Courtney Murray when Murray was silenced in the 1950s. Now that the priest had been silenced by the Vatican, Maritain thought that the layman could take up his cause of promoting religious liberty, American-style. Also from Princeton, Maritain wrote what he called his "love letter to America." In this book Reflections on America, he takes up what he sees to be good in American pragmatism and the cause for freedom.

During his time at Princeton, Maritain not only got help from the secularist French Government, he also got money from the same Rockefeller Foundation which would use Notre Dame to attempt to change the Church's teaching on birth control. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, representatives from the Rockefeller Foundation approached Maritain. They helped to arrange for the lectures that he eventually gave at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. They even offered to pay his salary at Princeton.

Based on the evidence that Michel presents in his book, the question could be asked, was Maritain an agent of the French Government? Was part of his purpose in the United States to create the conditions for a cultural influence of France on the United States? Was he an agent of the Rockefeller Foundation? Did their money influence his writings? Why did they befriend him? Were they just interested in art? Probably not. It was precisely at that time that they were approaching the likes of the University of Notre Dame, dangling them the carrot of financing from their foundation in exchange for more openness on the question of birth control.

By 1968, Maritain was back in France writing The Peasant of the Garonne. From the banks of the Garonne, he thought that America was in a fine position. She was the society that best embodied the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. She was open and tolerant of the Jews, and she had the right political-religious alliance as represented by the likes of the Kennedy family. There were, of course, a small fringe element obsessed with sex, but they were insignificant and the nation would soon get over that.


The problem, of course, is that neither Martain's disciples, nor Catholics in America, nor the country as a whole soon got over that. As an example, two of Maritain's disciples, Eleanor Walker and Janet Kalven, entered the Lady of the Grails, and became super-committed to the vitalist movement for corrupting women in the 1970s, feminism. They found themselves attending the first Women's Ordination Conference in Detroit.

If you think that the story at Notre Dame is bad, you should also be aware that in the 1960s and 1970s most Catholic Universities in the United States went to further extremes than Notre Dame to eliminate the influence of Thomism in particular and the Church in general on campus. To this day, when Notre Dame recruits Catholic intellectuals and students to come to its programs and the issue of Catholic identity arises, the representative at Notre Dame invariably responds, "well, at least we are not as bad as X (insert almost any other Catholic University here)."

As one Notre Dame professor put it in December 2011, "that generation has failed to realize the [effect of] sexual chaos that was being created and that is now an everyday part of the culture. While this should not be an obsession, Catholic intellectuals and Church leaders have not really responded in a serious way to the problem. There are bishops who still counsel students and grown men that masturbation is not a problem for them. Many intellectual leaders on campus act as if the students will soon get over these little problems that they have, not realizing that many of the students have been hyper sexualized from the time they were in Catholic grade school!"

And what is the response at Notre Dame? Of course, one response is to leave the entire onus on the students to avoid pornography on the internet. The University has consistently opposed putting filters on its internet system that would block much of the worst material from the dorm rooms and libraries of the campus. At the same time, the President has been promoted as a moderator on next year's commission for Presidential Debates. And what is President Jenkins' big concern? He wants to moderate the vitriolic rhetoric coming out of the prolife camp in political discourse. It seems as if Maritain's approach still prevails in the mind of the President of the University.


And what is the response of the other Catholic leaders? It is to continue the project of Maritain, with the Hispanics of the 2010s playing the role that the Polish played in the 1930s-1970s. We are told that there are two traditions present in the United States, that of the Protestant Puritans and that of the Catholic Hispanics. Both of the traditions are good leading to the highest development of democratic freedom, and, in the end, the tradition of democratic freedom stems from the same font, the wisdom of Aquinas. Once both of them figure this out, American will become good and whole again.

This position, which descends from the thought of Maritain, should now be seen for what it truly is, namely, preposterous. The Protestant Puritans were radicals who were rebelling against a group of rebels that were rebelling against the Catholic Faith. The American Founding Fathers were a new set of rebels who had descended from the Puritan rebels. The American Protestants and Jewish elites that came together to form higher Judeo-Protestant American Culture at the end of the 20th Century were together forming a new form of subversive and revolutionary culture. The likes of Dewey, Wirth, Blanshard, and their leftist and neoconservative progeny do not see any possibility of compromise with Catholic culture unless the Catholics are willing to change their system of morals so that they would embrace birth control, war, individualism, capitalism or any other of the modern materialist ideologies stemming from the 18th Century.

People like Louis Wirth saw Catholic Culture (as first represented in the Polish and now by Mexicans) as their deadly enemy. They are willing to use any means, including psychological warfare, social engineering, and subversion of morals to prevent this culture from having any significant influence in the United States. We have seen, for example, that Samuel Huntington sees the Mexican Catholics as providing an even greater threat to the American Judeo-Protestant ruling elite than the Catholic Polish of the 1930s (See "The Hispanic Challenge and the Logic of Empire," Culture Wars, May 2004).

At this point, to put forth the position that somehow these cultures will form a new synthesis is at the very least naive. It is certainly blind to the realities of history. It will bear the same fruit that Maritain's position bore from the 1930s-1970s. It will result in the deracination of the Hispanic ethnics, unless a spiritual vaccine is proposed that will prevent them from catching the revolutionary virus. So far, none seems forthcoming.

In the end, what can we say about Maritain? There are three relationships that perhaps best reveal his place in American history to us: his aspirations in and his dealings with Louis Wirth, Paul Blanshard, and the Rockefeller Foundation. In all three cases, he thought that he was dealing with up-standing Protestants, who were a little overly immersed in pragmatism, but were capable of becoming his friends. He felt he could influence them in a positive way, but he failed to realize, and only God knows if it was willingly or unwillingly, the nature of their hatred and vitriol for the Church and for what the Church represents, especially when it came to the virtue of love and charity. Judging from their private letters, memos, and diaries, their intent was to engage in a combat to undermine and subvert the Church, first and foremost in matters of sexual morality. They were not interested in intellectual debates, unless those debates became opportunities for them to disrupt Catholicism. And, if they could get Catholics to enter into their currents, they sensed that the Catholics would be swept away. They were like the riptides in Lake Michigan. The lake looks so peaceful and the waves never seem too big, when compared to those, for example, on the Atlantic, but swim in them and get caught by a riptide, you will find yourself just as dead as drowning in the Atlantic.

Freedom for the likes of Wirth, Blanshard, and Rockefeller, was opposed to equality. Freedom would give them more opportunities to corrupt the morals of Catholics, just as Freedom would give their neo-conservative progeny the opportunities to grind the worker and the poor. And so, Maritain, in his dealings with them, rather than converting them, contributed to the environment that gave them and their co-subversives respectability in Catholic circles so that they could further engage in psychological warfare, social engineering, and the corruption of Catholic morals.

Catholic Intellectuals, including Maritain, often helped advance the cause of the revolutionaries when the worked for an internationalism that suppressed cultural and ethnic identity. Wirth thought that at least part of his plan would require eliminating ethnic identity in Europe in the interest of promoting cosmopolitanism. It would also require suppressing ethnic identity in the United States, especially of the Catholic groups. He succeeded in doing this by replacing the category of ethnos with the category of race. Catholic intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s bought into this category shift and began seeing the Wallace Filipowicz's of the world as racist rather than preserving ethnic and spiritual identity.

In committing Catholics in the United States to the universalist aspects of the Civil Rights movement or to cosmopolitanism, Catholic Intellectuals failed in what is perhaps one of their most important tasks, to defend the genuine cultural and spiritual identity of the various ethnic groups. As the CDF reminded us in 1986, "one cannot abstract from the historical situation of the nation or attack the cultural identity of the people. Consequently, one cannot passively accept, still less actively support, groups which by force or by the manipulation of public opinion take over the State apparatus and unjustly impose on the collectivity an imported ideology contrary to the culture of the people. In this respect, mention should be made of the serious moral and political responsibility of intellectuals" (Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, 75, emphasis mine).

On October 20, 1967, Msgr. Wallace Filipowicz died of a massive heart attack. During his life, it seems from the few details available to this author, that he chose to evangelize through emphasizing ethnic and religious identity. Throughout his life, he kept a small philosophical library, but he emphasized preserving ethnic identity. In 1941, he obtained a Master's Degree in Slavonic Studies from Columbia University. His Master's Thesis was a translation of Pius II's history of Poland, Lithuania, Livonia, and Russia. He worked for 30 years at the Polish Seminary in Orchard Lake, Michigan. Two generations of priests learned Polish from him, including, as I discovered in 2002, Cardinal Maida of Detroit. Letters sent to him that are now in his files dating back to the 1950s show an awareness of the enemy lurking in the shadows as well as an apparent helplessness in how to deal with the coming onslaught. He served as rector of the Seminary throughout most of the 1960s, overseeing the construction of a new chapel. He considered his greatest contribution to the chapel the creation and installation of a sculpture of the Last Supper behind its main altar.

An article from 1966 in the Detroit News claims St. Mary's is a place with "deep roots in Polish history" tracing its lineage back 1,000 years to the conversion of Poland. According to its rector at the time, it could "supply any community that wants it a display devoted to the Polish millennium or with a lecture." It was preparing for a visit from Stefan Cardinal Wyszynnski primate of Poland as well as all bishops and archbishops from Poland at the time. Msgr. Valerius Jasinski claimed that St. Mary's could educate boys "so they can create in their souls what is best in American, Polish, and Catholic Culture." It could do this because America was not a melting pot, but a symphony. The melting pot "never existed, but harmonizing, blending as in a symphony can be accomplished only if each element retains its own characteristics, but makes its own contribution to a symmetrical whole." Every student there had to learn Polish, because they would go on to serve Polish communities throughout the United States and the world, either as laymen, priests, or religious.

While Filipowicz kept a philosophical library, St. Mary's never developed a significant philosophy program. By the 1990s it had given up on higher education completely. It now only has a high school and a seminary, while it still maintains a center for the Polish Mission. While much of the rest of Catholic higher education has chosen capitulation and assimilation into the dominant culture, St. Mary's has attempted to preserve what little bit of ethnic identity is left to it. In short, neither side has attempted a philosophical or Thomistic approach that could fruitfully preserve and transform ethnic identity.

Msgr. Filipowicz did not live through the chaos of the outbreak of the revolutionary virus that began in 1968. M.N.S. Guillon thought that at the beginning of revolutions, God removed from the scene certain souls as an act of mercy so that they would not have to suffer through its worst effects. Perhaps that is so in this case.

It is for those of us that remain to understand what happened next and heal the wounds caused by the plague that struck the Church in the second half of the 20th Century. On this note, we can continue our story.


While this is not in the book, if we turn to Notre Dame, in 2005, Edward Manier, much in the same way that Louis Wirth did at Chicago in the 1930s, led an effort to address what to his mind was cause for great concern: "there are four Thomist adjuncts teaching introduction to philosophy in the department." The department initiated a year-long review of the syllabi of those Thomists, to make sure they were teaching philosophy in a way that was consistent with the standards of contemporary academic philo-sophism. In essence, Manier and his colleagues wanted to be sure that classical realism keep its place in the intellectual catacombs of the 21st Century.

And what are we to do? To borrow from another water analogy, what could a fish do born into the Detroit River of the 1970s? The River, it seems, mirrored, to some degree, the moral environment of the city and the country. Due to the pollution found in the river, it would, from time to time catch on fire. The fish caught in that river could not jump out of the river and expose themselves to the air, that would mean a certain death, but they really couldn't flourish in the river either. They had to start thinking through how to clean up the river from within.

As our observer at Notre Dame commented, "It is one thing to allow pornography to inundate the campus, which is seriously imprudent. But there is a second question that nobody around here seems to have thought through, going back to the Hesburgh era: how do you form students so that they can keep their faith and live it in a hostile environment? That is what we need to think through. How can students in this environment be prepared to not only survive in it, but to convert it. If the faith is something that we are ashamed of or think we have to hide or condemn in order to enter into respectable company, how can we ever employ the medicine that the faith offers to heals the wounds caused by the effects of sin?"

Two examples come to mind. Maritain and his intellectual progeny, Catholic intellectuals in general, could be more charitable with the remaining Catholic ethnics. At this point, rather than preferring ten pagans to one intransigent Catholic, they should instead treat them as Christ treated Cleophas after the Resurrection. They should walk with them rather than preferring the Paul Blanshard's of this world to them.

And, as I finish this essay on the feast of St. Stephen, the example of St. Stephen also comes to mind. We all know that St. Stephen prayed for his killers as they stoned him to death. But, perhaps we should also remember that St. Stephen was also intransigent when it came to articulating the truth as his death approached. To begin, members of the synagogues of the Libertines, the Cyrenians, the Alexandrians, and the Cilicians were all disputing with him. But, they were not able to get the better of him, as we would say, because of his wisdom. In fact, they were so frustrated with him that they bribed some officials to bring forth false charges of blasphemy against him.

When Stephen is brought to the Council, his face shines like an angel as he gives a long speech on the history of Israel. I am not a Scripture scholar, but, as I read the text, I assume that his face still had the aspect of an angel when he ended his speech with the following ecumenical exhortation: "You stiff-necked and uncircumcised of heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit, as your fathers did, do you as well. Which prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they have slain them who foretold of the coming of the Just One; of whom you have been now the betrayers and murderers: who have received the law from angels, and have not kept it."

Somehow, I think, we need to say something like this to the likes of Blanshard, Wirth, Foucault, Wilhem Reich, the members of the Vienna Circle, the Rockefeller Foundation, their intellectual progeny, and anyone who would like to defend their agendas, which include the birth control agenda. Then, we need a philosophical defense not only of the teaching of the natural law, but also of those ethnic communities that were essentially abandoned by philosophers from the 1940s to the present. We cannot defend them on American principles, as some would suggest, hoping that a fruitful Hegelian synthesis will magically occur. American principles are part of the problem not the solution, something that Michel's book makes clear.CW

This review was published in the April 2012 issue of Culture Wars.

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