In the first half of the twentieth century, a number of French Catholic thinkers led a revival of the Catholic intellectual tradition and its relevance for contemporary politics, economics, and social concerns. Most famous among these figures are the philosophers, Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson. Maritain, in fact, ended up spending a great deal of time in the United States during the second half of his life.
However, two lesser known figures of this revival, but perhaps more crucial for engaging the postmodern world of the 21st century are Gabriel Marcel and Emmanuel Mounier. Marcel, a convert to Catholicism, was a philosopher whose articulation of spiritual concerns could be understood by non-Catholic philosophers dealing with existentialism and phenomenology. His most famous distinction is the difference between “being” and “having.” Whereas having involves how the things we come to possess end up possessing and objectifying our “selves,” being entails being immersed in activities that draw out our deeper spiritual selves and inspire acts of creativity that move beyond self-centeredness. As much as our daily routines involve solving “problems,” Marcel’s philosophy beckons us to explore “the mystery of being.” In so doing we make ourselves genuinely open to others in non-manipulative ways.
Mounier, on the other hand, was a much more activist thinker. Founder of the Catholic journal, Esprit [spirit] in 1932, he and his fellow personalists sought to “cooperatively …remake the Renaissance after four centuries of errors” (A Personalist Manifesto, 1938, 10). Mounier sought through an array of intermediate institutions to realize a faith-informed society that was more communitarian that liberal individualism but left much more room for personal creativity and well-being than the organic focus of fascism. Political engagement, in his view, entailed integrating moral values with practical results amid “disconcerting circumstances” (Personalism, 1952, 93-94). In many respects, Mounier transforms Marcel’s personalist articulation of ethics into a concrete political theory. When subsequently, Pope Paul VI in Populorum Progressio (1967) articulates “a full-bodied humanism” (#44) or the Caribbean bishops render development “as the integral transformation of the human being, enabled by the liberation/salvation through Jesus Christ” (True Freedom and Development: A Christian Perspective (1982) they are building upon the foundation of ideas laid by Marcel, Mounier, and the French Catholic personalists decades earlier.
John Francis Burke, The Wolfington Center, Cabrini College