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James T. KeaneApril 02, 2024
Jacques Maritain, Wikimedia commons.

America has honored many famous writers with the Campion Award since the award’s creation in 1955. Named after St. Edmund Campion, a Jesuit martyr of the Protestant Reformation and the patron saint of America, the award was given regularly from 1955 to 2001 (and somewhat more sporadically since) to “a noted Christian person” for “eminent and long-standing service in the cause of letters.” Past recipients have included Madeleva Wolff, C.S.C., Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward, T. S. Eliot, John Courtney Murray, Karl Rahner, Walker Percy, Robert Giroux, Avery Dulles, Shusako Endo, Martin Marty, Annie Dillard, Daniel Berrigan, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Muriel Spark, Jon Hassler, Archbishop Rowan Williams and many more.

Its first recipient was feted with a dinner at New York’s Fifth Avenue Hotel in May 1955, though the 250 guests present heard the honoree, Jacques Maritain, accept his award by telephone; he was on a ship bound for his native France. It didn’t matter, wrote the author Anne Fremantle in America that month: “His ‘dramatic quasi-presence’ was even more impressive than his physical appearance would have been, for it symbolized how his written word, over the years, has reached and enlightened thousands who have never had the chance to see him.”

Maybe, maybe not. I suspect a scheduling snafu was responsible for his absence, but Fremantle’s praise for Maritain was not out of the ordinary in America. Over the years, almost everything he or his wife Raïssa wrote (or that was written about them) was reviewed in the magazine.

Born in 1882 into a Protestant family in Paris, France, Maritain studied as a young man at the Sorbonne, where he met Raïssa Oumancoff, a Russian Jewish immigrant. They were married in 1904 and converted to Catholicism two years later (the French novelist Léon Bloy served as their godfather). Both later became immersed in the philosophy and theology of Thomas Aquinas, leading to their further study of neo-Scholasticism and natural law ethics. From the 1930s on, their intellectual output was received enthusiastically on both sides of the pond by Catholic outlets.

In addition to his primary interests in Thomism, Jacques Maritain also published and lectured widely on education, aesthetics, politics (he was a fan of—wait for it—Saul Alinsky), liturgy and ecclesiology. He is also credited with advancing much of the intellectual underpinning for what would become the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. 

While Jacques Maritain gained more prominence in French and American Catholic intellectual life, Raïssa Maritain’s work was also well-known at the time and has gained further valence in recent decades. In her 2013 biography of Raïssa, Sacred Dread (which was reviewed in America by Catherine Cornille that year), the theologian and historian Brenna Moore noted that Raïssa Maritain’s writings on spirituality, mysticism and suffering also made her an influential 20th-century thinker, particularly in light of the Holocaust and the rebuilding of Europe after the Second World War. 

Part of Jacques Maritain’s popularity in Catholic intellectual circles was that his defense and elucidation of Thomism, traditional Aristotelian ethics, natural law theory and more offered a vision of classical humanism that seemed simultaneously modern and deeply rooted in traditional Catholic culture. His influence was particularly strong in seminaries and theologates in the mid-20th century. He was also something of an intellectual celebrity in both Western Europe and the United States; among his stated fans were Cardinal Montini, who would become Pope Paul VI, and President John F. Kennedy (who likely had no idea who he was but whatever). 

As Maritain grew older, he also became more sharply critical of contemporary movements in philosophy and theology. For example, he criticized the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., whom he considered “a good poet and a bad philosopher.”

In a special issue devoted to Maritain in 1954, the editors of Commonweal asked (rhetorically, they loved him too):

What is the very special appeal of Jacques Maritain that every year his importance should grow greater, and that generations of young Catholics—in this country and abroad—should look to him as they look to no other man of their own times?

Among his most influential works were The Range of Reason, The Person and the Common Good, The Degrees of Knowledge, Integral Humanism, The Peasant of the Garonne and Art and Scholasticism. That last book was actually one of his first, published in 1920, but still has its devotees a century later. In fact, one of the deans at my undergraduate university gave a copy of Art and Scholasticism to every member of the faculty in 1996. (How do I know that? Well, they became somewhat frequent re-gifts to students upon graduation in the years following.)

Though his name was everywhere in America from 1934 until 1973 in book reviews, essays and analyses of everything from educational curricula to the documents of Vatican II, Maritain’s byline appeared in the magazine only twice. The second was a bit of a puff piece, a congratulatory letter sent to the editors in 1959 upon the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the magazine. Maritain congratulated America for its “balance between devotion to the Church and open-mindedness, fidelity to Catholic doctrine and genuine humanism, zeal and serenity, the sense of eternal truths and the sense of progress, which is characteristic, in my opinion, of American Jesuits.” Not a bad description for which any editorial team might strive. 

His first byline in America came in 1952, when he adapted an address given to the “Gallery of Living Catholic Authors” for the magazine, “The Apostolate of the Pen.” In that essay, he commented on the vocation of the Catholic writer:

It is not easy to be a Catholic, and it is not easy to be a writer. To be a Catholic writer is doubly difficult. There is, on the one hand, the danger of yielding to the spell of art or human knowledge so as to fail in the requirements of the supreme truth. And there is, on the other, the danger of using divine truth to which we and our fellow believers adhere in common to compensate for possible failures in our fidelity to the requirements of art or human knowledge. I do not believe there is any other means to overcome these risks than a good deal of humility and some kind of appreciation of, or yearning for, the ways of the spiritual life.

Raïssa Maritain died in 1960, after which Jacques lived with the Little Brothers of Jesus in Toulouse, France. He died in 1973 amid rumors that Pope Paul VI had wanted to make him a “lay cardinal” after Vatican II. Jacques and Raïssa Maritain’s causes for sainthood were introduced in 2011. In an obituary for Jacques, longtime editor John W. Donahue, S.J., wrote that “Maritain, like his hero St. Thomas, was virtuous as well as wise, so that his life was edifying in the literal sense of that old-fashioned word.” 


Our poetry selection for this week is “Poem Ending With a Sentence from Jacques Maritain,” by Christian Wiman. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, news from the Catholic Book Club: We have a new selection! We will be reading Norwegian novelist and 2023 Nobel Prize winner Jon Fosse’s multi-volume work Septology. Click here to buy the book, and click here to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

What’s all the fuss about Teilhard de Chardin?

Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review

​​Who’s in hell? Hans Urs von Balthasar had thoughts.

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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