Jacques Maritain, the Mystery of Israel, and the Holocaust

By Crane, Richard Francis | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Jacques Maritain, the Mystery of Israel, and the Holocaust


Crane, Richard Francis, The Catholic Historical Review


French philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) gained a reputation both as a leading Catholic intellectual and as an outspoken critic of antisemitism, and as such has been lauded for more than fifty years as a progressive influence within twentieth-century Catholicism. He also has been cited as a dissident voice within the Church, his public statements about the Holocaust throwing the alleged silence of Pope Pius XII into sharp relief. Examining the development of Maritain's philosemitism, this article presents a more nuanced assessment, challenging historically rooted generalizations about his attitudes toward Jews in the modern world before, during, and after the Shoah.

Keywords: Antisemitism; Israel; Maritain, Jacques; Pope Pius XII; the Shoah

For nearly two thousand years, Christian attitudes toward Jews have juxtaposed denigration with veneration, disavowal with acknowledgment, and seemingly limitless hatred with limited gestures of atonement. The Holocaust has profoundly exacerbated, embittered, and given a new opening to a historically troubled relationship. In the middle of the twentieth century, French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain pondered deeply how Catholicism in particular and Christianity in general had left themselves so theologically and morally unprepared when anti-Jewish discrimination, persecution, and ultimately genocide took shape in Nazi-dominated Europe. Given his outspoken rejection of antisemitism, Maritain since has been lauded both as a sign of health within the Body of Christ and as a dissident voice that throws the alleged silence of figures such as Pope Pius XLI into sharp relief.1

But some interpretations of the case of Maritain, including a recent assertion that he resigned his late-1940s post as French ambassador to the Vatican as a protest against papal silence in the aftermath of the Holocaust,2 run the risk of oversimplifying his own attitudes toward Jews. Even Maritain, who could write in the late 1930s of "The Impossible Antisemitism,"3 might fall short of the standard that retrospectively has been set for him and, by extension, his fellow Christians. As the extent of the emerging genocide became known during World War II, Maritain, writing and speaking from American exile, wondered aloud whether or not the fate of European Jewry was part of God's saving plan, with six million innocent Jewish victims following the path of one innocent one almost two millennia earlier. When Maritain writes that "in our time, the passion of Israel is taking on more and more distinctly the form of the cross,"4 we are presented with a Christian trying to find something salvific in the Shoah.

A close reading of this philosopher's published works, as well as unpublished documents in archival collections in France and the United States, illuminates Maritain's response to antisemitism before, during, and after the Holocaust. This response can best be understood, however, not simply in contrast to a prevailing blindness within the Christian world during this time, but also as indicative of the ambiguous, conflicted, and still unresolved attitudes of Christians toward their Jewish neighbors, particularly as regards the soteriological question, i.e., that of the salvation of non-Christians. Maritain's ambivalent philosemitism, encapsulated in his theological probing of what many Christians have since the time of St. Paul called the Mystery of Israel, points to a personal struggle at the very center of his life of faith and reason. This struggle, which reached a certain peak during a time of unimaginable horror, demands our attention.

Maritain and Modernity

Maritain's early attitudes toward Jews cannot be understood without taking account of how he was, in Michael Phayer's words, "washed by the waters of French anti-Semitism"5 and how his early career as a public intellectual embodied what Ralph McInerny has described as a Kulturkampf against modernity.6 Throughout most of the 1920s, he associated closely with the antidemocratic and antisemitic Action Française newspaper and political movement led by Charles Maurras. …

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