The Influence of Kant on Christian Theology: A Debate about Human Dignity and Christian Personalism

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In recent writings, Robert Kraynak indicts modern liberalism, arguing that it is incompatible with the Christian faith. The modern language of human rights, he believes, undermines Christian virtues, producing a dangerous individualism. Kraynak suggests that constitutional monarchy comports best with Christianity but recognizes that it is unlikely to reappear on the historical scene anytime soon. He advises us, therefore, to embrace democracy on prudential grounds, tempering it by firmly distinguishing between spiritual and temporal realms.

Many scholars today raise challenges to democracy and question whether we ought to use human-rights language. I disagree with some of Kraynak's prudential judgments about these two issues, but they do not surprise me. (1) What disturbs me is how he uses Kantianism to caricature and undermine personalism. In this article, I argue that what he says about personalism is historically and philosophically simplistic. First, I outline Kraynak's account of Kantianism, noting how he ascribes it to personalists. Second, I show how important twentieth-century personalists explicitly reject Kant's metaphysics and epistemology. Third, I discuss how personalists use Kant's ethic carefully, fully aware of its dangers. Fourth, I argue that personalism originates not in Kantianism but in a metaphysic of being, which Kraynak never philosophically engages. By presenting it crudely, he is able to evade its powerful metaphysical and ethical challenge. Dismissing personalism, he develops a troubling argument about hierarchies of value within the human race that is metaphysically and ethically untenable.

Kraynak and Kantianism

For Kraynak, Kantianism is modernity's great villain, responsible for undermining traditional Christianity. Many historical factors produced modern liberalism and human rights, but Kraynak observes that "in the last analysis, I would argue that the decisive factor has been the intellectual movements growing out of the Enlightenment, especially the philosophy of freedom developed by Immanuel Kant." (2) Kantianism views people as moral agents claiming rights and determining their own destinies. It accepts the "distinction between Nature and Freedom, and locates the dignity of the person in the ability to create a human world outside of biological and physical nature through assertions of will." (3) For Kantians, persons possess inalienable rights protecting them from harm. Kraynak believes that modern Christians accept Kantianism uncritically, equate it with Christianity, and ignore Christianity's antidemocratic history. He urges us to reject Kantianism and to return to premodern understandings of the imago dei and community.

Kraynak believes that personalists are particularly guilty of endorsing Kantianism. Personalism, he maintains, is "a complex idea, but at its core one can find a synthesis of Thomas and Kant." (4) It embraces the Thomistic natural-law teaching that humans are rational and social animals longing for God but also accepts Kant's idea that they are acting and willing creatures with human rights. Kraynak finds this synthesis in Second Vatican Council documents, the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the writings of Jacques Maritain, John Courtney Murray, John Paul II, and others. For example, writing about Maritain, he notes that his "synthesis of traditional Thomistic natural law and modern human rights culminated in his theory of personalist democracy as the alternative to secularism and Marxism." (5) Discussing John Paul II, he remarks that his goal "is to develop a synthesis of Thomism and a Kantian version of phenomenology that tips the scales in favor of traditional natural-law duties over modern natural rights." (6) The pope and Maritain are only two of many personalists Kraynak claims endorse Kantianism.

Personalists Are Not Kantians

Undoubtedly, Kant has influenced modern thought. …