A Response From John Hellman
March 1989By John Hellman
John Hellman is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal. He is the author of Emmanuel Mounier and the New Catholic Left, 1930-1950 and Simone Weil.
Jacques Maritain seems to have used the notion of personalism for the first time in his polemical Three Reformers (1925) to describe what was inviting about Catholicism over against the modern world and his own Protestant heritage. Maritains writings subsequently promoted both an aversion to individualism among Catholics and the notion that Catholicism represented a True Humanism which avoided the follies of the collectivist East and capitalist West.
Personalism became common parlance among French Catholic intellectuals by the late 1930s, and then, in Marshall Petains National Revolution, official rhetoric of the country. France was to reaffirm her spiritual heritage and defend the human person against the depersonalizing forces of the modern world. Practically this meant that French young people were obliged to submit to personalist exhortations in Chantiers de la jeunesse camps bent on destroying individualism so that their persons might flourish. Not everyone had the same attitude toward the values of the Nazi conqueror, but almost all seemed to agree that individualism had brought Republican France down to decadence and defeat, and that the new leaders of the country should be formed in a spiritually oriented community life which could nurture the sense of the person.
Hanink suggests that personalism remains particular to Catholics: the visceral reaction against individualism, the notion that we are made for community starting with the community of the family, the notion that there are precious values in work (work is for persons), opposition to the rapacious domination of the natural world, and the conviction that moral problems like abortion could be avoided through a revival of meaningful communitarian living. He suggests that a society animated by Christian personalism is much richer than one animated by the substitutes such as the civil religions of individualism and collectivism. Is Hanink correct to suggest that all this is specifically Catholic? Probably, at least since Pius IX. Is any of this specifically Christian? Perhaps not.
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