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. Maritain’s 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 Petain’s 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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