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Are We “Personalists”?


In our October symposium, Thomas Molnar, an authority on all things French, threw out the intriguing morsel that the New Oxford Review seems to be following in the footsteps of Esprit, the French Catholic review founded in 1932 by Emmanuel Mounier (who lived from 1905 to 1950). Although we would quarrel with the terms in which Molnar phrased his observation, he raised a point well worth discussing here.

Curiously, the outlook or “philosophy” associated with Mounier is one called personalism, and, in the same symposium, James G. Hanink noted, correctly, that personalism is also associated with the outlooks of two NOR icons, Dorothy Day and Pope John Paul II, and he suggested that the NOR consider embroidering the term “personalist” on its banner. This is a brave suggestion, given the NOR’s aversion to labels and ideologies, but it may be an apt suggestion inasmuch as personalism is not a rigid outlook, is clearer about what it is against than what it is for, and can be defined, in Jean Lacroix’s term, as an “anti-ideology.”

Mounier’s influence on the Polish intellectual circles in which the future Pope John Paul II traveled is well documented, and, interestingly, Mounier’s programmatic advocacy of “the priority of labor over capital” shows up in the same words in John Paul’s 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens and forms a central theme of that encyclical. And the foremost influence on the Catholic Worker Movement of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin was that of Mounier; indeed, Day appropriated Mounier’s concept, “the primacy of the spiritual” in all action for social justice, as her own. And like the Catholic Worker paper, Mounier’s Esprit was simultaneously ecumenical in tone, traditional in its Catholicism, and radical in its social critique.

What, then, may be said of personalism and Mounier? Certainly, Mounier’s Christian faith was central to his thought. Just prior to his premature death, he wrote to an associate: “I know that there is no paradise on earth. I consider dangerous the tendency of many of our contemporaries to want to find an absolute in a political regime. I am a Christian, and therefore consider the Church more important than all political regimes.” And while Mounier’s thought could take dubious twists and turns, his Catholicism was “determinedly orthodox,” according to his biographer John Hellman. For example, Mounier indicted theological optimism for removing “the sense of tragedy from our condition” and hiding from us “the abysses of sin and grace.”

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