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Passion of Israel: Jacques Maritain, Catholic Conscience and the Holocaust, by Richard Francis Crane. Scranton, PA: University of Scranton Press, 2010. 203 pp. $25.00.
The French philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882–1973) has come to be considered a dissident Catholic voice in his outspoken criticism of antisemitism. In their “Declaration of Repentance” (1997), France’s bishops singled him out as an exception meriting praise. However, other recent assessments have qualified or questioned his position (pp. 65, 144n21). Crane aims to rescue Maritain from such “oversimplifications” by analyzing his response to antisemitism “not simply in contrast to a prevailing blindness within the Christian world . . . but also as indicative of the ambiguous, conflicted, and still unresolved attitudes” during this time (p. 3). This revisionist project echos Ruth Harris’s contemporaneously published Dreyfus (2010). Harris’s complex characters include antisemitic Dreyfusards and philosemitic anti-Dreyfusards (several of whom are essential to understanding Maritain’s early intellectual formation), all acting out of idiosyncratic, indeterminate and hence unpredictable motives. Crane’s work fits into this broader historiographical context.
Crane arranges his dramatic narrative into four acts during which, as unfolding events confront Maritain with ever deepening and darkening challenges, he repeatedly revises interpretations of Judaism’s salvific role in history. From 1921 to 1937, he first engages the postwar “Jewish Question” from the political right, then obeys the 1926 papal mandate forbidding Catholic involvement in the Action Française, and finally ends up on the political left, opposing Franco during the Spanish Civil War. As world war threatens and arrives in 1938–1941, Maritain takes refuge (along with his wife Raïssa and her sister Vera, both originally Russian Jewish emigres) in New York City; there he writes a book-length attempt to make theological sense of Saint Paul, especially the notion that Christians have been “grafted into” the chosen vine of Israel. During the climactic period of 1942–1944, beginning with the news reports (in June 1942) of one million Jewish deaths, Maritain’s thought becomes increasingly apocalyptic as he interprets the massacre using the paradigm “The Passion of Israel.” Finally, during the postwar and Cold War era of 1945–1970, Maritain attempts to change the terms of Catholic discourse—a task largely achieved in 1965 at the Second Vatican Council—and to formulate a philosophy of history adequate to what he has witnessed. By assembling Maritain’s writings, situating them chronologically within their historical contexts, and subjecting them to trenchant philosophical and theological analyses, Crane has produced an indispensable volume.
More important, however, Crane’s intellectual biography also provides an invaluable interpretive key that unifies the philosopher’s thought and life. For Maritain seems to have had a profound need to maintain two propositions: first, there is reason in history (history is not absurd); second, God has agency in history (and is ultimately victorious).
Philosophically, history must be rational: this conviction emerged out of Maritain’s basic Aristotelian-Thomistic presuppositions. Additionally, although his name doesn’t appear explicitly, the ghost of Hegel (and the traumatic French Revolution) haunts Crane’s story. Like him, Maritain formulated a dialectical solution that maintained reason in history, a “double law of the degradation and revitalization of the energy of history” (p. 77). Theologically, God must be an agent in history: this conviction emerged out of Maritain’s religious beliefs, themselves undergirded by metaphysical presuppositions of continuity between history and eternity. Maritain was not intellectually capable of formulating God’s apparent absence from history in Protestant terms—as, for example, Karl Barth did after the First World War (The Epistle to the Romans, 1919) and Reinhold Niebuhr after the Second (The Irony of American History, 1952); nor were gnostic or pantheistic strains developed during the interwar period (recently elaborated in Benjamin Lazier’s God Interrupted ) going to be of any help. Beneath Crane’s finely detailed surface narrative flows this powerful subterranean stream revealing an otherwise obscure coherence: as unimaginable horrors continued to unfold, Maritain had a deep need—perhaps a profoundly anxious one—for both reason and God in history.
This need accounts for Maritain’s emphasis on sacrifice as an explanatory paradigm. Understandably, Crane begins his story in 1921 with Maritain’s first explicit writing on “The Jewish Question.” But his study would be even sturdier had he laid out Maritain’s interpretation (following Henri Massis) of the 1914–1918 generational massacre—and most especially the 1914 battlefield death of his longtime friend, Ernest Psichari—as the martyrdom of “a sacrificed generation” (une génération sacrifiée; Schloesser, Jazz Age Catholicism , pp. 87–90, 170–172). In this regard, Maritain’s thought was largely continuous from autumn 1914 to October 1939 when he wrote: “However terrible may be the ordeal, it will not be a tragedy but a sacrifice. And the end of a tragedy is death; but the end of a sacrifice is salvation and resurrection” (p. 37).
Crane notes that this “refusal of tragedy” explicitly reappeared in 1942: “But for Catholic consciences, such as Raïssa Maritain’s and her husband’s, merely designating the unthinkable as a senseless crime or a horrific tragedy would be rationally inadequate . . .” (p. 79). Yet here again, this refusal’s deeper roots would have been underscored by detailing the couple’s suicide pact in the winter of 1901–02 (to which Crane alludes, p. 14). Recounting this pivotal moment from her wartime exile forty years later, Raïssa concluded: “I could accept a sorrowful life, but not an absurd one” (Schloesser, p. 60).
Crane clearly delineates Maritain’s ambiguities. On the one hand, intellectual and personal needs led him to counter tragedy and absurdity with the potent Catholic notion of “sacrifice.” On the other, reading the Holocaust in March 1944 as “the mass crucifixion of the Jewish people, and that new passion which Christ is now undergoing in His people and race” (p. 97) was, to say the least, problematic—and had little explanatory appeal for either Jews or Gentiles. After the war, he wrote On the Philosophy of History (1957), driven to refine his vision with precision: “This is the . . . supreme meaning of human history, to have grace and mercy superabound there where, through the free nihilation of the human will, frustrating God’s antecedent will, the offense abounded” (p. 122). As in Hegel, reason in history entails dialectical negation and an inevitable ultimate divine triumph.
Crane’s study transposes discussions of Maritain’s thought into a new key. The philosopher’s conceptual imagery, constrained by the limited philosophical, theological, and other cultural tools at his disposal, frequently and understandably appears as antiquated relics of a bygone century. Small wonder that today’s readers find some of it ambiguous and inadequate. However, underlying anxieties over humanity’s abandonment to time and history’s irreducible absurdity weigh heavily as ever.