Jacques Maritain was the major Catholic philosopher of the 20th Century. He was born in a Protestant family, but as a student he was an agnostic. He later met and married Raissa Oumensoff, a Jewish émigré from Russia, and together they began an intense spiritual quest. Under the influence of the philosopher Henri Bergson and the novelist Leon Bloy they became Catholic Christians and entered fervently into the life and work of the Church.
Maritain became a philosopher, developing a modern application of the scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas. He integrated faith, reason and culture, giving special attention to the relationship between individual rights and the common good. He initially was involved in a right-wing Catholic movement which was eventually condemned by the Vatican. This condemnation prodded him into a period of deep introspection and self-examination, after which he became a vigorous proponent of democracy and “integral humanism” in which he applied Christian values of respect for humanity into the social and political contexts of his day.
A central issue for him became Christian anti-Semitism as the rise of Nazism and the fall of France to Germany early in World War II presented a theological as well as political challenge. He was horrified at the willing complicity of French Christians in rounding up French Jews to be sent to the Nazi concentration camps. When Germany invaded France he and Raissa were in the U.S. where he was lecturing. Exiled throughout the war, he wrote fiercely and extensively about anti-Semitism, not just in its German Nazi expression but in the ways it was expressed in Catholic settings around the world.
Maritain wrote, “It is impossible to compromise with anti-Semitism; it carries in itself, as in a living germ, all the spiritual evil of Nazism. Anti-Semitism is the moral Fifth Column in the Christian conscience.” He saw the suffering anti-Semitic Christians inflicted upon Jews as causing suffering for Christ as well, an attack on the very cross that was to be a bringer of peace. He empathized with the theological questions Jews needed to struggle with following the Holocaust and the establishment of the nation of Israel, but he saw his responsibility as a Catholic to call Christians “to purify themselves of those forms of thought and language which are warped by some anti-Semitic bias inherited from the errors of the past, and which have nothing to do with the essence of Christianity but prey upon it as parasites.” He wrote, “The only way open to us is to develop mutual friendship, esteem and comprehension between Jews and Christians.”