Jean-Marie Domenach – Political Conscience and Religious Conscience (March 1958) [Excerpts]

Jean-Marie Domenach

[Originally published: J. M. Domenach, “Conscience politique et conscience religieuse,” Esprit (March, 1958), pp. 350-351.]

[Translation found in The Catholic Avant-Garde: French Catholicism Since World War II – edited by Jean-Marie Domenach and Robert de Montvalon, pg. 153-158]

Some will say: we must safeguard the interests of the Church, its institutions, the organic basis of its existence and the means to ensure the possibility of its apostolate. Yes, we must safeguard them, and no Catholic may drop this major concern from his political program. But the way to safeguard them does not consist in turning them into an object distinct from other objects, a freedom distinct from other freedoms; if we do that, we shall be trapped again by special attitudes which will cut us off both from Christian and from political universality, and finally confine our faith behind the barriers of a class, a regime, or an economic system. Catholics must state what they want; is it real freedom, the kind that is valid for all men, or is it their own particular brand, freedom fo their worship, their schools, their press? These liberties are essential to the faith, but they are inseparable from basic freedoms. We made that discovery under Nazi Occupation., as the Poles have under the Soviets. It is impossible for Catholics to continue to defend their religious freedom successfully if at the same time they tolerate, and sometimes even participate in, the crushing of other liberties by economic exploitation, colonial oppression, or military dictatorship. It is impossible to advocate freedom in Poland and stifle it in Spain. Catholics, in defending the rights of their Church, should recognize that, in political strife, they are on equal terms with everyone else, and that the temporal good they fight for is not their exclusive privilege but the common good. . . .

Circumstances are forcing us into this practical secularity. Political life ensures communication between men within a given nation, and it is nowadays compelling the nations themselves to collaborate for world unity. Stripped of the political passions which covered it over, secularity appears to be, first of all, an intrinsic part of the very nature of the state, it is to politics what systematic atheism is to science–not a doctrine but a premise of research, a discipline of knowledge, and a requirement of action.

Secularity is more. It is also the barrier which we, believers or not, erect together to prevent any subjugation of the sate by totalitarian philosophies. In their thinking about the state, Catholics should endeavor to rid themselves of the memories of nineteenth-century conflicts. The secular state has been tempted, like all states, by abuses of power, and has succumbed, but less often than confessional or partisan states. Eric Weil says rightly that as a technique the state is neutral, but it becomes totalitarian when it yields to an idea. . . . Secularity is, therefore, the best guarantee of protecting political conscience from hypertrophy and society from idols.

This guarantee also applies to the Church insofar as it is tempted to build up, directly or indirectly, the apparatus of a state–police, propaganda, parliamentary techniques–which would lower it to the status of one political institution among many. Joseph Vialatoux and André Latreille have shown how this type of secularity is not an equal to indifference to all beliefs but a personal and ecclesiastical affirmation of faith. . . . [Christianisme et laïcité, Esprit, Octobre 1949]

The aim of political life should be, as Eric Weil expressed it, “that no one is forced to choose between God and Caesar,” meaning that no one who has opted for God should be martyred by an idolatrous Caesar, just as no one should be enslaved by a Caesar who calls himself Christian. For a believer, the ultimate objective of politics is to enable as many human beings as possible freely to choose and to love God.


We are not trying, as some “Christian socialists” have done, to trace socialism back to the Gospel. Broad economic planning and socialization of the means of production are technically debatable measures which include certain dangers to human freedom and dignity. Nevertheless, although he does not conceive of it as a logical requirement of his faith, a Christian manifestly derives his socialism from Christian sources. We are socialists because we consider that capitalism is incapable of solving the problem of underdeveloped countries, a momentous problem indeed for a Christian conscience because we think that a greater equality and economic and social conditions will men together and prevent new wars. . . . We are socialists because we are personalists, not because we are Christians. Bot those of us who are Christians find in their religious faith compelling reasons to believe in persons. As Jeanne Hersch wrote “Socialism does not include a religious ‘creed,’ which is why it does not conflict with religion. It does require, however, that its adherents turn to a religious or philosophical absolute, in order to substantiate the undefined value underlying the human person.” [1]

But socialism has been condemned several times by the Holy See, some will say. It has indeed–but with qualifications and specifications. [2] (“Socialism,” said Pius XI, “if it remains truly socialistic . . .”)–for the Papacy was aiming at those concepts which socialism owed in part to its founders and in part to the dialectics of contemporary conflicts: atheism, secularism, state control. Socialism is not entirely free from these concepts, but Stalinism has hastened its evolution: the socialist insurgents of Budapest and the socialists of the workers ‘ committees in Poland demanded the liberation of the worker from the tyranny of the a materialistic system. Whether or not they were believers, they tied socialist claims to the perennial struggle of the human person. The connection between socialism and philosophical materialism is being severed, not only by the reflection of humanist theoreticians, but also through the workers’ concrete fight against tyranny and by the blood they shed. A new road has been opened up. The statist absolutism inherent in certain socialist doctrines and prophetically denounced by the Vatican is challenged today within “socialist” countries themselves. The whole theoretical and institutional system of materialistic socialism will have to change in order to find new foundations, not in religion, but in personalistic concepts acceptable to Christians.

“The Majority of non-Communist socialists,” writes Father [Roger] Heckel, “put great emphasis on the dignity of man and clearly see that the gigantic productive and political organism cannot develop harmoniously unless trained citizens control it and are responsible for it. But do they think of also giving man that ‘spiritual supplement’ which would make him equal to his task?” Are believers, then, going to insist that unbelievers make a spiritual contribution–which, by definition, they do not possess? This is a strange requirement, indeed, and one which would preclude collaboration in the affairs of the secular city! Institutions and political principles can be shared by all; it is up to Christians to infuse them with their own spirit, and to put their soul into them, or a part of their soul, for religious conscience can never be swallowed up by politics unless it has taken on the unwholesome aspects which we have denounced above. Conscience in politics means to care for others, in a practical, concrete [3] way; that is the greatness of politics in an age when it is becoming universal and when some of its decisions constitute a collective intervention of charity.

Does this mean that politics today can take the place of charity? Definitely not: Christianity means, first, the love of God, of one’s self and of others for the sake of God. In the political field, conscience remains mediate, permeated with violence and error, directed to groups and not to the individual person. But it is here that a Christian recaptures this sense of belonging to one single people, this awareness of the human substance which has been lost through centuries of individualism; here that he can put love–so often proclaimed and so seldom practiced–to the test. Charity does not spend its whole substance in politics, but at least it can show its value there.

[1] Hersch, Jeanne, Idéologies et réalités; essai d’orientation politique (Paris: Plon, 1956).
[2] Cf. “Le socialisme et la doctrine de l’Eglise,” by R. Heckel in Revue de l’Action Populaire, April 1957; and Herve Chaigne, “The Church and Socialism” in Cross Currents, Spring 1965)
[3] There does exist, as Paul Ricouer brought out, a Christian praxis. A Christian is known by his deeds. Cf. Les chrétiens et la politique, by Henri Guillemin and others (Paris: Editions du Temps présent, 1946-1948),