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Jacques and Raissa Maritain influenced the early Catholic Worker

Jacques Maritain at the Catholic Worker

This is the sixth article in a series on the philosophers and spiritual guides who inspired Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in founding and living out the vision of the Catholic Worker. In this issue we feature a married couple, Jacques and Raissa Maritain.

We are grateful to the Catholic Worker Archives at Marquette University for their assistance with articles and photographs for this issue and for the series in general.

Jacques and Raissa Maritain were friends of Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker in its earliest years. As early as 1933 and 1934 the Catholic Worker recommended Jacques’ books to the readers.

Both converts, Jacques Maritain from a Protestant background and Raissa from a Jewish family, joined the Church under the influence of Leon Bloy, who provoked them into believing that life was worth living. As university students they were in despair and made a pact to commit suicide together if they didn’t find meaning in life.

Thank God, came Bloy, who wrote and spoke with a sword instead of a pen, shouting at people, “Wake, up, do something with your life, for God’s sake!”

They had come across a passage from Bloy’s Journal which led them to seek him out in his poor quarters in the Montmartre in the shadow of the Sacre Coeur.

It is ironic that this impoverished, bombastic writer, whose children did not have enough to eat, could influence this suave, genteel, bourgeois couple who had the Blessed Sacrament in their home, but never missed the opera.

It would be a tragedy to dismiss Jacques and Raissa Maritain as people who wasted their talent promoting what some people consider an outdated Thomism (the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas).

Today more than ever we need the example of lay people and married couples who dedicate their lives to prayer and good works. The Maritains, prominent in philosophy and with outstanding minds, never accepted a split between philosophy/theology and spirituality. Raissa was a contemplative, and a poet and Jacques, who wrote many volumes about a Christian relating to the world, was also a deeply spiritual person. Spirituality was core to their lives.

“Eerything in Jacques’ work we have first lived in the form of a vital difficulty, in the form of experience–problems of art and morality, of philosophy, of faith, of prayer, of contemplation,” Raissa tells us. Their thought and spirituality were not drowned in the words and more words of academia which drive anything into the ground that comes into their path.

At the center of French Catholic thought, the Maritains had Sunday afternoons at home where leading intellectuals came to share and discuss ideas–not all participants were Catholic. Personalists Emmanuel Mounier and Nicholas Berdyaev were among those attended regularly.

Dorothy Day learned from the Maritains that the Revolution must come, but it begins with a Revolution in one’s heart. The goal of the Maritains and of Dorothy and Peter was to transform society by bringing Christian values to society and to ordinary people.

Dorothy Day and the early Catholic Workers were blessed with the leadership of Peter Maurin, an immigrant from France who was able to translate Maritain’s writings before they became popular in English. Maurin was acquainted with all the creative personalist thinkers in France and was involved in the translation of their works.

One of the most important things Maurin translated was the free translation of “Pure Means,” reprinted here. “Pure Means” stressed the importance of achieving one’s goal without sinful means. To make peace is a good thing, but one cannot achieve it by bombing innocent civilians. The end does not justify the means. Having inexpensive, good clothing for people to buy is a good goal, but it is immoral to pay slave wages to Latin American or Asian women who cut and sew the clothing. Jacques Maritain articulated in a new way this concept for the twentieth century.

Stanley Vishnewski, who spent his life at the Catholic Worker, collaborating with Dorothy Day, wrote about this in his inimitable style:

“The philosopher and thinker who had the greatest appeal for the early Catholic Worker was Jacques Maritain. His teaching on the use of ‘Pure Means’ was one of the cornerstones of the philosophy of the Catholic Worker. His maxim: ‘Victory or defeat with pure means is always victory’ was imbedded in our way of thinking and our activities.”

Credit must be given to Maritain, as well as to Mounier, for promoting the concept of the primacy of the spiritual. Dorothy Day also endorsed and promoted this concept, encouraged also by the Maritains’ commitment to holding fast to faith in troubled times. Dorothy commented, like Maritain, that humankind was just in the beginning of Christianity.

Jacques Maritain was truly a person for all seasons. He carried on an unbelievable correspondence.

The exchange of letters between Maritain and Saul Alinsky can only make one weep, especially the letters that follow after the tragic death of Alinsky’s wife.

In time, Maritain left the Bowery and the Catholic Workers to preside at America’s great secular universities. He taught at Princeton, the University of Chicago and Columbia Universities. (Mark’s aunt, a Dominican nun, translated for him at Columbia in the early forties when she was a student.)

In 1966 Jacques Maritain wrote a book about the Second Vatican Council, but more about the situation of Christian and Catholic thought surrounding the council and the implementation of it. Some commented that this was simply the criticism of a man in his 80’s who longed for the past and the centrality of his Thomistic philosophy.

We decided to read the book, The Peasant of the Garonne, to see what kind of evaluation Maritain really made. We were fascinated to see how prophetic this book was and how incisive his comments were and can be as they apply to today’s world. The book begins with thanksgiving for everything the Council decreed and accomplished. He follows with a fascinating, often witty, commentary on the time in history immediately following the council and so much that was said in the name of the “spirit of the Council,” or even in the name of John XXIII. He addresses again the concerns of his whole life shared with Raissa: how Christians can live, keeping in mind their final end, which is the full coming of the Kingdom of God, at the same time as they participate in the struggle they are conducting in the temporal order in full faithfulness to the spirit and the teachings of Christ.

People look at our world today in despair–humankind’s inhumanity to humankind seems worse every day. Some ask, How can God do this to us? The Maritains, with their intense search for meaning and their lives of union with God, would answer: It is not God who does these things, but human beings. When one has discarded the ideas of sin and repentance and forgiveness, when Christians kneel before the secular world instead of before God, we have a form of worship that can only facilitate the powers of darkness and destruction.

The Maritains still have much to tell us today.


Doering, Bernard. “Jacques Maritain’s Friendship with Dorothy Day.” New Oxford Review, December 1985.

Evans, Joseph W. and Leo R. Ward. The Social and Political Philosophy of Jacques Maritain: Selected Readings. Geoffrey Bles, 1956.

Hudson, Deal W. and Matthew J. Mancini, Understanding Maritain: Philosopher and Friend. Mercer University Press, 1987.

Maritain, Jacques. Freedom in the Modern World. Gordian Press, 1936, 1971.

Maritain, Jacques. The Peasant of the Garonne. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.

Maritain, Raissa. Raissa’s
Journal. Magi Books, 1974.

Merriman, Brigid O’Shea. Searching for Christ; the Spirituality of Dorothy Day. University of Notre Dame Press, 1994.


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XV, No. 7, November 1995.