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Emmanuel Mounier, Personalism, and the Catholic Worker movement

Emmanuel Mounier (1905-1950) articulated the ideas of personalism, of human persons whose responsibility it is to take an active role in history, even while the ultimate goal is beyond the temporal and beyond human history. Mounier articulated it as “a philosophy of engagement…inseparable from a philosophy of the absolute or of the transcendence of the human model.” (Mounier, Be Not Afraid, Harper and Brothers, p. 135).

Many people have found in the personalism of the Catholic Worker movement a new vision and a way of life, a way to simply live the Gospels and their Catholic faith, and a model for a communitarian and personalist non-violent revolution to change the social order. Sometimes discouraged about the possibility of making any changes in our world, they have found in Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day people who are examples, witnesses to a vital, lively faith and holiness which translates into hospitality for the poorest of the poor and all the works of mercy, into work for peace, not waiting for the government or other agency structures to ponderously begin to do something, but who simply try to act as Jesus did, or as He asks His followers to do in the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 25:31 ff.

Peter Maurin introduced personalism and the ideas of Emmanuel Mounier to Dorothy Day and to the Catholic Worker movement. As Dorothy said, he brought to us “great books, and great ideas, and great men, so that over the years, we have become a school for the service of God here and now.” (D. Day, “Peter’s Program,” Catholic Worker, May 1955, p. 2). However, when he introduced Mounier to the Worker, he did not present him as the very beginning of personalism in the Catholic Church. As Dorothy Day later mentioned, “Peter is always getting back to Saint Francis of Assisi, who was most truly the ‘great personalist.'” (Day, CW, Sept., 1945, p.6). Peter knew that Mounier was bringing together the best of personalist ideas from the history and theology of the Church for this century.

When people congratulated Dorothy Day during her lifetime on the Catholic Worker movement, she always reminded them that Peter Maurin was the founder and the mind of the movement. Those who recognized Dorothy’s greatness and may or may not have known Peter Maurin often did not believe her. However, when one studies the philosophical and spiritual roots of the Catholic Worker movement, it becomes apparent that without Peter Maurin and the ideas he brought from France, there would have been no Catholic Worker. The truth is that this undocumented alien is at the heart of the movement and of the philosophy and life of Dorothy Day. Of course, it is also true that without Dorothy to implement Peter’s ideas and to bring her own perspective, her literary background and her radical commitment to the movement, there would have been no Catholic Worker.

Peter Maurin’s French roots and language changed everything, keeping him abreast of all that was happening in the vital renaissance in the Catholic Church in France before and after World War II. He was able to bring to the Catholic Worker what Henri Bergson called the elan vital and to make the religious revival of France immediately present in the United States. The Catholic Worker is incomprehensible without an understanding of the influence of the great thought and movements going on in France, and especially the ideas of Mounier.

For all practical purposes, it was France that revitalized the Catholic Church in this century, beginning with people like Maurice Blondel and Charles Péguy, on to Emmanuel Mounier, one of Peter Maurin’s favorite philosophers, and to Henri de Lubac. Mounier’s writings and the discussions and gatherings of those involved in the personalist movement in France were a model for the Catholic Worker movement. The applications were different in the United States, reflecting Peter’s and later Dorothy’s ideas from Church tradition, Sacred Scripture and other philosophers and saints.

In order to make the writings of Emmanuel Mounier available in the United States, Peter first translated them himself at the Worker and then convinced the Benedictine monks at St. John’s Abbey to translate and publish The Personalist Manifesto. Theirs is the English translation available to this day in libraries: (The Personalist Manifesto, Long-mans Green and Co., 1938).

In 1932 Mounier left his post as professor of philosophy and founded the journal Esprit,where he, as editor, launched the principles of personalism and writers of succeeding years and decades published their ideas on the subject. Mounier himself said that the personalist movement originated in the crisis which began with the Wall Street crash in 1929. Esprit, the journal of personalism, grew out of a movement, of conferences and discussions in every part of France around spirituality and faith in relation to analyses of the social problems and burning controversies of the time. Among the many Catholic intellectuals involved in the personalist movement were Jacques Maritain, Nicholas Berdyaev, and a young Jesuit seminarian named Jean Danielou who later became a Cardinal.

Mounier and the others who gathered to discuss and to try to implement the ideas of personalism saw the crisis of the century as one with deep roots. They expressed their challenge as one so profound as to “patiently, cooperatively remake the Renaissance after four centuries of error.” (The Personalist Manifesto, p. 10). They perceived the task on a grand scale: “Contrary to what takes place with many petty reformers, our program must be cut in a pattern of large dimension. Historically, the crisis that presses upon us is more than a simple political crisis or even than a profound economic crisis. We are witnessing the cave-in of a whole area of civilization, one, namely, that was born towards the end of the middle ages, was consolidated and at the same time threatened by the industrial age, is capitalistic in structure, liberal in its ideology, bourgeois in its ethics” (Personalist Manifesto, p. 8).

The Catholic revival was a response to this crisis of meaning and truth in a particular historical situation, a crisis which required a “revolution,”–always non-violent–in thought and action commensurate with the scale of the crisis.

In his introduction to Mounier’s book, Be Not Afraid, Leslie Paul describes the many blows that had fallen on France since the revolution of 1789, and how within this history in this century a Catholic revival began which was unequalled anywhere else. He speaks of the other great thinkers and writers who were a part of the personalist movement with Mounier, their influence and their greatness:

“Indeed, the dread events of the 20th century which produced in Germany a Spengler, a Rosenberg and a Streicher as the authentic prophetic voices, in France produced quite another group of men who began the most vigorous exploration of social and spiritual problems and initiated a full-blooded Catholic revival distinguished especially in the person of Jacques Maritain by the most exhaustive intellectual and spiritual efforts. One thinks immediately of Bloy, Péguy, Claudel, Bernanos-and of Berdyaev too, for though he was a Russian, his mature life was spent in the Parisian circles for which Esprit was the proper spokesman-each of whom brought an old-Testament viguor of language to the task of exposing the intellectual cheats, pious frauds and confidential political tricksters of the age. They revealed an inflexibility of purpose and an inability to compromise which is the mark of genius. No other nation can boast of such a hierarchy; and if there is to-day a new Christian humanism we owe it to them. Emmanuel Mounier is one of them, in direct descent from Charles Péguy about whom he wrote his first work, and upon whose life he formed his own.” (Be Not Afraid, p. vii)

The French renewal is fascinating, because it describes a time when Maisie Ward was speaking of “France pagan,” where the working class was lost to the Church through the despair brought on by the excesses and terrible treatment of workers during the Industrial Revolution. This prepared the way for the workers to turn to Marxism. The great writers of the Catholic revival were very much encouraged by papal encyclicals which addressed the problem of workers, beginning with Rerum Novarum by Leo XIII.

Peter Maurin read Esprit, which started in October of 1932. He met Dorothy Day on December 8, 1932 and the Catholic Worker began in 1933. In the Catholic Workernewspaper, Dorothy announced, “We urge our readers to be Personalists.” The Catholic Worker movement, with its newspaper and many discussions, brought people together in the way Esprit did in France. The phrase “clarification of thought,” so well-known in the Catholic Worker movement, comes from Mounier. (The Personalist Manifesto, p. 2). To Mounier we owe the Catholic Worker emphasis on personal responsibility in history (not withdrawal from the world) applied by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day to the daily practice of the works of mercy. Even this idea, strong as it has been throughout the history of the Church, may be, for the Worker, related to Mounier, although some of this inspiration also probably came from Maurin’s father in his French village. According to Dorothy, Peter Maurin “never ceased to emphasize the practice of the works of mercy of St. Vincent de Paul.” (“On Pilgrimage,” CW May 1976, p. 2.) Mounier, who came from a petit bourgeois family, came to know the poor through his participation in the St. Vincent de Paul Society, begun by Frederick Ozanam in the nineteenth century. According to Michael Kelly, Mounier “belonged to the Grenoble conference, as the local branches were called, and his involvement in its activities gave him some experience of poverty in the working-class areas of Grenoble, and helped him to understand the intolerable social conditions in which much of the working class lived.” (Michael Kelly, Pioneer of the Catholic Revival: the Ideas and Influence of Emmanuel Mounier, London: Sheed and Ward, 1979, p. 12).

The Catholic Worker movement, like the French personalist movement, sought to bring together the Catholic faith, contemplation and self-purification with social action and work, especially in response to the economic and spiritual crisis of the time. Like those gathered around Esprit, the early Catholic Workers were, for the most part, Catholic, but were open to others who shared their commitment to the primacy of the spiritual and to living out the social doctrine of the Church expressed in papal encyclicals. Like Esprit and personalism, the Catholic Worker was a movement, not a system.

As Mounier put it, “What makes personalism very difficult for some to understand is that they are trying to find a system, whereas personalism is perspective, method, exigency (Be Not Afraid, p. 193). And again: “Personal man is not desolate, he is a man surrounded, on the move, under summons” (Be Not Afraid, p. 150).

In France, especially after the Church’s condemnation in 1926 of the right-wing Action Francaise which tried to restore the ancien régime (the monarchy), a political movement some have described as parasitic on Catholicism, new movements were at pains to describe themselves as neither right nor left as they explored new ways to live out the Gospel, without abandoning the Catholic tradition one iota. In the United States Peter Maurin called himself a radical, rather than liberal or conservative-he defined radical as going down to the roots. Dorothy Day states that Peter Maurin “derived his inspiration, not from the education he received from the Christian Brothers, but from his contact with French radical thinking. He never ceased to emphasize the voluntary poverty of St. Francis of Assisi; the philosophy (and the theology) of work from St. Benedict; the practice of the works of mercy of St. Vincent de Paul; the intellectual studies of St. Dominic” (D. Day, “On Pilgrimage,” CW, May 1976, p.2)

In the same 1976 column Dorothy Day writes about Mounier’s influence and his interest in Péguy, mentioning also Jacques Maritain, who visited the Worker: “Maritain said that our first store front headquarters reminded him of Charles Péguy’s shop in Paris where students and workers gathered. Péguy was the great influence in the life of Emmanuel Mounier, young student at the Sorbonne who started the magazine Esprit, which began publication around the same time as ours, and which led Peter Maurin to translate for us Mounier’sPersonalist Manifesto, which was followed by other articles about revolution, a necessary but nonviolent revolution which Mounier called ‘The Personalist and Communitarian Revolution.'”

Both Mounier and Maurin wrote extensively against bourgeois individualism and industrial capitalism. Both wrote of the problems and falsehoods of Communism and fascism, but also saw the evils of speculation, usury, capital disconnected from labor and liberal individualism even more strongly entrenched in society and the cause of great harm. Mounier emphasized that “Modern Christianity is dangerously allied to capitalist and bourgeois Liberalism.” (Be not Afraid, p. 170) and that “Personalism is not an offshoot of individualism.” (p. 149).

Mounier’s blueprint for a personalist economy asks everyone to lay aside greed and materialism. It is in harmony with the Beatitudes: “On the plane of individual ethics we believe that a certain kind of poverty is the ideal economic rule of personal life. But by poverty in this sense we do not mean an indiscreet asceticism or a shameful miserliness. We refer rather to a contempt for the material attachments that enslave, a desire for simplicity, a state of adaptability and freedom, which does not exclude magnificence or generosity, nor even some striving for riches, providing such endeavors are not avaricious.” (The Personalist Manifesto, p. 192).

Mounier felt that the biggest problem of modern capitalism has been proclaiming the primacy of economics over history, over the life of the people, over community, over living out one’s faith and one’s values.

He wrote that the system of factories “is based on contempt, conscious or implicit, of the laborer.” He reminded us how this was expressed by one businessman, Taylor: “We don’t ask you to think. There are others who have been paid to do that.” The economics of the business world “tries completely to ignore the person and to organize itself for a single quantitative and impersonal goal: profit.” (The Personalist Manifesto, p. 177)

According to Mounier, “profit recognizes no human criterion and no limits. If it does accept a criterion, it is that of the bourgeois values of comfort, social consideration and display and remains indifferent equally to economic well-being as such and to the good of the person it contacts.” (Manifesto, p. 180) Mounier echoed the teachings of the popes on the primacy of labor over capital. He emphasized that profits do not have rights, but workers do. For Mounier the priority of profit flawed the capitalist system, since in it the person is subordinated to consumption, consumption in turn is subordinated to production and production to speculative profit.

Mounier, who had published a book on the thought of Charles Péguy, affirmed that the crisis of the twentieth century was both economic and spiritual. He not only adopted Péguy’s famous phrase: “The revolution will be moral, or there will be no revolution,” but defined it more closely: “The moral revolution will be economic or there will be no revolution. The economic revolution will be moral or nothing.” (Emmanuel Mounier,Qu’est-ce que le personnalisme? Editions du Seuil, 1946 and Be Not Afraid, p. 115) What a prophetic condemnation of today’s global market, its exploitation of workers at slave wages and its imposition of harsh economic measures throughout the “Second” and “Third” worlds by wealthy nations.

In his study of Emmanuel Mounier, James Hanink distinguishes the greatness of his personalism. Contrasting Mounier to Descartes, Hanink points out the basic difference. Instead of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” Mounier has it, “I love, therefore I am.” (James Hanink, unpublished manuscript)

Mounier emphasized engagement in the world for the Christian, action, not isolation; he always spoke of communitarian personalism as opposed to individualism. He made it clear that a Christian had a responsibility to act in the world, going so far as to say that, “A tree that is afraid to bear fruit is a sick tree.”

This engagement in the world makes life unpredictable. Mounier reminded his readers that “Availability is as essential as loyalty, the test of history as much as intellectual analysis.” Anyone who has ever been a Catholic Worker or worked in service of the poor knows how demanding availability can be.

Mounier wrote about sin in this perspective, emphasizing that it was not just an individual affair, but included taking personal responsibility: “Modern narcissism has reduced sin to an individual pre-occupation. It has placed the stress on the tarnishing of one’s image of oneself…, which disguises its basic perspectives, revolt against God and desertion from one’s post. But the parable of the talents is the very kernel of the Gospels. That talent was not given to you to be polished and re-polished but to be turned into two talents” (Be Not Afraid, p. 132).

William Miller describes personalism as central to Catholic Worker thought and action: “The theme of the personalist idea held commonly by Mounier, Maritain, and the Catholic Worker, was that the primacy of Christian love should be brought from its position of limbo where human affairs are concerned and infused into the process of history (Miller, A Harsh and Dreadful Love, Image Books, 1974, p. 21).

Dorothy herself, writing in the Catholic Worker, described Peter Maurin’s personalism: “His whole message was that everything began with one’s self. He termed his message a personalist one, and was much averse to the word socialist, since it had always been associated with the idea of political action, the action of the city or the state. He wanted us all to be what we wanted the other fellow to be. If every man became poor there would not be any destitute, he said. If everyone became better, everyone would be better off. He wanted us all ‘to quit passing the buck,’ and trying to pass on the work to George to do…. Above all, it was in the name of man’s freedom that Peter opposed all ‘government ownership of the indigent,’ as one Bishop put it. Men who were truly brothers would share what they had and that was the beginning of simple community. Two ‘I’s’ make a ‘we,’ he used to say, and ‘we’ is a community and ‘they’ is a crowd. Men were free, and they were always rejecting their freedom which brought with it so many responsibilities.” (D. Day, “Peter’s Program,” Catholic Worker, May 1955), p. 2.

Mounier predicted that some would later “adopt the formula of personalism for their own purposes, and so in the beginning of The Personalist Manifesto he clarified which ideas or societies could use the term personalism with any validity: “We shall apply the term personalist to any doctrine or any civilization that affirms the primacy of the human person over material necessities and over the whole complex of implements man needs for the development of his person.” (Manifesto, p. 1)

Mounier cautioned later in his life that one of the most common temptations was to confuse personalism with “some late survival of individualism,” and to cover individualism with a “mantle of personalism” (Be Not Afraid, p.176). This happened recently when people involved with the Acton Institute in supporting the excesses of global capitalism, (what used to be known as economic liberalism), now in the newer version of neoliberalism/neoconservatism, tried to take upon themselves the mantle of “economic personalism.” Unfortunately, the economics they recommended was in every way the opposite of that endorsed by the personalists, especially Mounier. His vision of fulfillment for a human being is so different from the enlightened self interest of Adam Smith and David Hume of the Enlightenment. Mounier says, instead, “…it is the kernel of liberty to feel the need to give oneself to something greater than oneself, to assume something other than oneself, to collaborate.” (Be Not Afraid, p. 165). The sad commentary is that some Catholic neo-conservatives today actually speak as if God blesses the global market with its terrible discrepancy between enormous salaries of CEO’s, the miserable pittance paid to workers, the constant emphasis through advertising on consuming more, and the harsh measures imposed on poor nations through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund by wealthy nations. In the “Foreword” to The Personalist Manifesto, Virgil Michel, O.S.B., decries the doctrine of self-interest directed to the maximum attainment of material riches and divorced from the control of traditional ethical and spiritual values…” where “no other object was acknowledged in practice, nor often in theory, than the amassing of wealth, and thus a supreme race for the goods of the earth was entered upon.” (Manifesto, p. xiii)

For personalists it is unthinkable that life, freedom and economics could be separated from responsibility, ethics and spiritual values. Love, rather than individualism, is the key.

In his book The Character of Man, a study of psychology and the human person, Mounier emphasizes the importance of the will in one’s engagement with others, in making one’s contribution to the world, connecting love and will: “To will, it is first necessary to love.” He points out the error in some philosophers’ under-standing in this regard, “In making the will the organ of the most impersonal abstractions the Kantian philosophy, or its substitute which governed the voluntarist philosophy of the nineteenth century, condemned it to sterility.” Then he quotes Péguy: “‘Kantian philosophy has kept its hands clean,’ said Péguy. ‘Yes, but it hasn’t any hands'” (Mounier, The Character of Man, published in English in 1956 by Harper and Brothers, p. 156).

Dorothy Day published articles by Mounier in the Catholic Worker. The Worker took the same stand as Esprit during the Spanish Civil War (unpopular in both France and the United States) and published an article by Mounier about it. Upon his death in 1950, Mounier’s obituary was featured in the Catholic Worker.
By 1976, some, at least in the United States, would have thought that Emmanuel Mounier’s ideas were just a part of history, perhaps only alive as they influenced the Catholic Worker. However, in 1976 The Nation sent Dorothy a marked copy of an article from their March 6 issue about the “martyrdom of young mission priests in Honduras, telling how they (with peasant leaders) were preaching the Personalist and Communitarian Revolution of Emmanuel Mounier. ‘Priests have been assassinated, jailed and exiled,’ the editorial read.” Dorothy’s comment was that the dynamite inherent in Peter Maurin’s teaching is being set off, as he predicted in the first issue of the Catholic Worker (D. Day, “On Pilgrimage,” CW, May 1976, p. 10).

The ideas of Mounier are alive and well in various countries, giving hope for a nonviolent, personalist, communitarian revolution-an alternative to the extremes of the global market and to Communism. An example is the FEMTAA – WFAFW World Federation of Agriculture, Food, Hotel and Allied Workers in Brussels, Belgium, who recently sent us rather extensive information on the life and work of Emmanuel Mounier. There is an Emmanuel Mounier Institute in Spain; Esprit is still published in France. The Communion and Liberation movement re-commends one of his books to their members and on their web page. Various liberation theologians have referred to his works as an inspiration in the early stages of the development of their theology. And he continues to inspire the Catholic Worker movement to try to be all that Peter Maurin asked it to be.

(We are grateful to Phil Runkel at the Catholic Worker Archives at Marquette University and to the Dorothy Day Library on the Web for assistance in material for this article.)

Houston Catholic Worker, July-August, 1999.