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Rivista di etica e scienze sociali / Journal of Ethics & Social Sciences



This exposition on Catholicism and politics in France is only an outline, aimed at an English-speaking audience. It does not constitute a complete treatment of the subject. For background on this subject matter, the excellent summary of Denis Pelletier “Les catholiques en France depuis 1815” is to be recommended. The sixth chapter entitled “Les catholiques et la politique (1925 – 1962)” treats the same topic as this paper in a comprehensive manner.

The question of Catholics in the political life of France will be addressed by presenting four figures. The first two will be presented in this article and second two in Part II:

Emmanuel Mounier and the journal Esprit

Louis Joseph Lebret and Catholic concern for the “Third World”

Robert Schuman and the unity of Europe

Eugène Descamps and the founding of the CFDT

To begin with, the fundamental influence of Pius XI’s condemnation of Action Française on the whole history of Catholic political action in the 20th century must be emphasised. This condemnation was much more influential than the Ralliement of 1892 (Leo XIII and Cardinal Lavigerie) which, in some ways, came too early and was not well accepted by French Catholic elites who had been formed in the struggle with the Republic. The Ralliement also coincided with the Dreyfus Affair and the anticlerical policies of the radicals. It was, therefore, above all Pius XI’s action which allowed Catholics finally to rally to the Republic, to democracy and to pluralism. It also gave full opportunity for the development of a specialised Catholic Action, which furnished the Catholic political movement with its base and a number of its future leaders.

The philosophical and theological foundations that inspired the activity of the four leading figures in this presentation go back to the 1930’s, and in particular, to the work Integral Humanism of Jacques Maritain (1936), a work which played a truly seminal role.

Converting to Catholicism some years before the First World War, Jacques Maritain had as spiritual director the Dominican Humbert Clerissac, who obliged him in conscience to work actively with Action Française, the movement lead by Charles Maurras. Maritain did not break definitively with this movement until 1926 with its condemnation by Pius XI. Not only did he submit to the Pope (unlike Maurras with his famous “non possumus”), but he showed the sound theological and philosophical basis of this condemnation in the book entitled Primauté du spirituel (Paris, Plon, 1927) by opposing it to the “politics first” of Maurras. From the moment of this condemnation, he started reflecting in a new way on the relationship that should be established between politics and the Catholic faith.

Convinced of the superiority of the democratic regime, keenly aware of the anti-Christian character of anti-semitism (his wife, Raissa, who also converted to Catholicism with him, was Jewish), he was revolted by the compromises of the clergy with reactionaries, anti-semites and nationalists in different countries: the episcopal hierarchy in Spain with Franco, that of Italy with Mussolini and that of Germany with Hitler.

After his stay in the US, he returned to France in 1936. In the midst of “Maurassian” attacks (he had become the bête noire of the part of Action Française that had revolted against the Pope), he prepared the publication of Integral Humanism, which brought together six lectures he had given in the University of Santander in August 1934 and the main articles he had published in Emmanuel Mounier’s journal Esprit.

In 1988, the French philosopher Etienne Borne said on the topic of this work, which was for Borne a new hope:

“Integral Humanism announced at the same time a new Christendom and a new age of culture. Clearly conceded was a sacral conception of politics, that had as its ideal the Holy Empire, and the grandeur of the idea of a theocratic Christendom where the sacred overshadows and animates all things, leaving little room for the initiative and liberty of persons. Equally clearly rejected, as illusory or aberrant forms of humanism, were all forms of bourgeois or revolutionary individualism. Integral humanism was theocentric, but it was a form of humanism, that is, a philosophy of the person and of liberty”

Integral Humanism shows how a new Christendom had to take the place of the sacral Christendom of the Middle Ages. Situated in the framework of a secular society, this new Christendom would acknowledge the autonomy of temporal history but would be inspired from within by the Spirit who animates Christians engaged in different walks of life: politics, economics, or in the social, scientific or cultural spheres. Secular Christendom would search for peace and justice by the well-developed practice of democracy, anxious to promote the common good within the ambit of a respect for human rights. These rights are accepted as absolute by everyone, independently of the different foundations for them in different religious or philosophical persuasions. This involves the recognition of pluralism as the foundation of democracy and a preference for non-violent ways of resolving conflicts.

These ideas put forward in 1936 in the intense phase of increasing wars and tragedies, notably the persecution of the Jews in Europe, find their application from the 1930’s onwards in Emmanuel Mounier and the journal Esprit, but their concrete application (in the world of politics) begins only after the end of the Second World War. The four people whom we have chosen to discuss were all influenced in different ways by the message of Integral Humanism.


Emmanuel Mounier and the journal Esprit

The journal Esprit was launched by Emmanuel Mounier in 1932. Three factors significantly influenced its birth:

- the Dreyfus Affair, which saw the rise of the intellectual engaged in the polis and taking a position on the great political events of the moment;
- the Great War (1914 – 1918) with its two million dead in France that destroyed a whole generation: the creators of Esprit were a generation without fathers;

- the condemnation by Pius XI of Action Française and the invitation to Christians to commit themselves to the democratic movement.

As Michel Winock has written: “Esprit arose from the conjunction of three more or less simultaneous crises: that of a society turned upside down by the war and soon to be subjected to the same kind of disruption in the Great Depression; that of the worker movement, torn apart by the Bolshevik revolution; that of the Catholic milieu which had not yet found its place in civil society.”

The personality of Emmanuel Mounier

The 1930’s were a seminal period. A multitude of small groups reflected on the way to combat the decline of France, to renew her economy (especially through plans of economic modernisation), to breathe new life into an old country with a decadent political class, armed forces with leaders who lacked imagination and news media interested only in scandals, blackmail and polemic.

Amongst this expansion of groups, only the Esprit movement with its journal was still functioning at the time of Mounier’s death in 1950. It constitutes even today a place of exchange between French intellectuals and, in particular, between Catholic intellectuals. For this to have been possible, Mounier himself must have had a particularly remarkable personality.

He was remarkable. He was born in 1905, the grandson of peasants and the son of a modest pharmaceutical technician in Grenoble. He was born in the same year as Jean-Paul Sartre, Raymond Aron and Paul Nizan. All three were students at the École Normale Supérieure which recruits the top professors and researchers in France; they presented themselves for the agrégation in 1928. Raymond Aron came first, and Mounier second; Sartre only succeeded the following year. In 1932, Mounier and some friends launched the journal Esprit. He was thus 27 years old when he gave up a brilliant and comfortable career to throw himself into the risky and precarious enterprise of creating a new journal. As Michel Winock has written: “It is in this first act that one needs to grasp the revolutionary character of Esprit: the willingness to break with the accepted which animates the project is first of all the willingness to make a personal break. Mounier was one of those rare people who renounce, if not riches, at least the comforts of an existence which their talents and their success at university would have guaranteed them, to throw their all into the game, to give up security – which was precious to all in that deep economic crisis without precedent – in order to live consistently with their thought “.

He gathered around him a whole team of which he was the soul, even if each of the others also had strong personalities: the lawyer, Georges Izard, the philosopher Jean Lacroix, the writer Pierre-Henri Simon, the economist André Philip, the swiss essayists Denis de Rougement and Albert Béguin, the last of whom was to succeed him at his death in 1950. He was deeply influenced by Nicholas Berdyaev (Un nouveau Moyen-Age, 1927); through him, he encountered the renewal of orthodoxy at the beginning of the century with its practical knowledge of marxism (it gave a critique of the technical society that is less of a refusal than of an offering of a more profound spiritual content than the technical society can give, along with an interconfessional dialogue and a wider conception of Europe).

But the most important influence on Mounier was that of Jacques Maritain of whom it can be said that he gave birth to the journal. One is easily convinced of this in reading the correspondence between Maritain and Mounier between 1929 and 1939.


The communitarian personalism of Emmanuel Mounier

If Maritain played a key role in the launching of Esprit, he did not decisively influence the philosophical conceptions of Mounier. These are Mounier’s own and were forged in the French philosophical tradition which issued from Descartes. They did not depend on the Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy which Maritain had so brilliantly illustrated, but more on a tradition of French humanism. Communitarian personalism can perhaps be characterised by the following traits:

- an attitude of openness, a refusal to close in on oneself, either individually or socially
- a method of tension and interaction between freedom and solidarity with a refusal to limit the person

- A process of personalisation which links interiorisation and exteriorisation in a movement surpassing them both

- A philosophical matrix, using to the term of Paul Ricoeur, linking man to his triple dimensions:

That of his vocation, that is, the call to develop his own being fully

That of his incarnation, that is, his relationship with other people and with things

That in the community, which cannot exist without the mutual learning of each person

- an anthropology that teaches that man should be continually open to the future where he may live in the world by living in harmony with himself.

Catholics in Society

Mounier is not only the driving force behind an incomparable movement, nor only a remarkable philosopher. As Michel Winock has written, “he is first of all a Christian with a great spirituality, with fidelity to his Church at all costs. If Esprit survived, if Esprit was widely disseminated, if Esprit counts historically, it is in large measure due to its Christian origins”.

However, Esprit was never a Catholic journal. Mounier did not want this, because that would have been in contradiction with the communitarian and pluralist project of his movement. In fact, Esprit’s collaborators belonged to different churches and to none. But the journal had its source in the religious thought of its founder and its subscribers were largely Christians and especially Catholics; all the financial difficulties of the journal would not have been overcome without the financial support of Catholic intellectuals. These came particularly from Young Christian Students (Jeunesse Etudiante Chrétienne, JEC), founded in 1929 on the model of the Young Christian Workers (Jeunesse Ouvrière Chretienne, JOC) of Fr Cardijn. Another influence on Mounier was that of Fr. Pouget, a Lazarist expert on the Bible and on modern philosophy. Pouget had lived through the whole modernist crisis and accompanied the young Catholic alumni of the École Normale in their intellectual and spiritual searching.

Between the two world wars, Mounier and the Esprit movement helped a section of the Catholic population to organise opposition to the Republic and to the temptations of nationalism, and to dream of the restoration of Christendom. At this point, Maritain comes back into the picture.


Good bye to Christendom!

A number of the writings of the founder of Esprit were brought together under this title in 1950. Maritain had confirmed Mounier in the idea that there was an urgent need to detach the Church and Christianity from an historically and geographically limited Christendom.

This picks up the old story of the relation between the Catholic Church and political powers. This has never ceased to pose an insoluble problem. The evangelical precept “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” has received and can receive very different applications. The refusal of the first Christians to sacrifice in the Imperial cult made them seem to be atheists and dangerous citizens. This justified their persecution. With Constantine, Christianity put on the worn-out trappings of the old Roman religion. The theory of the two swords (the spiritual and the temporal) illustrates the height of the temporal power of the Church, as well as its ambiguities. After his break with the Pope, Luther became embroiled in the same problem and inspired the doubtful principle “cujus regio, eius religio”. It was against medieval theocracy that the modern State was constituted; the Catholic Church managed its relations with modernity with great difficulty and contradiction.

The Esprit movement takes its place in this history, but the positions of Maritain and Mounier were not the same. They had in common the wish to break with what the author of Integral Humanism called “sacral Christendom”, but Maritain wanted to call forth a new historical project which he called secular Christendom where the Catholics would play the role of inspiration and animation at the heart of secular institutions. Mounier went further than this, giving up even the idea of Christendom. He was looking for paths towards a new civilisation where Christians and non-believers, each one in the integrity of his convictions, would be able to find their place, on the basis of the primacy of the spiritual in a society of free people. The difference between the two philosophers extended to the role that they saw for Christians to play in the new historical situation: a fundamental role for Maritain, more mixed with others for Mounier.


Louis-Joseph Lebret and the Third World movement among Catholics

The work of Lebret and of the movement Économie et Humanisme subscribes to the same dynamic as that of Mounier; starting off from social Catholicism, it moved towards the recognition of a universal civilisation, open to the plurality of religions and cultures.

The personality of Lebret

Louis Lebret was born at Minihic near Saint Malo on June 26th 1897. He belonged to a family of sailors and peasants. He was a brilliant pupil during his primary and secondary education which allowed him to enter the Naval college – la Royale – finishing in 1916. From 1917 until 1919 he was in the war as a navy officer. In 1921 and 1922, he was in Beirut (Lebanon) where he commanded the harbour shipping. He entered the Dominicans in 1923 and made his novitiate at Angers. He studied philosophy and theology at Rijckolt near Maastricht in The Netherlands which he completed in 1929, the year when he returned to the convent of Saint Malo in the Brittany of his birth.

His activity as a Dominican was extraordinarily fruitful:

- From 1929 – 1940, there was his work in the Movement of Saint Malo, the union organisation of the self-employed fishermen of the Breton coast hit badly by the economic crisis of the 1930’s.
- There was the creation of the Jeunesse Maritime Catholique, JMC (Young Catholic Seamen), on the model of the JOC (YCW) of Fr Cardijn.

- There was the organisation of the profession of the sea-going fishermen, for which he obtained legal recognition in 1940, reconfirmed at the Liberation.

- In 1941, there was the creation of Économie et Humanisme (Economy and Humanism) in Marseille (zone of France unoccupied by the Nazis).

- 1944 – 55: there were the big urban surveys for the reconstruction and modernisation of housing; there was the definition of the French principle of territorial organisation to deal with the overpopulation of Paris. There was the elaboration of a theory of human economy as the economy of fundamental needs.

- From 1947, there was his journey to Brazil and his first analyses of under-development; then there were his major studies at the request of a certain number of Latin American, African and Asian governments

- In 1958, there was the creation of IRFED (Institut de formation pour le développement harmonisé – Institute of Formation in Harmonised Development) that, over a 10 year period, trained a number of specialists in development for the numerous countries of the Third World, many of the trainees being from these countries themselves.

- In 1962, Pope Paul VI called him to be an expert at Vatican II and entrusted him with the first draft of what was to become the encyclical On the Development of Peoples (Populorum Progressio). The encyclical was published in 1967, a year after the death of Lebret in Paris on 20th July 1966.


The idea of the Human-Centred Economy (l’économie humaine)

Lebret started his activity in a purely apostolic direction, notably in the creation of the JMC. The question of the spiritual formation of Christian militants in the professional milieu seemed essential to him. He placed himself within the social Catholic tradition, but his action and reflection quickly brought him to look for new possibilities.

Lebret understood that it was necessary to analyse the causes of a situation, which would lead to action at the level of the structures which engendered such a situation. This involved entering into politics in its broadest sense, even if the word was generally taboo in ecclesiastical circles and was never spoken. A vigorous and free union needed to be organised in the sea-going fisheries; Lebret would even leave it free enough to break with the CFTC of Gaston Tessier to which Lebret at first wanted it to be attached. Action also needed to be taken at the legislative level to protect the market from the destructive influences of an international market in crisis.

What Lebret did at the level of the sea-going fisheries was subsequently enlarged to the whole of France with the creation of Économie et Humanisme (EH). This association, which is still active with its journal, its study centre and its campaign activities, was created during the war, but only began its public activity after the Liberation of the occupied territories. Its vision is political in the widest sense of the term; what is needed is not so much to preach morality but to act on (political and economic) structures. In other words, it is the economic system that must be transformed. As in the case of Mounier, the vision here is revolutionary, in the sense of a non-violent revolution.

In criticising the existing economic system, Lebret was inspired by Karl Marx, whose works on economics, and especially Capital, he read with care. As Lebret explained himself, in creating Économie et Humanisme he was not trying to study Marxism only from an academic point of view, nor to take a position for or against Marxism. “My hope”, wrote Lebret, “was, starting from Marxism, to work on the new object detected by him in the field of the human sciences and according to the method of experimentation recommended or at least dreamed of first by his inspiration: this would be to work out a theory and a method of that which, for want of a better word, I called the ‘human-centred economy’”

One cannot miss in the appellation Économie et Humanisme a reference to the Integral Humanism of Maritain.


Territorial organisation and solidaristic development

In the Manifesto of 1942 which outlines the gigantic programme of work that Économie et Humanisme gave itself, it was underlined that the territorial dimension is essential in the consideration of a human economy. Confronted by the multiple problems of its reconstruction and of its modernisation, in the days after the Liberation France started out along the way of planning, notably with Jean Monnet and the creation of the Commissariat Général au Plan (CGP). The activities of Lebret and his collaborators were concentrated principally therefore on putting together methods of research and analysis with application to both rural zones and urban centres of France, and then to the Third World.

In 1950, in collaboration with the Minister Claudius-Petit, a Catholic of the Mouvement Républicain Populaire (MRP) who was sympathetic towards Économie et Humanisme, the French theory of territorial organisation was worked out during meetings organised by Lebret, in which men like François Perroux, Alfred Sauvy and Christian Beullac participated.

In 1952, Lebret defined the organisation of territory as a discipline at once theoretical and practical, having for its object to create, by rational organisation of space and the use of the appropriate practical means, the optimal conditions for making the most of the territory and of the ways of life best adapted to the human development of its inhabitants.

As his work proceeded in different countries for the working out and putting into practice of different plans for development, territorial organisation, solidaristic development and planning, it became clear how closely linked and even identified with each other these projects were. In fact, in his 1961 work, Dynamique concrète du développement (The practical dynamic of development), he wrote: “Territorial organisation is the optimal use of space in view of its development and of the development of larger territorial units”, and he noted also, “When considered as the planning of space, planning becomes indistinguishable from development”.

The type of organisation of territory that takes into consideration the all the different entities involved is a form of solidaristic development. Thus, the four essential components of the organisation of territory are:

- the goal of the human economy or solidaristic development, namely, “the passage for a particular population from a less-human phase to a more-human phase as quickly as possible at the lowest possible financial and human cost, keeping in mind solidarity between all peoples”.
- the geographical outline of the territory to be organised is important, as is the fact that it is not an empty space, but a particular place, characterised by its own physical milieu, its population, its economic activities and its technical resources. This piece of land also has its political leaders who are sometimes opposed to the findings and to the research methods that include the participation of the people. They are often looking to reinforce their power, and instead the research brings forward alternative leaders!

- an interdisciplinary approach which is at once theoretical and practical, including a preliminary study of the territory in question, the working out of what is to be done, and its implementation.

- A mode of operation, including physical implementation, involving technical resources and organisation of the space under consideration, with the setting up of appropriate structures.


The Third World Movement among Catholics

As Denis Pelletier has shown well in his thesis, one can maintain that Lebret and the Économie et Humanisme movement are at the origin of the Third World movement among Catholics and that its influence is still discernible today, especially in French policy (NGO’s, certain positions of the French government towards the Third World once the crises of decolonialisation had been resolved).

How should we characterise this Third World movement?

A – It was an early third world movement: Lebret himself carried out his first analyses of under-development in Brazil from 1947 onwards. He subsequently helped out with numerous studies in different areas carried out by the United Nations. The Third World interest of Lebret does not belong to the movements of the 1960’s organised around the figure of Che Guevara and the student revolts.

B – It was a concrete, pragmatic and empirical Third World concern that was based on research and on the deployment of scientific methods used as interdisciplinary forms of knowledge oriented towards the preparation of a decision and of action. It was not an ideological Third World movement. This Third World concern linked up with the enquiries of international organisations charged with development (the agencies of the UN). Lebret was at one and the same time a Catholic expert (at Vatican II) and an international expert (at the UN conference of 1953 on the definition of needs, UNCTAD).

C – It was an ethical Third World movement, rooted in an utopian communitarianism where the heritage of the Gospel and of the Catholic faith were central. It was not a nihilist or anti-humanist Third world movement, like some of the forms this movement took in the 1960’s, notably under the influence of the philosophical current of structuralism.

This article will conclude with Part II in the June 2001 issue of OIKONOMIA