Maritain and freedom of conscience

William Sweet

In exile in the United States during the Second World War, and during his decade-long stay in the US during the 1950s, Jacques Maritain came to love America and many of its traditions. His books, lectures, and essays on political philosophy, written during this time, reflect this. The focus of much of this work is the dignity of human persons, their rights and freedoms, and the responsibilities of government.

During, and shortly after, the war, Maritain developed an account of human rights rooted in (though extending far beyond) principles discussed by St Thomas. Maritain found Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "four freedoms" to be emblematic of these rights-rights and freedoms that accrued to all human beings. Central to those freedoms-and to Maritain's own writing-was 'freedom of conscience.' This is not surprising given Maritain's 'personalism' and his important distinction between the person and the individual. Yet Maritain recognized that human beings were essentially social beings, that they lived in communities and states, and that they had duties to the community and the state. And the state and community has rights as well-a right to defend its existence and a right to educate citizens for citizenship in the community.

What would Maritain say our options are when an individual right to conscience and a social responsibility appear to be in conflict?

In the first part of this paper, I want to present Maritain's views on freedom of conscience and on our obligations to the community. In a second section, I want to raise the questions: 'What is the source of these freedoms?' Why does Maritain rank freedom of conscience where he does? What does Maritain see as the source of the duties and rights of the community-for example, how does he approach what we might call both duties arising out of a contractual arrangement with its citizens (e.g., as in a fiduciary responsibility) and 'natural duties'? In a third section, I want to discuss what Maritain would see as the limits imposed by a respect for freedom of conscience-limits on what an institution (such as the community or the state) may do in carrying out its responsibilities. Are these limits affected if the community is a democratic one? a divinely established one? How can persons assess whether the community has violated these limits?

I will conclude that Maritain's account of freedom of conscience is instructive for debates both within contemporary liberal democracies and within the Catholic Church.


William Sweet, PhD, DPh
Professor of Philosophy,
President, Canadian Jacques Maritain Association,
St Francis Xavier University
Antigonish, NS B2G 2W5
fax 1 902 867 3243; tel 1 902 867 2341; e-mail