Rev. Jim Ryan, Ph.D.
I have read about Emmanuel Mounier, not very often, but when I have it has been associated with Mounier’s influence on Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker with Dorothy Day. Maurin shared with Mounier a belief that faith in Jesus is a radical act of the person. This radicality obliges the person to transform reality – sacred and secular. Mounier fashioned the 20th century movement of Personalism which has survived wars, suppression, premature death, and ridicule from those with whom Mounier refused to align himself.
My source for this look at Mounier is John Hellman’s book, “Emmanuel Mounier and the New Catholic Left, 1930-1950.” Hellman characterizesMounier’s personalism as a plethora of paradoxes. While Mounier called for revolution and was willing to check other revolutions against the ideas, ideals, values, and strategies of personalism, he never fully joined the other revolutionary movements. Or, if he did join for a time, he eventually disassociated to continue on his own path. Mounier liked Marxists and, at various times, he liked what Marx wrote. But he never adhered to the Marxism as applied under Stalin or any Soviet head of state and party.
Mounier could not align with capitalism either. Nor was he enamored with the so-called Third Way which was proposed as a middle ground between capitalism and Marxism. Mounier’s personalism valued personal character and a loyalty to personalist spiritual values. In the time before WWII, he glided perilously close to fascism, Nazism, and other authoritarian structures. He was able to successfully vacillate (according to Hellman) on the edge of alignment. but never fully. Hellman contends that this is what gave his personalism longevity, particularly in its ability to survive through and after World War II. He maintained relationships with the French academic elite and with theologians who played major roles in the agitation for, the planning, and the carrying out of Vatican II. With philosophers and social thinkers such as Sartre, Lacroix, Chevalier, Claudel, etc. and theologians such as Chenu, Danielou, Chardin, de Lubac he ran in circles which constituted the public leadership of ideas and social strategies of the time. And in Jacques and Raissa Maritain, as well with Paul Ricoeur, Mounier found company that could bridge sacred and secular interests.
Mounier put personalism on a path of critique that could identify strengths and weaknesses of both capitalism and Marxism. Thankfully, Personalism shed its early approval of authoritarian leaders (as in his beloved monastic orders) and furthered a viewpoint that he titled communitarian (communautaire). This position made it possible for progressives to fashion a post-war understanding of a personalism laden with communal values of liberal political and economical strategies.
I share a belief in personalism with its communitarian structure. But how might this view be applied nowadays? How does it define, say, the relationship of person with church? It seems that Mounier often found himself and his movement on the edge of condemnation by church authorities. Maritain, for one, regularly warned him about this. At that time such condemnation would have denied him public acceptance. Is, then, the personalist spiritual revolution a builder or a transformer (God forbid, a destroyer!) of institutional church? Is there even any reason for an individual with personalist communitarian views to carry on a dialogue with the institution? In the context of the Roman Catholic Church, for example, why would such a person participate in or even give a second thought to Pope Francis’ call to synodality? Why do so when the American bishops have informed synod participants in this multi-year process that all this open listening and mutual conversation will not be permitted to consider, let alone include, a look at church doctrines and dogmas? How can they even mandate such a thing when one of the foundation pieces of infallibly teaching dogma is to ask the question, “What do the people believe?” (sensus fidelium, sense of the faithful)
More importantly, where is a communitarian believer in Christ to go to engage in conversation about the inclusive message of Jesus? I mean, if we can’t have a discussion on how Jesus seemed to have no difficulty with breaking the institution’s rules in order to heal on a Sabbath, or ask a Samaritan woman for a drink of cold water then, I ask, what’s the point?
At the heart of this question is the freedom with which Jesus acted in response to someone in need. And he did it again, and again, and again, giving evidence that the institution’s rules, purportedly based on Jesus, are not only outmoded and outdated, they act aggressively to prevent care from being given. It seems to me this prevention is exactly the same as bishops backing state laws that deny health and healing services for women; laws that one can realistically expect will be on the books for years to come.
Additionally, at the heart of this question of inclusivity is the denial of services (a cup of water?) to members of the LGBTQ+ community who plan the activities of their wedding day. The person who refuses that service would be as if the woman at the well told Jesus that she wouldn’t serve him because of who he was. The institution claims that this belief trumps the right of a citizen who wants to shop not in Vatican Square but in the public square.
The woman at the well also serves as the image of equality which speaks so forcefully of inclusion. Let’s just say that Jesus, who treats her as an equal, just as easily calls her to ministry with her Samaritan relatives and friends – to preach the Word and offer sacramental gifts which are more than a cup of water. This discussion, because it addresses the question of women’s ordination, is forbidden in all the goings-on of American Synodality. Is it any wonder we personalist communitarians reclaim the freedom of Jesus and his open-armed embrace?
Well, this is far afield from reading a biography of Emmanuel Mounier; or maybe not. Recall the full title of the book is Emmanuel Mounier and the New Catholic Left, 1930-1950. I hope I have made it clear that I believe Mounier’s influence continues to 2022, some 90 years since the startup of his periodical L’Esprit. As it happens, that’s the same time period, 1932 to be exact, when Maurin and Day first published, The Catholic Worker.
Mounier’s personal and professional skills of balancing life’s paradoxes with a faith that forms the basis of spiritual revolution is what has provided inspiration and leadership to his personalist movement. This personalism with a communitarian outlook and structure reclaims the inclusive freedom of Jesus without doctrinal and dogmatic interferences. Jesus didn’t need them and neither do we.