This is hagiography, as the subtitle indicates, but not by an uncritical observer. The several chapters in the Maritains’ lives are of such prominence in the history of twentieth-century Catholicism and raise so many question marks that a mapping of their lives in their various contexts, though hardly definitive, is most welcome. In its original edition (Paris: Stock, 1995), the book received the French Academy Prize for Biography. It excels at bringing out the personal relations of this odd convert couple, starting with those between Jacques and his mother, but of course also with the many public and private figures who gave to Raïssa and Jacques, or took from them, spiritual and social impulses.
The couple carried on an improbable mission to the artistic and literary circles of 1920s France (Rouault, Cocteau), at first in the penumbra of the Action française of Charles Maurras, with whom Jacques launched a literary review. His Thomism induced the rightist Dominican, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, to take him under his wing and sing his praises in Rome. Some months after Pope Pius XI’s condemnation of Action française, Maritain, a staunch defender of the primacy of the spiritual since his conversion under the influence of Léon Bloy, saw the error of his fellowship with reaction. During the 1930s, he was no doubt the foremost leftist anti-bourgeois intellectual in the Catholic world. All this is laid out in detail, though there are some gaps one would like to see filled. How, for instance, did he receive the news that Pius XII and the Action française had come to terms in 1939? Did he not allude to this at all, e.g. in his voluminous and frank correspondence with (the later Cardinal) Charles Journet? (A later omission is Maritain’s work on the United Nations commission headed by Eleanor Roosevelt that drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)
During World War II in the USA, he finally warmed up to a really existing democratic political system. As his influence grew in North and South America, he felt himself being sidelined in France by being appointed ambassador to the Holy See. Philosophically too, he was no longer embattled and in the center of things as he had once been. Jean-Paul Sartre and even Emmanuel Mounier exercised the attraction that had once been his. Although G. B. Montini (Paul VI) was his great admirer, not until the Second Vatican Council was over was Maritain invited to Rome. Barré hints at opposition from the Civiltà Cattolica and Cardinal Pizzardo.
Since Raïssa died in 1960, he only felt called upon to enter the lists once more, with The Peasant of the Garonne (1966), which had even Yves Congar scratching his head. Barré’s dual biography casts some light on this outburst (bête noire: Teilhard de Chardin), but it is excellent at bringing Raïssa out of the shadows where she willingly placed herself.
For a treatment of Maritain’s philosophy, one will prefer Jude Dougherty’s Jacques Maritain : An Intellectual Profile (2003). But for a good read of the personal development of Raïssa and Jacques, this is highly recommended.