Interview with Denis Maugenest

Denis Maugenest, Jesuit: “I refuse certainties and continue to seek the truth”.

Feb 23, 2014 09:00

Jesuit, doctor of theology, professor of political science, creator of university institutions in Africa, Father Denis Maugenest has just completed a stay in Mauritius. Invited by the Cardinal Jean Margéot Institute, he gave a series of conferences on living together and various aspects of politics. On the eve of his departure, he agreed, during a meeting, to answer our questions.

To introduce you, we are going to remake your itinerary together. You entered religious orders after refusing a first time…

As a European, I was formed, out of necessity, by the dominant religion, Christianity. I was not very happy with this situation of religious monopoly and at the end of my secondary school studies, which I had attended in a Parisian Jesuit college, I decided not to enter the orders. I went to study law, economics and politics and then entered the National School of Administration (ENA). Then, at the time of the Algerian war, I resigned in order to do something else: to enter a religious vocation, to join the Jesuits and to make a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience.

How old were you at the time of your return to the Jesuits?

Twenty-five years old. During my preparation for the ENA, I was asked to give a talk on the social doctrine of the Church, of which I knew nothing. I did some research and the following week I presented the social thought of the church, which I had just discovered, a thought that may be wiser than one thinks and in any case very interesting. It is from this experience that I returned to the church.

It was only the discovery of the social thought of the church that led you to enter the orders?

There was above all the Second Vatican Council decided by John XXIII, who after having worked with the Serbs, Turks and the French had understood that the world was a little larger than the church and that it was high time to open the windows because it stank inside. It was extraordinary that this Pope, who was thought to be a classic, said, “Let’s open the windows of the church” and called a council. This council opened in 1962 will have no anathema, which is different from the previous ones, and it declares freedom of conscience. That is why I feel comfortable with the new church and I went back into it. And that I regret that it has not yet realized the whole program of Vatican II. It’s a long, long way off. So I went back to the Jesuits and asked to do my formation in deep France since I didn’t like the Parisian milieu, from which I come from. I went to Rheims where I mainly took care of people who had difficulties with the judicial and penal world, and I opened a home for ex-prisoners. Then I was called back to Paris to take care of a cultural centre which I transformed into the Faculty of Economic and Social Sciences of the Catholic Institute of Paris. I did this for twelve years and I had more and more African students and I wondered why they were coming to Paris for undergraduate studies when they had universities in their countries. They explained to me that they were doing it to distance themselves from their families, which can be stifling in Africa, and especially because there wasn’t much freedom of thought in Africa in the late 1970s. There were fathers of the nation, their sons and their wives, and single parties that had to be followed.

As we listen to you speak, the words maverick, anarchist come to mind…

You can add rebellious, revolted. I am determined by the five A’s: autonomy, I am for the complete autonomy of the individual; then I am anti-conformist, anarchist, agnostic and approximate. Approximate because in the search for truth I only approach, if I can, the centre we are aiming for, what we dream, what we anticipate but are not sure to reach.

Let’s come back to Africa…

I felt that young Africans should be provided with academic institutions where they could think freely. I therefore proposed to my superiors to create a university institution in Africa where one could think freely without having national caciques and local politicians on one’s back. One day I am in Rome and I make this suggestion to my superior who thinks it is a good idea and he says to me “go ahead and do it yourself”. ” I tell him that it is better that the Jesuits in Africa do it, but he insists that it should be me. And since the Jesuits take a vow of obedience…

That’s one of the wishes you must have had trouble putting into practice…

Not at all. What is obedience if not fundamentally obeying the spirit of God, of the creator. My Jesuit Superior General and I are both bound to this obedience and must do, as prayer says, the will of God on earth as it is in heaven. If my superior and I agree that this is God’s will, there is no problem in obeying.

As long as you have a superior who has the same vision of what must be done, which is not always obvious, you will agree. The superior wanting, by definition, to enforce his vision, even if it is not right…

In general, any man with power is prone to abuse it, something I had already learned from my political training. But that was not the case with my superior. So I obeyed and set out to create a Catholic university institution in Africa and six weeks later I was in Africa.

Had you ever been to the black continent?

I had been to Senegal in 1960, for the opening of the University of Dakar, and that made a deep impression on me. So I went back there in 1985 to start the administrative procedures, the negotiations, the setting up, to meet African intellectuals to interest them in the project, to find sources of financing, etc. I was very impressed by the project. I moved to Yaoundé in 1989 and it was only in 1991 that the Catholic University of Africa opened. The experience of Africa opened up my horizons considerably. In any case, I am convinced of one thing: we need to become aware of the world.

Did you want to go to Africa?

No, as I consider that the mission is where you are, that you don’t necessarily have to go to the other side of the world to find it. But that being said, when someone asks you to do a service, you do it. My service has been to make Africans stand on their own feet, by themselves, without needing Westerners or others. At the end of thirteen years, I had reached the end of the mission, it was agreed that I should retire, especially since a small dispute had arisen between my successor and me because I had made a few remarks about his action.

So you returned to Paris?

No. I wanted to, but my superiors didn’t. They wanted me to take care of an institution that the Jesuits had had for 40 years in Abidjan, Ivory Coast: the African Institute for Economic and Social Development. I agreed and was to go to Abidjan in September 2002, but there was the coup d’état that split the country in two. I opened a small magazine called Débats, courrier d’Afrique de l’Est (Debates, East African Mail), and from then on the institute I was to reform was transformed into the Centre de Recherche d’Action Pour la Paix (Action for Peace Research Centre) linked to the situation in the country.

Let us go back in time. In 1978, you published a text entitled The Christian faith in the face of Marxism. Was Marxism one of the greatest threats to the Christian faith?

At the time of the publication of this text, Marxism was very prevalent in French society, overflowing with the communist and socialist parties and nibbling at Christian opinion. There was a movement among left-wing Catholics that would give birth to the liberation theory in South America. The text you are quoting wanted to take stock of this issue. Marx was a not bad man, a bit pretentious in his conception of his science of society, who said some interesting things. In his fundamental intentions, Marx is a man I would gladly recommend, especially since he was not the one who set up Marxism in the Soviet Union, but a certain Lenin. I wouldn’t say that Marxism was a great threat to the Christian faith, but it was a good test which made Christians think more naturally.

What was that?

In the West, the Church imposed its vision on Europe through supernatural laws. Marx brings us back, of course, to see beyond this supernatural the natural, the infrastructure. Marx is someone who obliges us to have more truth than to immediately refer to a supernatural order. I would say that somewhere Marx did the Christians a service.

A Jesuit who admires some parts of Marxist thought, it’s still unusual…

You think so?

Wouldn’t you have been more at ease writing think pieces in France than setting up university institutions in Africa?

There is a perfect continuity in what I started after my university studies. Only, I’m continuing in other ways than the ones I planned at the beginning. What interests me is to reflect on what it means to live in society. Is it just producing agriculture, industrial machinery – the famous economic and social development – or is the big problem being able to live together, among ourselves? Because, in the end, since we were children, we have been trying to find our place in relation to those who are stronger than us. We try to take first place and we are, like all men, jealous of each other, we are terrible liars – that is, we show ourselves in a certain light by hiding from each other – and finally we are homicidal of each other.

The title of the lecture you gave in Mauritius was: Living together in spite of everything. Is it as difficult as that to live it together?

I think it’s much harder than we imagine. Cain did kill Abel, and it continues in other ways. The man is the same…

Despite civilization, evolution, advances in technology?

In spite of all this, he has in him this brutality of the early days and, at the same time, a lot of culture. We are animals brought into the world by the creator, the master of the world, call it what you will…

Or by the evolution of matter…

I don’t know if it’s evolution, but there’s definitely an evolutionary somewhere. In any case, man is the latest product of this incredible creation. We’ve learned to stand on our own two feet to allow our brains to work better and better, and it’s taken a long time for that to happen. We are living creatures in constant evolution and none of us are able to understand where we are in this evolution.

In spite of evolution, we would have the same instincts, slightly better repressed, as the first humans?

In terms of jealousy, lying and homicide, yes, I think so. Perhaps science will lead to human technologies, will lead to the discovery of genes that will make feelings of lying, jealousy and homicide disappear. That would probably be great because we would become more human. But, as St. Simon once said, “it is time to abandon the government of men and devote ourselves to the administration of things.” This prospect does not make me happy, I do not want to become a thing to be administered….

Have we not already become things in relation to evolution and globalisation?

Alas, yes.

What is your current definition of policy?

It’s the prolonged civil war, but put in order, as smoothly as possible. Politics is what I have told all my students, of all races who have attended my classes: it is living together in spite of everything. It is not very glorious, I don’t think we should conceive of politics as a set of major economic and social development projects. It is for this reason that I have replaced the name of the Abidjan institution, of which I have spoken to you, with that of the Centre for Research and Action for Peace.

Is this policy a necessary evil?

If we want to avoid killing each other, we must try to live together, including with our opponents. It is about living with the other, who is different from ourselves, and it is not easy to live with that different being, whether it is in a marriage, family relationships, friendship, business relationships.

The compulsory living together is more difficult today?

It depends on the behaviour of each of us. We are in constant altercation with each other. We are all violent beings and our life is made of altercations, society is conflictual from A to Z. There is conflict between the seller and the buyer, the banker and his client, the importer and the producer, the teacher and his pupil. Everybody is fighting for the best advantage in this market, in this trade that is the world. So, fortunately, we manage to live, to find the right price, the right note, the right interest rate, but all this presupposes a series of continuous negotiations. That is what politics is all about, perpetual negotiation in order to live together and find solutions to all conflicts.

Does the rise of religions affect this living together?

It is a huge problem. What is growing is the uncertainty in which we all find ourselves and, consequently, anxiety. People today are very anxious, we don’t know where we are going and the atmosphere of conflict in which we all find ourselves – civil wars within nations, international wars, challenges, clashes of civilizations, and now the questioning of the West by people who are fed up with the way the West is acting all over the world. These challenges are considerable and are, in my opinion, provoking a resurgence of religiosity, with everyone looking for a little bit where the truth could be and beyond God, heaven, the great architect of the universe, call him what you will. So there is, indeed, a religious competition, gurus come forward to announce their truth, which they present as THE truth.

Should you fall into this category?

Not at all. I’m an agnostic and, in my opinion, it’s the right way. What I like is that I’m not alone in this.

Are there a lot of agnostics, that is, people who believe “that a truth can neither be affirmed nor disproved if reason and experience cannot verify it”, within the Catholic Church?

That is the case. I am very fond of the last Pope Benedict VI who resigned, because no doubt he was fed up with his office. A year before, he made a trip to Germany and surprised people by saying that he thought that agnostics were closer to the truth than any believers. This did not please the church. Some people wondered if the Pope had lost his faith. The pope did it again a month later in a speech to people of different world religions. In his speech, the pope said that there are three groups of people: believers, atheists and agnostics. The Pope said: “It is for this reason that I have invited the agnostics because I believe that those who seek the truth are much closer to God than all the others.” He concluded that all believers need to revise their beliefs a little and praised the simple and modest agnostic who refuses to believe in certainties and relies on research. I liked this position very much, I have been an agnostic for fifty years. I don’t believe that religions as a whole have a great future. What seems to me to be the future is agnosticism, i.e. doubt prevailing over certainty, as opposed to a faith linked to beliefs that leads one to believe by not knowing.

This kind of talk must make a bit of a mess in the church…

I’m not very sure I’m well understood and accepted in the church, including in my company. Not all my brothers have the same ideas and thoughts as I do.

It is obvious that you have a special admiration for Benedict XVI, the previous Pope. What do you think of the present one?

I’ve been waiting for that question. I am surprised that Cardinal Bergoglio is Pope because our vocation as religious, especially as Jesuit religious, is not to exercise any authority in the institutional machinery of the Church. We even make a vow not to be a bishop, etc. We’re not even bishops. It is true that in some cases in the past, religious who were in the field, when there was no local clergy, were often asked to take responsibility. I know Jesuits who refused to be bishops, saying that it was not their vocation. Bergoglio accepted to be a bishop in Argentina, he rose in the hierarchy, became a cardinal, that’s his problem. I don’t know why he’s in the Vatican.

You’re confused. You don’t know why Cardinal Bergolio was elected Pope Francis?

It often doesn’t make sense until much later. Perhaps in ten, fifteen years we will see that there was God’s will – if there was one in the circumstances – in this election. But today, I don’t know what to tell you about Bergoglio. When I was asked the question at the time of his election, I answered that I did not know and that I willingly took what was said in the Gospel about Jesus of Nazareth. What good can come of it? We ask ourselves this question but we refrain from answering it.
But Francis is popular, charismatic, communicates well, takes positions…

I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m very careful. I’m not sure he’s taking the right positions. For example, I do not know if it was really the Pope’s role to send a message to Mr Putin when he was chairing a G20 summit to tell him not to intervene in Syria. Is it the Pope’s mission to go to Lampedusa to throw a wreath where refugees from Africa are trying to get into Europe by any means? I am not sure.

Would you be in conflict with Pope Francis on certain issues?

Of course, insofar as ecclesial society is a political society like any other. And Pope Francis obviously has many enemies within the Holy See. Administrators who work according to the old model should not find themselves at ease with the new pope. Conflict is everywhere.

Even among the high dignitaries of the Church who are supposed to have a higher degree of education and understanding of things and beings than the average person? It seemed to us that at this level of responsibility they had been able to get rid of violence?

Even Jesus was not comfortable with his own disciples. There is a beautiful phrase in the Universal Declaration of Human and Citizen Rights from 1948. What closes the declaration is the fact that it is the ideal to be attained. That is to say that it is never attained and that we must always work in that direction. But it should not be taken for granted, as an original fact.

And you apply this reasoning to the Church?

Of course I do. Must we remind you that like all institutions, the Church is made of men?

That’s a pessimistic view…

I’m not a pessimist, I’m an awful realist. An awful realist who needs a sense of humor.


When I did my novitiate I asked for a grace: humor. In Psalm 2 of the Bible it says: “He who dwells in the heavens above looks down on what is going on below, and he laughs at it.” There is humor in God and there must be a lot of humor in life.

To bear it?

The world is tragic and the question is how to live it. How to live the human drama with its uncertainties, the conflicts, the altercations, the war between us.

Has faith helped you to move forward?

Faith is my only pilot.

Is it unshakeable?

Until now it’s been well-founded, on rock, as they say. I’ve been through some very difficult times, certainly. You have trials, life is a series of trials, but what is more important is the grace that carries you and a bit of humour, that’s what keeps me smiling, serenely surviving.

Do you feel that you have succeeded in life?

First of all, my life isn’t over yet. So other things can still happen. But on the other hand, I’m happy with what I’ve been able to do.

In the end, despite the conflicts and everything else, are we moving towards a better world?

What’s a better world? More household appliances? The best thing would be to have an awareness of who we are and an ability to steer ourselves in this world which is an ocean of storms, cyclones, tsunamis, winds and opposing currents. This is the vocation of man who must himself seek his salvation. I cannot find the salvation of others. I can tell how I am learning to steer my own life amidst the crashes and earthquakes, not only geological, but also socio-political.

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