Peace, Justice, Ecology: The "Substitutes" For God | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | April 9, 2007 | IgnatiusInsight.com
Peace, Justice, Ecology: The "Substitutes" For God | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | April 9, 2007
"Peace, justice, and the
conservation of creation--this trio of values have nowadays emerged as a
substitute for a lost concept of God ..." -- Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "Church on the Threshold of the Third
Millennium", Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith 
"The ecclesial foundation of Christology may not be
identified with 'the Church of the poor', but is found rather in the apostolic
faith transmitted through the Church to all generations." -- William Cardinal Levada,
"Notification," November 26, 2006 
One of the unique features of the New Testament, of which only hints are
found in the Old Testament, is the admonition to the disciples to "go forth and
teach all nations." Not a few critics think this charge to be, in effect, a
profoundly unsettling factor in human history. It is "arrogant," it is charged,
to suppose that there is something all men need to be taught. It is even more
obnoxious to think that Christianity has something unique to maintain. Not only
is there the question "what exactly are all nations to be taught?" but also "by
what 'right' does one claim this teaching to be a proper function of religion,
particularly Christianity?" No other religion seems to have this outward
orientation except Islam, and it got it from Christianity.
The Christian answer to such
worries, no doubt, is that what Christianity brings into the world is precisely
"good news," something that men long for. They seek the truth. They are sent by
God to proclaim this truth; it does not originate in themselves. That not
everyone easily accepts or welcomes this endeavor can best be gauged by the
fact that two millennia after the death of Christ a fifth of the world
population, at the most, is Christian. Moreover, the traditional Christian
world seems to be in much disarray with rapidly declining populations, itself a
sign of a loss of confidence in itself. Though much is made of "freedom of
religion" as a natural and civil "right," the fact is that many existing
governments in practice make this freedom a dead letter.
Dante, in his De
Monarchia, proposed uniting the
world under a common King or Emperor. He thereby rejected the earlier medieval
notions of the separate temporal and spiritual powers working together but
remaining themselves within a common kingdom to which everyone belonged. He
harkened back to the Stoic idea of a universal law and brotherhood, a single
"city of man" on this earth designed to actualize all human potentialities.
This project was to be mankind's inner-worldly mission. Dante writes:
It is not the being of any creature but its proper function that is the ultimate
end of the Creator in creating, and so the proper function is not instituted
for the sake of the creature but the latter is created to serve its proper
function. From this is follows that there must be some particular function
proper to the human species as a whole and for which the whole species in its
multitudinous variety was created; this function is beyond the capacity of any
one man or household or village, or even of any one city or kingdom (I, 3).
This view does not
necessarily deny, in Dante's terms, a supernatural destiny realized in each of
the members of the human species. But it does bring up the issue of the
collective and temporal purpose of mankind on this earth
Dante's view here was
perhaps more narrow than that of Aquinas, who inquired both about man's
temporal purpose and, in the Third Part of the Summa, about whether Christ was Himself the head of the
whole human race. Such an understanding of the whole human race included the
living and the dead. It included all those who, in Augustine's sense,
ultimately chose to belong either to the City of God or the city of man.
It does not take much
imagination, however, to realize what would happen if we denied either the
existence or the power of a transcendent God but kept the notion of a universal
kingdom in this world. The logic of the result would make collective mankind
"autonomous." Indeed, the spelling out of this latter alternative is what these
reflections are about. For men who believe neither in God nor in the Kingdom of
God, the vision of the whole world organized by man's own powers to attain an
inner-worldly good becomes the replacement of God Himself and the transcendent
promises He has made to man about his final destiny. It becomes indeed a kind
Though it can take many
forms--from universal empire to classless society--the dream of a universal
mankind ordered into one political entity is, without doubt, an ever-recurring
proposal. This idea was not the thought of the classic Greek city states, whose
leaders thought it was a form of hubris. Aristotle thought it would take a
divine mind to deal with such infinite variety and men were not divine. Yet the
notion was something that Alexander the Great conceived, as did most of the
ancient Empires. The notion is present in the Roman Empire as well as the Holy
Roman Empire wherein speaking urbi et orbe, to the city and the world, was taken for granted.
Boniface VII seems to have
been tempted at least by a form of this world order outlook. Certainly Islam
has the vision of the whole of the world submitted to Allah under a single
caliph. The Chinese have seen themselves as the master people. The historical
configurations of these notions are bewildering but, on the whole, they reflect
in the human mind the issue of the proper worldly condition of mankind while it
remains in this life. The fact that the total membership in the city of mankind
must somehow include the dead only adds intrigue to this consideration.
Modern institutions like the
League of Nations or the United Nations have seen themselves as inheritors of
some form of this-world universalism that was founded historically in the
Empire and Papacy. Indeed, the most cited "buzz" word today in popular
political literature is surely "globalization." We are the "globalizing"
generation, in which everyone is supposed to be at home with everybody else, in
which all frontiers are crossed with a universal visa and no hassle. Everyone
has a "right to work" and a "right to immigrate," a right to vacation, and a
right to invest wherever he chooses.
The question in not a few
minds becomes, then, "what is the political form of globalization?" Even those
who hold to some form of "subsidiarity," the retaining of lesser social
institutions, still maintain that human world order can come about only with
political formation. Jacques Maritain argued this view in the last chapter of
his Man and the State. It is
certainly present in John XXIII's Pacem in Terris as well is in the new Compendium of the Social
Doctrine of the Church. Obviously,
careful distinctions must be maintained. A diabolical counter-world order is
already recognized as a threat in the Book of Revelation. Political
philosophers from Aristotle to Strauss have suspected that mankind is safer if
it is organized in smaller political configurations. The likelihood of a world
tyranny backed by scientific and humanistic dimensions is not impossible. The
descriptions of "end times" in the Scriptures seem to support these latter
What has been unique about
Roman Catholic political philosophy in particular is its willingness to
maintain both a theoretic and practical order of human and political things.
What can be known and proposed in nature is worthy. The theoretic or
transcendent orders are not unrelated to a practical order. Not only is salvation
worked out in "fear and trembling," it also concerns our relationship to actual
brothers in need. The poor are "always with us." They provide a purpose or
object of our compassion and intelligence. But they are not "gods." Not
everything we do helps them.
E. F. Schumacher, in his Guide
for the Perplexed, rightly pointed
out that we know how to solve the "economic" problem of everyone. But this
happy result can be obtained only if we are willing to understand and put into
practice those principles, virtues, and systems that really work for this
purpose. This putting into effect is itself a moral and political problem that
must be constantly chosen. Making the poor and their aid into a substitute
"god" is a this-worldly idolatry. It not only misunderstands man's ultimate
transcendence but knows little about what actually aids the poor as such.
When the basic Christian
schema describing the origins of mankind and his final destiny are denied,
usually some alternate proposal is put in its place. In the Christian
understanding, the Trinitarian God did not need to create anything. The world,
thus, does not exist by itself or out of itself. The world--that is, the
cosmos--exists because God, before all else, freely chose to create rational
beings. These rational beings were intended to freely participate in God's
internal Trinitarian life if they accepted the order of creation to which they
belonged. The world is created for man as an arena in which he is to reach his
destiny. Man is not simply a passive creature but is to reach his end
essentially by imitating the rationality and love that is the explanation of
his initial existence.
Man is from the very
beginning given a higher destiny than his own finite nature could command. Thus
to the gift of creation is added the gift of a supernatural or superabundant
life. The drama that exists in creation concerns man's understanding and
acceptance of his destiny, a destiny that is really what he would want, an
eternal and happy life before the Godhead. However, the actual condition of the
human race in the present eon is that of living the consequences of the Fall.
These consequences include the Incarnation of the Son of God who is sent into
the world to redeem man, that is, to restore him to his initial given purpose
in creation. Christ too was rejected, but this very rejection leaves us with
our condition of being saved through suffering. This way is the result of the
very nature of our freedom. We cannot be coerced to accept what God has planned
world-organization doctrines that reject this Christian approach maintain,
paradoxically, that they can best pursue peace, justice, and ecology as they
ought to be. They are, if you will, utopian programs that propose that
religion, particularly Christianity, is the cause of the disorders of the
world. War is caused, as Hobbes thought, by religious and philosophical
disputes. Injustice is caused by the malfunctioning of property, family, or
state. The environmental "crisis" is caused by the command in Genesis to go
forth to increase and multiply, to believe that all dominion over animal and
material creation is give for a human purpose. The mission of man in the world
is essentially to keep mankind alive as long as possible down the ages.
Individuals are subordinate to this goal. The function of the world state thus
is to limit population, control growth, and subject man to the primacy of the
on-going earth as the only real "value" in the universe. Man is for the earth,
not earth for man.
Nietzsche was the reluctant
recorder of these tendencies in their earlier formulations. He was aware that
modern man had, in practice, lost his faith in the Christian God but was
reluctant to admit it. The only alternative was to "will" another world into
existence, one opposed to Christian weakness--one that had only man's stamp on
it. If God was "dead," this death was primarily found not in metaphysical
argument but in the troubled hearts of believers. Actual Christians failed to
practice what they were said to believe. "Nietzsche," Benedict XVI recalled,
"rightly pointed out that the moment when the news that God is dead reached
everywhere, the moment in which his light would finally be extinguished, can
only be frightful."  This is the same Nietzsche, of course, who can only
propose, as an alternative to Christianity, the "will to power" that creates
whatever it wants because there is no criterion for anything else. Logically,
in Nietzsche's own terms, his proposals also should be "frightful."
The Pope's comment about
Nietzsche is taken from comments that were made by the then Cardinal Ratzinger
when he introduced, in 2000, the Third Millennium proposals of John Paul II. It
seems worthwhile to return to this remarkable document since it directly
confronts what is becoming the prevalent consequence to "multi-cultural" and
tolerance theories. These theories have artfully come to be used against
religion and especially Christianity itself. The Pope has always been quite
aware of the relation between thought--especially theological and philosophical
thought--and the external or political condition of the world.
Nietzsche had claimed, in Beyond
Good and Evil, that Plato's quest
for truth and its formulation was itself the cause of our modern difficulties.
Nietzsche then maintained that Christianity was the "Platonism" of the masses.
That is, the "dogmatic" formulation of the truth about God and man prevented
him from creating his own god and world. What interests the Pope in this
presentation is the logic by which the transcendent God was replaced by an
inner-worldly project as the highest goal available to man. Once he arrives at
the formulation of this alternative, he addresses the question of its own
The Pope begins by recalling
an article that he had read in a German newspaper about a professor who claimed
that we could not prove or disprove the existence of God. Thus, the professor
concluded that he was an "agnostic," someone who did not know and thought the
question impossible to answer one way or the other. However, the professor
continued, he did believe in hell. Many moderns agree with the agnosticism, but
why would one believe in hell if he does not also believe in God? It seems
illogical, yet, looked at more closely "hell is precisely the situation when
God is absent" Consequently, if we look about the world of the twentieth
century, Joseph Ratzinger continues, we run into "Auschwitz and the Gulag
Archipelago and names like Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot." It is mindful of Dante
who found hells in his descent that he could not have foreseen "in advance."
What about these modern
"hells?" "These hells were constructed in order to be able to bring about a
future world of the man who was his own master, who was no longer supposed to
need any God" Ratzinger argues:
Man was offered in sacrifice to the Moloch of that utopia of a God-free world, a
world set free from God, for man was now wholly in control of his destiny and
knew no limits to his ability to determine things, because there was no longer
any God set over him, because no light of the image of God shone forth any more
from man. Whenever God is not, hell comes into existence ...
The connection between
modern political terror and dreams of utopia has long been known. It is one of
the abiding reasons why we continue to read Edmund Burke, among others. What is
important to note here is that the most dangerous of the utopias are attractive
to us precisely because they claim, as their purpose, the improvement of the
human condition as a direct result of the elimination of God.
If this connection between
hell and ideology is valid, what is the function of the Church? "The Church is
there," Joseph Ratzinger explains, "to prevent the advance of hell upon earth
and to make the earth fit to live in through the life of God." Here the Pope
makes two points: 1) that hell can indeed appear on earth in some form and 2)
that what prevents or limits this invasion is the presence of the "light," I
would say also, intellectual light, of God illuminating what is happening.
The making of the earth to
be a "fit" place to live in, however, is not just the claim of the ideologies,
but also the claim of the Church. Basically, the Church claims that her ways to
achieve this very end, in the limited way it can be achieved in this life, are
better, more rational and workable, than those of the ideologies. Indeed, the
Church includes the claim that, even if a better world is achieved, our
personal destiny is transcendent and ordered to the life of God as something
more important than the whole world. This latter end is offered to all men in
all societies in all times. In this sense, those who find themselves in the
Gulags do not, on that account alone, miss out on the chance for eternal life.
"What does it profiteth a man to gain the whole world and lose the life of his
immortal soul?"--this principle remains valid even in face of the lethal
The Pope next brings up
themes that he later develops in Deus Caritas Est about the relation of knowledge and love. In a
surprising reflection, Ratzinger says that the Church herself is not primarily
concerned with "maintaining her membership or even in increasing or broadening
her own membership. The Church is not there for her own sake." The Church has a
task to perform for the world. What is this task? "The only reason she has to
survive is because her disappearance would drag humanity into the whirlpool of
the eclipse of God and, thus, into the eclipse, indeed the destruction of all
that is human." The light shines in the darkness that it not be rejected. The
rejection is itself the cause of the hells that come among us.
At this point, the Pope
takes up the question of why the perfect city of man is being proposed as a
result not of following God's laws, but of eliminating them. The argument for
eliminating God is, in its own way, brilliant, even diabolically brilliant.
Theologians maintain that in recent times we have passed "through three stages:
from ecclesially-centered to being Christ-centered and, finally, God-centered.
This, it is said, represents progress, but it has not yet reached its final
stage." What is the "final stage?"
The final stage begins when
we realize that there are those who do not believe in God. To accommodate them,
it is said, we need to take one more step. If the Church or Christ "divide"
people, then it seems, in the name of brotherhood and unity, we should
eliminate them. "The Church divides people, but Christ also divides, so people
say. And then people add: God, too, divides people, since people's images of
God contradict one another, and there are religions without a personal God and
ways of understanding the world without God." Thus, in the name of
inner-worldly harmony, we must get rid of God and His claims altogether. They
cause division, not unity.
What then? This is where the
new "god" appears among us. We no longer can propose, with the New Testament or
Augustine, a "Kingdom of God." We neutralize the idea of God of all
transcendental and religious overtones. What is left is "simply 'the kingdom'
as a cipher for the better world that is to be built up." This conclusion then
is the trade-off. Evaporate religion of all its specific contents. What will be
left is the "unity" of mankind. They will agree that there is nothing about God
that can be agreed about.
Here is how Ratzinger
explains what follows: "The centrality of the kingdom is supposed to mean," the
everyone, reaching beyond the boundaries of religions and ideologies, can now
work together for the values of the kingdom, which are, to wit: peace,
justice, and the conservation of creation. This trio of values has nowadays
emerged as a substitute for the lost concept of God and, at the same time, as the unifying formula that
could be the basis, beyond all distinctions and differences, for the worldwide
community of men of goodwill (and who is not one of them?) and thus might
really be able to lead to that better world." [italics added]
The import of this profound
passage is not to be missed. There is a "substitute" for God in the modern
world. Politics have become religion with their own idol. That substitute is
called the "kingdom," which is nothing less than a secularized version of the
City of God, in which all distinctive religious and philosophic (that is, natural
law) input is eliminated as precisely what prevents this glorious reign of the
Of course, Christianity has,
in its own way, spent much of its history with these very issues, peace,
justice, stewardship. Suddenly, they are turned on their heads to become
alternatives to the God of Creation. "Has God become superfluous, then?" the
Pope wonders. Can this trio deliver what it claims? "One who sees how this trio
(peace, justice, ecology) has been handled, worldwide, cannot hide the fact
that it is increasingly becoming a hotbed of ideologies and that without an
all-embracing standard of what is consistent with experience, what is
appropriate to creation, and what is humane, it cannot survive intact."
Obviously, Joseph Ratzinger knows what is being proposed, debated, and funded
in the United Nations and in the parliaments of the nations. Most of the
vicious anti-life legislation is proposed in the name of peace, justice, and
ecology. It is interesting that these three are proposed as a kind of anti-Trinity.
How does the Christian
address this new "god"? The first step is to recognize that "values cannot
replace truth." The modern sociological word "value" (usually from Max Weber)
in fact prescinds from truth. It specifically means that truth cannot be
rationally affirmed. Values "cannot replace God, for they are only a reflection
of him, and without his light their outline becomes blurred." If we evaporate,
in the name of getting along together, as this thesis does, we are left with no
standard by which we can tell any difference between justice and injustice,
between a world fit for man and one only fit for itself. Thus, the Pope here
anticipates what he developed more fully in his Regensburg Lecture about the
relation of reason to revelation. "Christian faith appeals to reason, to the
transparency of creation in revealing the Creator." The Word is Logos.
What about "evolution?" Does
it not eliminate any reliance on a Creator? "Can the Church still join the
Bible tradition in appealing to reason, in referring to the way creation
transparently reveals the creative spirit? There is today a materialistic
version of the theory of evolution that presents itself as being the last word
in science and lays claim to have made the creative spirit superfluous." The
Pope suggests that this logic, which claims a materialist basis of the order of
the world, is not persuasive.
"The option of thinking that
the world originates from reason, and not from unreason," Cardinal Ratzinger
affirms, "can be rationally maintained even today, though it must of course be
formulated in conversation with the genuine findings of natural science."
Recalling the themes of John Paul II's Fides et Ratio, Benedict affirms that "the appeal to reason is a
great task for the Church, especially today, for whenever faith and reason part
company, both become diseased.
The Pope suggests, in
conclusion, that a world "substitute god," a "kingdom" of "peace, justice, and
the conservation of creation" is coming to dominate a world that has abandoned
the philosophical reason seen in the order of things. Following the logic of
removing anything distinctive in reason in order to achieve this strange
goal--this "substitute god"--we are left with a world in which we have no
criterion, no standard by which we can distinguish and identify even these
three "values." They have become simply what we want to make them with no
relation to what we are. The
elimination of God, ironically, is also the elimination of reason.
"The limited understanding of
man is now making decisions alone about what should happen to creation in the
future, about who is allowed to live and who is being shut out from the banquet
of life; the path to hell ... then lies open," Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in a
Yet faith too becomes diseased without the whole realm of reason. What dreadful
destruction can then come forth from a sick religiosity we can see in abundance
in our own present-day society. It is not without reason that the Apocalypse
portrays sick religion, which has taken leave of the dimension of belief about
creation, as a genuine power of the Antichrist.
The Church exists in time so
that the world will not be constructed against God and His order for mankind.
That order can be rejected. It is more and more rejected in the name of
autonomous man who maintains that the order of reason and revelation addressed
to it is the cause of man's disunity.
The reflections of Joseph
Ratzinger on the "substitute god" are particularly valuable in this connection because
they demonstrate that the elimination of reason and revelation from world order
leaves it with nothing to stand on but whatever it defines as "peace, justice,
and the conservation of creation." If these are not each definite things the
mind discovers as already present in existence because of their origin in
creation and ultimately in the divine Logos, then the most logical alternative to their origin
in God is their origin in our minds, which once we eliminate reason have nothing
left to stand on.
A religion without reason
leads to the "Antichrist." A reason without standards to define when peace is
peace and justice is justice and things are things is a reason limited by
nothing but itself. It is a reason that lapses into voluntarism, into a view of
the world in which there is no order except our own and we can always change it
to mean whatever we wish it to mean. The "substitute god" is just another name
for what the Greeks, those rational men, called "chaos."
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "The Church on the Threshold of the Third
Millennium," Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 288.
 William Cardinal Levada,
"Notification on Certain Writings of Father Jon Sobrino, S. J.," L'Osservatore
Romano, March 14, 2007, 11.
 Ratzinger, ibid., 285.
All subsequent quotes are from "The Church on the Threshold of the Third
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Author page for Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing,
Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing,
and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. His most recent books are
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).
Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
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