Peace, Justice, Ecology: The "Substitutes" For God | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | April 9, 2007 | 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 [1]

"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 [2]


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 of Antichrist.


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 worries.

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 for us.

All modern 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." [3] 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 coherence.

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 worldly utopias.


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 argument goes,
that 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 "kingdom."

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 prophetic passage:
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."


[1] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "The Church on the Threshold of the Third Millennium," Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 288.

[2] William Cardinal Levada, "Notification on Certain Writings of Father Jon Sobrino, S. J.," L'Osservatore Romano, March 14, 2007, 11.

[3] Ratzinger, ibid., 285. All subsequent quotes are from "The Church on the Threshold of the Third Millennium," 284-298.

Related Links/Articles:

Pope Benedict XVI On Natural Law | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Two (And Only Two) Cities | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
"A Requirement of Intellectual Honesty": On Benedict and the German Bishops | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Intellectual Charity: On Benedict XVI and the Canadian Bishops | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
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• Are Truth, Faith, and Tolerance Compatible? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
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The Regensburg Lecture: Thinking Rightly About God and Man | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• Relativism 101: A Brief, Objective Guide | Carl E. Olson
The Role of the Laity: An Examination of Vatican II and Christifideles Laici | Carl E. Olson
On Reading the Pope | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Author page for Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

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 website.

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