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Peace, Justice, Ecology: The "Substitutes" For God | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | April 9, 2007 | Part 1 | Part 2
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)
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,
and news in the Church!
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