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

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"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.

Part 1 | Part 2


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