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The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity

The Idol Of Our Age: How The Religion Of Humanity Subverts Christianity

The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity. Daniel J. Mahoney. New York: Encounter Books, 2018.


Machiavelli accuses Christians of un-civic softness. His attention distracted by Heaven, the Christian neglects reality on earth. Since material reality turns out to be the only kind Machiavelli admits, head-in-the-clouds Christians bemuse themselves, sometimes to the Florentine’s amusement but more usually to his irritation. He works to replace the Prince of Peace with the Prince of War.

Insofar as he succeeded, his princelings initially availed themselves of Christianity as a civil, no longer a prophetic religion, asserting the “divine right” of princes in Europe’s absolute monarchies, the characteristic regime of the early modern, centralized state Machiavelli had conceived as the successor both to petty city-states and the spiritual empire of the Christian Church. But Christianity’s prophetic character proved persistent; the new states fell into uncompromising (because uncompromisable) religious warfare, both amongst and within themselves. Rightly alarmed by this combination of power-politics with religious fervor, Machiavelli’s philosophic progeny began to formulate regimes that might settle this “theological-political” problem: the forthrightly materialist or “secular” absolutism of Hobbes, whereby the monarch alone would determine the religion of his subjects while funneling them into the peaceful pursuits of commerce; or the republicanism of Locke and Montesquieu, whose equally commercial regimes would take strong religiosity out of politics by tolerating every sect that respected the natural and civil rights of citizens. Although the older, monarchic Christians fought back (as in Europe’s Holy Alliance), by the end of the nineteenth century Europe saw itself divided between largely secular republics in England and France and largely secular oligarchies in Germany and Austria-Hungary. Hence the Great War.

Decades before that war, Alexis de Tocqueville spotted a largely unanticipated social consequence of Machiavellian statism. To deny Heaven in the name of defending Earth, men were rejecting not only Christian doctrine but the religious orientation simply. That is, they were ignoring all that is “above” man for the sake of what is in and around him. Physically above us, even the stars are really beneath us, objects to be conquered along the rest of nature. To reject the “high” simultaneously elevates man to world rulership and democratizes the social order. True, Christianity insisted on human equality, but it was human equality under God; Tocqueville calls Christianity a precious bequest of aristocratic life because the revelation of human equality, of human “species-being” (as some of Tocqueville’s contemporaries would put it) came “from above,” from God Who walked on earth but was not of earth. Tocqueville expected the aristocracies of the old regimes to continue to decline, but with the hoped-for proviso that they would do so gracefully, guiding the newly-democratized modern societies away from Machiavellianism, away from materialism, away from the “hard” despotism of would-be Napoleons to come, but also away from the regime Tocqueville suspected more likely: the “soft” despotism of administrative states, wherein the new “aristocrats” or oligarchs would rule not by the authority of God and of eminent men but by the impersonal authority of science, aiming at the continued “conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate,” as that Machiavellian, Francis Bacon, had described the modern “project.” The Great War demonstrated the consequences of failing sufficiently to heed Tocqueville’s advice.

Daniel J. Mahoney’s book has appeared on the hundredth anniversary of that war, a brutal regime conflict fought in large measure within the confines of materialist, socially and morally democratized modernity. After a brief try at a misconceived, secularized-Christian “idealism” urged on by President Wilson, the hardest of all hard despotisms arose to challenge flaccid commercial republics, whose citizens proved at once too spiritually shell-shocked by the war and too preoccupied with the pursuit of pleasures to resist in time to prevent a still greater war. After the fortuitous (or perhaps providential) defeat of the most immediately lethal of those despotisms—a defeat occurring in large measure because that despotism attacked its greatest despotic rival, enabling the endangered republics to regather themselves in time to get in on the kill—Tocqueville’s striking prediction of socially-egalitarian, republican America facing socially-egalitarian, despotic Russia, “each with half the world in its hands,” finally came true.

As Mahoney remarks, however, just before the beginning of that Cold War, an obscure Hungarian Catholic writer named Aurel Kolnai warned against an underlying progress not of hard but of soft despotism, “not[ing] the tendency of people in a democratic age to take their bearings from “man as such,’ who, in this view, is seen as the ‘measure of everything.’” A true remnant, in the Biblical sense, of the Holy Roman Empire (which on occasion really did respect both holiness and Romaness) Kolnai called the ideational manifestation of this tendency “humanitarianism.” Whereas Machiavelli had insisted on what he called the effectual truth of materialism—effectual because only a material hand grasping a material object really knows what is real, avoiding the illusions of the eye (idealizing philosophy) and of the ear (otherworldly religion)—the new Machiavels of soft despotism lauded what Mahoney, following Kolnai, characterizes as the supposed “effectual truth of Christianity,” a pseudo-religious deformation of Christianity, now conceived as a religion of the hand, albeit a helping hand, outstretched to salve the pains that flesh is heir to, quite without need of “transcendental reference points,” preeminently the God of the Bible.

Such egalitarianism sacrifices not only spiritual “height” but also spiritual and psychological depth, being unable “to come to terms with the drama of good and evil in the human soul.” “Evil” would now derive not from human beings, much less from a ruined angel, but from “society,” the evils of which resulted from its incomplete egalitarianism. The cure for the evils of democracy, as John Dewey intoned, was more democracy; the cure of the remaining evils of democratic man was more social equality, animated by a new form of caritas, compassion or fellow-feeling–sentiment having replaced the rigors of Christian love of God and of neighbor, a love commanded from “on high,” and therefore suspect. Mahoney sees the resulting paradoxes: “We moderns” cringe at capital punishment for the guilty (victims, as we suppose, of social evils) but “welcome abortion and euthanasia and make them mandatory parts of a regime of human rights”; rejecting any “natural order of things, an objective hierarchy of moral goods, accessible to human beings through natural reason, conscience, and common sense,” our moral “relativism coexists with limitless moralism,” as (for example) when university administrators, teachers, and students alike move to suppress anyone who dares to question the new regime of diversity. “A kind of juvenile existentialism, marked more by farce than angst, has become the default position of our age.” Indeed: under the regime of social egalitarianism, even readers of Nietzsche bow down, the old aristocratic passion for a global aristocracy replaced by a democratic passion for herd-animalhood managed by bureaucrats. Christianity had assured the faithful that the last shall be first. Humanitarians demand that the Last Man (pardon me, Person) shall be first, at least in name. In reality bureaucrats will rule from behind the (ecologically friendly, child-safe) curtain.

Going against this historical trend by exercising natural reason, Mahoney organizes his book as a series of logical counter-marches. In his first chapter he traces the key intellectual “cause” of humanitarianism to the Positivism of Auguste Comte, showing how Eric Voegelin and Raymond Aron identified Positivism’s spiritual and political flaws. He then offers a series of three paired chapters. In the first pair he considers diagnoses of Positivist ideology by two of Comte’s contemporaries, each living in one of Tocqueville’s rival nations: the American Catholic Orestes Brownson and the Russian Orthodox writer Vladimir Soloviev. The central pair describes the ethos or character of frankly secular humanitarianism before turning to the pseudo-religious humanitarianism of Tolstoy, as portrayed and (it must be said) intellectually eviscerated by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Arriving at our own time, Mahoney finally pairs Pope Francis’s “humanitarian version of Catholic social teaching” with Jürgen Habermas’s entirely secularized projection of an apolitical Europe, precursor to an apolitical world government. He concludes with a cogent argument for a return to real moral, intellectual, and spiritual standards. Throughout, he revisits and refines a set of themes contrasting Christianity, and especially Catholic Christianity, with the self-described Religion of Humanity.

In 1977, in the middle of the Cold War, the French political writer Jean-François Revel published The Totalitarian Temptation, a book aimed at strengthening the spirit of humanitarian liberals in their generations-long struggle against hard despotism. In labeling today’s most powerful “subversion of Christianity” “the humanitarian temptation,” Mahoney shifts his readers’ attention to the other and more insidious despotism Tocqueville warned against. “Unbeknownst to ourselves, we are adherents of nineteenth-century French philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte’s ‘religion of humanity,’” a form of “democratic pantheism” which refuses to distinguish between God and man, peoples and nations, in principle. All-inclusive, indeed indiscriminate in one sense, this religion turns persecutorial whenever it finds those who “do not see humanity as an immediate reality”—that is, those who refuse to have faith in the immediacy of the abstract. For no one really experiences “humanity”; we can and should think it, recognize it in one another, but we live in the only way we can live—in families, neighborhoods, countries, with particular persons in particular places.

Comte’s well-known “aggressively anti-theological and anti-metaphysical” “positivism” forms the other pole of his thought. Mahoney sees Eric Voegelin as the thinker who “noted the incipient totalitarianism lurking behind Comte’s rendering of the great human questions as futile and useless”; Comte “imposes on reason a crippling self-limitation that prevents it from engaging in properly philosophical reflections.” For him reason is strictly and exclusively instrumental; usually confined to matters of utility, at its most ambitious it can only conceive of human purposes as immanent, never issuing from any transcendent reality. In Voegelin’s famous phrase, Comte numbers among those who “immanentize the eschaton,” simultaneously divinizing man and lowering reason, hitherto known as the distinctively human characteristic, to a servant of human sentiments. This makes the human soul blind both to “transcendental reality” and to its own “depths,” a condition that enables Comte to affirm “a naïve faith that history will simply leave evil behind in the new, positive age.”

Comte’s pseudo-religion has its comical side, a decidedly French wackiness which led him to write a book of catechism for his new-age religion and even an unintendedly silly calendar of “great men,” a device modeled on the saints’ calendar of the Catholic Church. Although the new calendar included religious founders, it excluded Jesus, “the God-Man whose very existence refutes the illusions of pantheism and its perverse spiritualization of the immanent.” Mahoney ventures to suggest that Comte himself “takes the place of Christ” in this scheme as the savior of mankind. No one today takes this pseudo-religious apparatus seriously, but we have assimilated the substance of his ideology.

If Voegelin is the best critic of the un-spiritual spiritualism of Comte, the supremely sober French political commentator Raymond Aron stands as the one who challenged his political folly. Aron sees that Comte’s complacent historicism (a form of democratized Hegelianism) flows from his “desire to abolish the political realm of human existence in its entirety.” Once realized, the positivist utopia will end war and remove the need for civic liberty, self-government. Mahoney insightfully remarks that Comte’s apolitical and positivistic ‘science of administration’ complements his pantheism. Pantheism ‘synthesizes’ (or, to put it less sympathetically, mushes together) the divine and the human; borderless pacifism under a professedly benevolent administrative world-state synthesizes all nations. Love as compassion, love of “man,” replaces the agapic love seen in the Bible, whether it is man’s love of God, God’s love of man, or man’s love of neighbor. “One can love humanity through a vague and undemanding sentimentality. Loving real human beings is another matter altogether,” involving “the exercise of the cardinal and theological virtues, which have little or no place in the new humanitarian dispensation” precisely because virtue means strength, whether it be the strength of the cardinal virtues of courage, moderation, prudence, and justice, seen in “a Churchill or de Gaulle,” or the strength of the Spirit-given theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity seen in Mother Teresa or Francis of Assisi. “In the modern world, heroes and saints stand or fall together.”

“One cannot help but ask if Christianity is inherently vulnerable to humanitarian appropriation, as Nietzsche suggested with hostile intent.” Mahoney’s answer seems to be “Yes, if misconceived; no, if rightly understood.” The Jewish and Christian acknowledgment of the Creator-God, Holy or separate from His creation, only becomes vulnerable to humanitarian appropriation if the God-breathed living soul of man forgets or refuses to recognize the God who gave him life, as revealed in the God-breathed Scripture, itself an expression of the Logos that endowed man with logos. With such forgetfulness or refusal, human beings, severed from their transcendent Creator, begin to take themselves as beings fit for worship, as the very best features of the “being” visible on their now – “horizontal” or democratized horizon.

Orestes Brownson and Vladimir Soloviev were among the first to recognize the malign attraction of humanitarianism. Brownson came to this recognition the hard way, imbibing the effervescent waters of the Religion of Humanity for some two decades before finally choking on them. “He wandered from Congregationalism to Presbyterianism to Universalism, to Unitarianism and Saint-Simonianism—with a famous overlapping five-year stint in Transcendentalism” (itself being pantheistic, therefore anything but genuinely transcendental). Almost invariably, then, throughout this restless quest he remained steadfast in his humanitarianism, putting his faith in the imagined “illimitable progress” of man in history, seeking (in his own words) to “democratize religion and philosophy.” More, he claimed that the religion of humanity formed the buried core, “the hidden truth of Christianity.” For the young Brownson, the esoteric reading of the Bible, seen in Origen, met the historicist immanentism of Hegel, while democratizing both in accordance to the character of American society.

When the presidential election of 1840 saw the appropriation of his own Hegelian and proto-Marxian notion of class struggle by the decidedly capitalist Whig Party in its successful campaign against his preferred Democrats, Brownson paused to reconsider politics. Even as James Madison had come to find in Aristotle a guide helpful in modern politics after the Adams-Hamilton wing of Federalists rose to ascendency in the second Washington Administration, so Brownson also turned to the Politics. “For the first time, [he] learned a more serious and sober way of reflecting on the common good and the limits of mass democracy,” thinking about politics “in the light of philosophy and experience and not utopian aspirations.” Aristotle provided an effective antidote to the problem troubling Brownson: Americans’ growing inclination to grant themselves “popular sovereignty” unfettered by the rule of either natural or constitutional law. Aristotle recommends respect for natural right reinforced by the natural virtues, all reinforced with balanced political institutions in which neither the few who are rich nor the many who are poor can achieve dominance. Brownson responded with his 1844 essay titled “Demagoguism,” in which he distinguishes democracy from republicanism in an eminently Madisonian way. Around the same time, he converted to Catholicism, his final spiritual and intellectual resting-place—Catholicism, for centuries animated by the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, the grand combiner of Christianity with Aristotelianism. Like the Declaration of Independence, Thomism provides fundamental and unchanging principles of right, but unlike the United States Constitution, ultimately subservient to the sovereignty of the people, the “constitution” of the Catholic Church makes it “free from popular control.” The Church provides a lasting and non-democratic institutional framework for the defense of the permanent principles of natural right; after all, one wants first principles to rule us like hereditary aristocrats. At the same time, at least under its then-dominant Thomist dispensation, the Church did not need to dogmatize about political regimes any more than Aristotle had done. As a good Catholic, Brownson could remain a good American, a republican, no partisan of Europe’s monarchy-loving Holy Alliance.

Brownson’s “Catholic liberalism” could oppose both the “revolutionary spirit” implied in the vision of “illimitable progress” propounded by the Religion of Humanity and the European call for absolute monarchies at the head of centralized modern states. This “Christian republicanism” stands on the principle of consent required equally by the Gospels and by the American Founders: “The human will must freely subordinate itself to eternal justice and enduring truth.” At the same time, Brownson suspected that the Lockean idea of the social contract as the founding act of civil society (as distinguished from political constitution-making) leaned too heavily on human voluntarism and too little on God. Brownson could also reject the Lockean dimension of the Founders’ political thought insofar as it rested on the idea of human “self-ownership.” On the contrary, God owns us God rules us reasonably, not arbitrarily as “in the manner of Islam or extreme versions of Calvinism.” That is, for Christians and most certainly for Catholic Christians, “God is not a despot.” “Brownson is both a theist and a defender of natural right—and for him these two affirmations go hand in hand.” That is, he rejected willfulness in both God and man, insisting, with Thomas, that a reasonable God created a man who was capable of reasoning and of obeying reason, if man reinforced his God-given rationality with the guiding institutions of a strong and principled Church and a well-designed republican constitution. Accordingly, as the regime-centered debates of the next three decades unfolded, Brownson stood squarely for the Union and against slavery.

Brownson’s younger contemporary, the philosopher and theologian Vladimir Soloviev, lived in Tocqueville’s “other” sample of democratic society, Russia—under a regime that was anything but republican. Mahoney therefore turns to him not for political guidance but for his moral and spiritual critique of positivist pseudo-religion. If Catholic theology has had an Aristotelian dimension, Orthodox theology supplements Biblical teachings with Neoplatonism, valorizing Sophia or “Lady Wisdom” rather as Catholics valorize the Mother of God. Unlike his friend Fyodor Dostoevsky, Soloviev did not, however, view the Catholic Church and its teachings with asperity. He favored the very Aristotelian, and not very Neoplatonic, emphasis on prudence or practical wisdom as indispensable ballast to his neo-Platonic and Christian mysticism. While he “believed that humankind was capable of attaining deification, a union with the Creator God through the mediation of Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit,” he rejected historicist immanentism, along with its “utopian political teaching,” which he “woefully understated the power of evil on the human, political, and eschatological levels.” Such immanentism enables evil to “ensconce itself in the very substance of the good, leading to profound spiritual, theological, moral and political corruption, through a terrible, demonic or satanic falsification of the good.” Anticipating the critique of Solzhenitsyn, Soloviev faulted Tolstoy as a latter-day proponent of the Marcionite heresy, which rejects the down-to-earth but divinely sanctioned Jewish law, while at the same time denying the divinity of Christ—the only thing that gives Marcionism its superficial plausibility. “In Tolstoy’s hands, Christianity necessary becomes a soft religion, an excessively “spiritualized” religion that is too confident in the inexorable victory of good over evil.”

Because “for Soloviev, evil is a deadly threat to the integrity of creation and of every human soul,” Tolstoy’s pacifism cannot be Christian. While rejecting chauvinism and “debased” or godless nationalism, while pressing for greater unity among the Christian nations and indeed for a healing of the Great Schism, Soloviev never imagined that the new heaven and new earth promised in the Gospels could exist without Jesus’ return and governance as the only true divine-right monarch. In the meantime, murder is wrong but killing in a just war is not murder. He “sees no ultimate contradiction between Christian piety and the requirements of true political prudence informed by the spirit of the Gospels”; we should love our enemies, but that requires us to recognize that we do in fact have enemies. Jesus commends, indeed commands, His disciples to supplement the innocence of doves with the prudence of serpents, or, as Soloviev paraphrases it, “Be children at heart, but not in mind,” cultivating (in Mahoney’s words) “humility before Our Father and friend, the Creator God, but also cultivat[ing] a certain toughness of mind and soul before the world, an ability to think like adults, to exercise the full arts of human intelligence.”  With Brownson, Soloviev considers “True Christianity” an affirmation of “the truth of pagan nature, the Jewish Covenant, and political reason and political civilization,” allied “in the struggle against ideology or the demonic falsification of the good.”

Mahoney’s second pair of chapters examines the kind of ethos or character produced by humanitarian ideology. In countries where republicanism had established itself, humanitarianism has produced persons animated by an odd combination of relativism and moralism, “each equally insistent.” In countries where republicanism had been weakly established, or never established, humanitarianism produced tyrants animated by ideologies “that abhorred soft humanitarianism and aimed to build “the kingdom of heaven on earth.’” Solzhenitsyn came to see that “the more moderate versions of humanitarianism and anthropocentricity are always vulnerable to appropriation by more radical and consistent versions of atheism, materialism, and humanitarianism.” As Aurel Kolnai diagnosed the matter, although the humanitarian might still “discern the ‘moral sense’ as a guide to understanding the nature and needs of human beings,” his ideology “ultimately impairs moral cognition, since a horizon that deifies undifferentiated “‘human needs’ has a hard time acknowledging the ‘unpleasant,’ the truly morally demanding dimensions of the moral life.” When the ethos of ‘soft’ humanitarianism confronts the ethos of “hard” humanitarians, the “soft” humanitarian hesitates, falters, and very often gives in. Indeed, his weakness renders him incapable of dealing with routine criminality, causing him to hesitate to punish the unjust, even as it provides “fevered support for abortion and euthanasia,” that is, for the elimination of those too weak to defend themselves. Those too weak to defend the weaker, and too weak to defend themselves, will effectively commit suicide when confronted with the stronger, especially if the stronger purport to occupy the same moral high ground. This soft-humanitarian ethos infects Christians, too, their religion “relentlessly ‘democratized,’” leaving unable “to appreciate the myriad differences between itself and the humanitarian attitude and ethos.” Kolnai in effect responds to Nietzsche’s attack on Christianity—that it is feeble, anti-life, hypocritical—by saying that these Last-Man vices emerge not from Christianity but from its humanitarian deformation. In doing so, Kolnai answers not only Nietzsche, but Machiavelli, behind Nietzsche.

Mahoney’s discussion of Solzhenitsyn’s late masterpiece, The Red Wheel, follows from his critique of the humanitarian ethos because the novel addresses the soft humanitarianism of Tolstoy, even as the Gulag Archipelago, unforgettably portrayed the hard despotism of Stalin. And the one did indeed “enable” (as we now say) the other. Given his rationalist and humanist misrepresentation of the Christian ethos and way of life, Tolstoy “forgets that every human being and citizen has moral and political responsibilities.” He cares about personal liberation and interpersonal love but has only “disdain for Russia.” His pacifism betrays a larger civic “passive-ism.” Astonishingly, in the pre-revolutionary Russia fighting in the Great War, even some military officers were similarly fatalistic. Their “fatal ineffectiveness” registered not Orthodox Christianity but its dilution; like Nietzsche. In Tolstoy, a “hyper-literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount” and its command to resist not evil was irresponsible folly; in military officers it was very nearly a crime. Unjust trials, murder for gain, torture, treachery, and the mistreatment of widows or orphans all outrank war in evil, and all become ruling techniques under the regime of hard despotism military officers should resist, not defend.

“Solzhenitsyn uses all the powers of literary art [he writes like Tolstoy against Tolstoy] to show a civil society blindly celebrating the collapse of civilized order (and this during war) and oblivious to the dangers that accompany the radical revolutionary transformation of a political order still capable of reform.” But “the playful carnival quickly turns violent,” and the “hard” humanitarians commanded by V. I. Lenin were better organized to employ violence than the disoriented civil and military authorities of the hapless Czar. The last hope of Russia died in 1911, with the assassination of Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, who pursued an (Aristotelian) middle way, “taking on the armed revolutionary left, solidifying a constitutional order in Russia, and guaranteeing hardworking peasants the right to own their own land by leaving the centuries-old reparational commune, where land was held and worked in common.”  Stolypin “was a world-class statesman who grasped the burden, grief, and joy of responsibility, words that could have also been uttered by other great statesmen such as Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle.” (As in fact they were, by de Gaulle, who held up as the leader’s reward “the harsh joy of being responsible.”) “Solzhenitsyn’s tough-minded Christianity,” the Christian realism of real Christianity, provides the best answer to Machiavelli’s anti-Christian “hard” humanitarianism and Tolstoy’s anti-Christian “soft” humanitarianism alike.

As a firm Catholic realist, Mahoney must exercise his own courage, moderation, prudence, and justice in speaking truth to two of the regnant moral authorities of his own time, Pope Francis I and the influential secular humanist scholar, Jürgen Habermas, doyen of the academic establishments in Europe and North America. In so doing, and particularly in his chapter on the pope, he even illustrates what might be described as statesmanlike scholarship.

“We owe the pope both respect and the full exercise of the arts of intelligence.” His merits as a Christian monarch of things spiritual are conspicuous. He “reminds us that technological progress is not coextensive with moral progress,” recalling “the central role that technology played in the murderous rampages of Communism and Nazism.” Might isn’t right, whatever historicist immanentism might say. Francis resolutely defends nature against environmental destruction (to the extent of reprising to Francis of Assisi’s at times cloying personalization of natural objects), even if he ignores the link between modern tyranny and pollution of God’s creation. He is a fine “poet and theologian of charity.” He emphasizes “the joy that accompanies the proclamation of—and fidelity to—the Gospel.” He adjures Christians to fight for social justice and stands up for human dignity, which he links “to an understanding of an enduring human nature that is informed by the “innate” human capacity “to distinguish good from evil.” In this he remains sensitive to the call of Christian personalism. He urged American Congressmen to refuse enslavement “to economy and finance,” to selfish interests instead of the general good. He defends the family. His kind heart offers mercy to sinners.

While acknowledging the pope’s moral and theological virtues, Mahoney finds them Christianly deficient in many respects. Francis’s love of nature contradicts his love of the poor inasmuch as “a society that aims to be static, that simply rejects human mastery over nature, that attempts to preserve pristine nature as it is, all in the name of not “sinning” against creation, cannot meet the goal of providing “sustained and integral development” for the poor, a goal that is so central to Francis’s pontificate”; one might say he confuses mastery over nature, the Machiavellian and Baconian imperative, with rule over nature, the authority God gives to Adam. Further, God commands care first of all for the poor in spirit, secondarily for the poor in pocket. As Aristotle knows, “the poor are not always victims” but can and have exercised tyrannical power over the rich and middle classes, on some of the occasions in which they have seized power. “The poor need political liberty too, and the opportunities that come with private property and lawfully regulated markets,” none of which Francis adequately defends. No Leninist, Francis nonetheless exhibits a certain inclination to the Peronism of his native Argentina, and his expression of “sentiments of particular respect” (as he put it) for Fidel Castro mark him as not so much a dove as a gull.

Francis never associates his critique of the excesses of modern science with the dangers of the centralized administrative state, instead showing “remarkable faith in the capacity of an elite of international technocrats to govern the world.” How many Christians receive invitations to Davos? Conversely, he shows no appreciation of statesmanship, including the line of Christian statesmen that runs from Thomas More to Konrad Adenauer. He praises Francis of Assisi and Teresa of Calcutta, “but they are not remotely statesmen and have little to say about the properly civic dimensions of the common good in a sinful and fallen world.” In appealing to change-the-world utopianism, Francis veers dangerously near the humanitarian temptation, inadvertently undercutting the saints he admires and the statesmen he ignores.

In Europe, site of “the providential encounter of the Church with Greek philosophy and Roman culture,” Francis has offered an indispensable reminder of the human need for the transcendent, as reflected in the Christian witness. But, consistent with his neglect of statesmanship, he “never speaks of the political form of the nation,” “the concretized political form that is the home of the very traditions that he rightly says must be safeguarded today.” Evidently preferring the technocratic internationalism of Jean Monnet to the Catholic patriotism of Charles de Gaulle (who famously said to a previous pope, “And now, Holy Father, let us speak of France”), he fails to recognize the threat of radical Islam and even to some extent of Islam itself to that technocratic internationalism, to say nothing of political liberty. In America, he said nothing about the “grave threat to American and democratic liberty and to the integrity of souls in the contemporary world” posed by “a debilitating moral relativism that denies evil and sin and collaborates with political correctness in all its forms.”

It is “perhaps the gravest failing of his pontificate, one that bodes ill for the Church and its ability to moderate democratic modernity’s drift to softness and relativism,” that Francis fails to link his tender-hearted mercy with the sterner prior requirement of repentance. Whether considering homosexual relations or capital crimes, Francis “tends to conflate divine mercy and democratic compassion.” This will not do.

Mahoney quite rightly gives shorter shrift to Habermas, the turgidity of whose prose alone should disqualify him from long study by readers with taste. “His vision of a transnational or supranational Europe is chiefly informed by a desire to preserve the welfare state in its present form (with its ever-expanding “social rights”) against a capitalism that he deplores.” He never quite sees that capitalism itself is if anything even more internationalist than European technocracy, and easily capable of co-opting bureaucratic structures for its own purposes, as it has done everywhere “hard” despotism hasn’t murdered the capitalists. (Who sometimes eventually return as managers of “state-owned enterprises” in such oligarchies as China and Russia.) Habermas prefers to envision a “post-national Europe” as the more or less inevitable culmination of “world history.” “He provides no real evidence for this claim,” Mahoney remarks, drily. Champion of human rights, he does not count political liberty among them. “Rights may constrain politics,” Mahoney writes, “but they cannot be the substance of politics, which always turns on the question of what kind of people we wish to be.” While “no doubt there are worse things than Kant-inspired cosmopolitanism,” à la Habermas, “in the post-national Europe and post-national world he envisions, both politics and the higher manifestations of the soul would atrophy,” a “paradox that ought to give one pause.”

Mahoney concludes his book with a brief, valuable chapter on the connection of the preeminent statesman’s virtue, prudence, to the Biblical concept of conscience, the “listening heart” Solomon asks God to grant him. Positivism and the Religion of Man effectively deny the existence of conscience, so understood. Following Saint-Simon and Comte, the renowned German sociologist Max Weber separates “facts”—proper objects of rational, scientific discovery and analysis—from “values”—reified sentiments and conventions. Many have interpreted this schism as a crisis of faith, but Mahoney regards it as a crisis of reason. In this he follows Pope Francis’s immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI, who “laments the “dehellenization” of Christianity—its reduction to a humanitarian religion closed off to a rational articulation of nature and reason.”

The opening of the Christian soul to “Athens” or philosophy, Benedict maintains, originated before Christianity itself in the proverbial wisdom of Solomon. The “listening heart,” conscience, “is a cognitive and moral faculty—it is not a mere source of feelings and emotions,” nor is it simply a “discerning mind,” as some modern Bible translations have it. The grand old King James Version translates as “heart” just this holistic capacity for thinking and inner prompting to action in accordance with that thinking. The “listening” heart hears the commands of “the objective moral order that transcends mere subjectivity.” Moral reasoning does not merely express; it perceives.

This means that humanitarians “modern” and “postmodern” alike get modern tyranny or “totalitarianism” exactly wrong. Modern tyranny doesn’t result from some oppressively comprehensive rational system—many philosophers and some religions have offered that—but from “the destruction of the listening heart, the civilizing traditions and memories to which it appealed, and the denial of the availability of right and wrong to objective reason.” Conscience, in John the Apostle’s words, “bears witness” to the laws God has written on the human heart, those marks of God’s Image we know when we speak of self-knowledge. No impersonal set of laws, however “scientific” we might think they are, can replace those laws, as perceived by conscience. Man, Benedict affirms, “is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself.” Notice that this remains true, whether or not the listening heart can hear the voice of the Holy Spirit who might or might not dwell in a given human soul. It leaves room for human consent, and for the conversion that brings salvation, without releasing human beings who have not experienced the Holy Spirit from the moral obligations of family care, friendship, and citizenship.  It leaves room for moral freedom, political and religious liberty.


Will MorriseyWill Morrisey

Will Morrisey

Will Morrisey is Professor Emeritus of Politics at Hillsdale College. He is editor and publisher of Will Morrisey Reviews and has served as an assistant editor of Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy since 1979. His most recent book is Churchill and DeGaulle: The Geopolitics of Liberty (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

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