The Catholic Thing
The Alternative to God Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 05 February 2013

The bookshelf in the home I was visiting contained a Doubleday Image edition of Fulton Sheen’s The Power of Love. The title sounded familiar. Then I realized that Sheen’s title was the opposite of the Machiavellian premise: “The Love of Power.” The proper relationship between love and power stands at the heart of civilizational order.

Neither one will long exist without the other. Power without love is tyrannical. Love without power or strength is wimpish and ineffectual. The “power of love” manifests itself most in the Cross, at that moment when civil power is absolute, untouched by its relation to the Godhead.

The following sentence of this 1968 book struck me: “Socialism is the love of neighbor without the love of God; it is the organization of society on a technical, scientific basis, rather than on charity. Love is not love unless it is directed to a person.” Benedict said pretty much the same thing in Deus Caritas Est.

That the greatest enemy of the First Great Commandment is the Second Great Commandment seems paradoxical. Yet this divergence lies at the bottom of most civil controversy. The passionate opposition to God and His ways is almost always couched in the language of “love of neighbor,” particularly of “helping” the neighbor.

The love of neighbor, often framed in terms of justice or social justice, sets itself against a love of God. The love of neighbor is independent of the commandments and ultimately of reason itself insofar as both originate in God.

Likewise, “the love of neighbor,” as Sheen said, is framed in terms of science and technology. We have urgent schemes to control population, the environment, health, war, death, well-being, and education. This opposition between God and science is not exactly human reason vs. divine reason. Rather it is the functional reason that can “get things done” without concerning itself overly much with whether they ought to be done.

The central issue concerns the vast bureaucracy of “taking care” that now legitimizes governments. It gives glory to those who control their workings. The notion that “that government governs best governs least” is replaced. For the good of all, government ought to “take care” of everyone, particularly the poor.

    The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing by Francis Barlow, 1687

What is increasingly unique and disturbing in our times is the mostly successful effort to control the rhetoric of the public order. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are fast becoming enemies of the public order. What counts is not how one is but how one is allowed to say what he is.

This new “spiritual” power of the state does not want criticism of its plans for the good of the neighbor. It wants conformity and agreement. Divisiveness is caused by criticism of or disagreement with the accepted ways of life and principles of distribution now in place in the public order.

We live in a world of primarily distributive justice, not in a world of innovation and growth. This present world is mainly one in which envy is a primary motive of political action. Equality is its criterion. That such a view is based on bad economics is hardly relevant in light of the mission to “help” everyone.

If we really wanted to help everyone, no doubt, we would have a growth economics and theology. The world is made for man, not for future generations who become in effect limits to growth and hence the possibility of people caring for themselves.

What has always struck me, however, about this mentality is the “location” of God in it. Through a complex interrelationship of envy and honor politics, the politician and the elites that support him declare themselves free to “help the poor” or “care for everyone” without the “restrictions,” as they are called, of the nature and purpose of what man is.

It is not possible to do evil without doing some good. The love of neighbor is a good. This is why the modern state wraps itself around the idea of “caring” for everyone. A certain exhilaration inheres in the effort to make everyone dependent on one’s program to benefit everyone for his own good. Sheen remarked that love has to be of the person, not of a system. But by defining the evils and the way we are allowed to speak of them, the state that is not a god acquires the status of substitute divinity.

The subjects of this state generally do not object. They want to be “taken care” of, to have “rights” to everything, to praise those who see no opposition between what God has established and what the existing state decrees. In such a state, no real worship of God exists, only “care” for the neighbor, as it is decreed and accepted with grateful heart by citizens who, like their leaders, have no god but Caesar. 

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic and The Modern Age.
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Comments (13)Add Comment
written by Achilles, February 05, 2013
What an excellent essay! I got a write up last week becuase someone asked me about homosexuals and I answered with the Orthodox Catholic position. It hurt their feelings becuase they have an uncle who is gay and awesome and they told my bosses. My bosses said they agreet with me, but had to write it up and they forbade me from expressing my opinion in the future. What a day to be an American.
Fr. Schall, thank you!
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, February 05, 2013
It was Sir Winston Churchill who observed that "Socialism is the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance and the gospel of envy."
written by Louise, February 05, 2013
Exactly Father. When you lose God as the frame of reference you no longer even know what is good for yourself or your neighbor, since we are made in God's image. Hence the "care" we give our neighbor starts to descend into evil. Witness the mandate which thinks giving out contraceptives, abortion etc is being good to our neighbor.
written by diaperman, February 05, 2013
With all due respect you misunderstand Benedict by imputing to him your hostility to the state.

Benedict said pretty recently in fact that "In many respects, democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine and has in any case made a remarkable contribution to the formation of a social consciousness."

Yes, this is qualified as always by a perennial concern that the state not crowd out charity, not sap private initiative, not replace family and community. But the Church has never been hostile per se to the idea of redistributing money and resources to those in need. Indeed, Catholic social teaching requires (among other things) an adequate distribution of property.

Somehow, Father Schall, I get a different sense of all this reading your articles than I do from studying actual documents of Catholic social teaching.

And several of your remarks are at odds with reality in its specifics. To take two examples, two of America's largest programs Social Security and Medicare are gargantuan in terms of dollar size...but they are not administered by a "vast bureaucracy" as you seem to suppose.

Are these programs of ensuring adequate living standards for the elderly truly at odds with "what man is?"

Are they inconsistent with a "growth economics and theology" (whatever that is)?

One could argue in fact that the presence of a social safety net provides the surer platform from which to take entrepeneurial risks since one won't be left utterly destitute in old age.

At any rate, your tendency to couch arguments in abstractions and generalities leaves me cold.
written by athanasius, February 06, 2013
Excellent article. I agree with it 100%.

I know many good people, some Catholic, who do want to "take care of" others. These people do good works, but they are missing part of the picture. Some do not attend mass because they miss the link between following God and loving neighbor. Some actually treat God as if He were a means to an end, that end being developing programs to "take care of" others. This apparent good oftens descends to totalitarianism, as the view of the strong becomes the only accepted view, and they use their strength to use the power of the state for their own purposes. And these purposes ignore the truth of the human person.

Many "progressives" are really control freaks who just want to tell others what to do, and don't like it when the Church tries to tell God's truth. I think the First Letter of John addresses this well. John clearly puts the love of God first, because God's love for us precedes all. You don't love God so you can love your neighbor. You love your neighbor as a means to loving God, which is the final end for all of us.

P.S. To diaperman: Social Secutiry and Medicare can be good programs, but the benefit structure must bear a relationship to the funding mechanism. That is not the case today. Reform is needed to accomplish this.
written by Micha Elyi, February 06, 2013
My bosses said they agreed with me, but had to write it up and they forbade me from expressing my opinion in the future.

The someone who solicited your opinion then bawled to the boss because she didn't like your opinion should have been doubly written up. Once for engaging in thoughtcrime herself by even bringing up the verboten subject and a second time for luring a coworker into thoughtcrime.
written by Graham Combs, February 06, 2013
This recalls an observation of Peter Hitchens (the devout Anglican brother of the late professional atheist Christopher) about his years reporting from Moscow. He said the Musovites were as generous and congenial in private as they were rude, grasping, and self-centered in public -- made selfish by a state that turned them into daylight materialistic monsters by "taking care of them" -- which it ultimately did badly, unless you wanted an abortion (see Jonathan Last's new book, WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN NO ONE'S EXPECTING).

As for the Venerable Archbishop Sheen -- could there have been a better first American Holy Father? I suspect he anticipated the current insightful occupant of the Chair of St. Peter in many things.
written by Achilles, February 06, 2013
Diaperman, your extraction of our Holy Father's comments from its true context leaves me finding the tenor and tone of your arguements in tune with the National Catholic Reporter. Please, would you have anyone who did not know better believing that you are more in tune with the mind of the Pope than is Fr. Schall?
written by Louise, February 06, 2013
Diaperman, could you give the citation for the quote? I would like to read it in context as mentioned by Achilles.
written by Achilles, February 07, 2013
Micha Elyi, I agree with you, but that is not the way it works in the world, plus they think I am a white male.

Louise, with a razor job like that I would expect that even the daiperman himself is a bit chagrined. Somehow modernists know in the back of their minds that Ockham’s method and its evolution into the hydra of the modern university is a subversion of reality, but the point is to compel others, not to convince them. I don’t know the Holy Father as well as I would like, but from the little I do know I firmly believe he would not espouse any part of the social utopia schemes that are the horrid progeny of marx, the French revolution and all the modern philosophies. It is certainly curious that someone would say otherwise here and in response to the good Fr. Schall.
written by Gail Finke, February 07, 2013
Schall hits the nail on the head again! The problem is not so much what socialism tries to do, at least in theory. The problem is that it is an iron mandate for all without any regard for individuals, and that this often takes the place of caring about others at all. Charity must be balanced with good government, but the belief that a perfect system can be created that gives everything to everyone perfectly is simply false. It is never going to happen. And it can become a substitute for God and everything else -- a totalitarian quest to be the ones who know what's best for everyone else (you sure wouldn't want to be "everyone else).
written by Chris in Maryland, February 09, 2013
Contra continuity with Pope B and Fr.'s a quote (lifted from another context) from Pope Benedict XVI:

"God is not a bureaucrat."

Source: "Seek That Which Is Above," Ignatius Press, 1986 and 2007, p. 85.
written by Stephen J. Haessler, February 19, 2013
Thank you and God bless you, Fr. Schall! Again, the clarity and courage of your writing inspires me to think. May I use this piece with your permission in a online pilot project I'm running through the Jesuit Virtual Learning Academy entitled: A Catholic Perspective on Economic Freedom? We have 35 students and their teachers from Jesuit high schools in five countries involved now, including from Venezuela and Zimbabwe. You piece here reflects I believe what Pope Benedict XVI writes about in Caritas in Veritate regard authentic integral human development. It is anchored in persons, not party or program or even paradigm. All the best,
Steve Haessler

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