Lent and the Religion of Humanity

A friend remarked recently that the effective religion of many clerics and much of our society is “the religion of humanity.” This term comes from Auguste Comte. God is made over into a humanism, which lurks behind most concepts of “social justice” and “human rights.” Both euthanasia and homosexuality, another friend remarked, promote themselves as human “dignity.”

Etienne Gilson, in the Unity of Philosophical Experience, wrote: “Instead of being the central principle of his subjective synthesis, humanity became for Comte an object of worship, the positive God, the Great Being.” The same phrase appears in Daniel Mahoney’s Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order: “True conservatism is obliged to be suspicious of ‘the religion of humanity’ in all its forms.” A humanity that worships itself is a humanity that can do with itself what it will. It is a humanity that has no limit for science and no definition of what man is.

Christians are open to the transcendent both in their origins and in their destiny. As such, it is for many almost impossible to understand its essential doctrinal and moral positions. The way we live, I suspect, is the reason for this problem. We live as we want to be, not as we ought to be. The way we live, call it our culture, contains many institutions, ideas, practices, and attitudes that, on examination, are not compatible with the faith as it understands itself.

Thus, individual conversion, with rejection of the incompatible, is required. This individual rejection in turn means that we must be willing to change our ways. We see that how we have been living and explaining ourselves is in fact incompatible with what the faith and, indeed, what reason teach.

For many observers, the major event of our time is not Christians evangelizing the world, but the opposite. Christianity becomes indistinguishable from modern culture. Few can give a point-by -point explanation of what the faith holds about itself. Nothing is more confusing to Catholics in particular than explanations by other Catholics, especially clerics and academics, that in fact are not what the Church explicitly teaches.

        Christ in the Wilderness by Moretto da Brescia, c. 1520

John Paul II said that social sin was itself a manifestation of personal sin, not vice versa. The Gospel begins with the word “repent.” This repentance must be based on a clear understanding that some deeds and thoughts need repentance. Nothing is more common today in any group, school, or family, than to find individuals with complicated, disordered lives, mostly, alas, chosen by themselves. Finding a way out seems impossible.

A web of evil seems to lock us into a despair about how to live a proper life, even when we finally acknowledge our own disorders. If, however, we accept the “religion of humanity,” we do not need to find a way out. We are doing what human beings “do.” This is humanity and its religion.

The public disorders we see – and our approval of them in one form or another in courts, legislatures, or media – reflect an unwillingness to question the theories behind our actions. Generally speaking, intellectual disorders, that is, wrong or bad ideas, do not reflect a lack of intelligence. Rather, they are efforts to justify our actions. We rationalize the habits of sin or disorder that we know require a different way of life.

We have been inundated with grandiose schemes that justify our disorders. We do not look at their spiritual and moral causes. As Christians, however, the first step towards sanity is to recall insistently that we are free, that we can change. But first we have accurately to name things, to admit what we have wrought, to ourselves and others. Such recognition will not initially take place in the glare of publicity but in quiet places, in hearts that realize their disorders and endeavor in grace to right them. They seek this “righting” because they are being called by God to His own good, which cannot flourish in disorder. All disorder eventually will show itself in the consequences of human choices.

We are a people that “justify” what, until recently, horrified us. It is this process of self-justification, of worship of ourselves, that needs to be stopped. We need to turn around, as Plato said. Our repentance recognizes that each of us has disorder in his soul that needs to be changed to right teaching and right action.

The “religion of humanity” that we devise for ourselves is not good enough for us. In the end, it does not even believe in us, only in our supposed “perfection.” We must be “suspicious” of this “religion of humanity.” Our happiness does not lie exclusively within us. Perhaps this is why Lent is both a season of repentance and a season to clear our minds. We cannot do one without the other.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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