The Alternative to God


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. (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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