Humanism – True and Untrue

Note: Today is the 100th anniversary of St. John Paul II’s birth, beyond all controversies and missteps, one of the great Catholics – and great human beings – of recent times. Among many other high points, he understood something I write about today: what a true Christian humanism, realistic and shrewd (did I mention realistic?), would have to be in our day. If you haven’t already, read his Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”) and Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), both encyclicals inspirations for the Faith & Reason Institute, the parent institution of The Catholic Thing. Despite the virus, we’re going strong. Look for our second Podcast today in the left-hand column, a conversation with FRI Senior Fellow Mary Eberstadt on her new book “Primal Screams” and related subjects. Fr. Gerald Murray and Robert Reilly are on deck for the next episodes. We’ve been encouraged, not only by the donations readers have sent, but also the kind messages of appreciation. There’s still a way to go, however. And, as always, what’s at stake is the ongoing existence of our Thing. Many of you have responded but we still need others to do their part. Click the Donate button. Keep The Catholic Thing going not only for the rest of 2020 but for many years to come. – Robert Royal


We’re all lamenting many things that we cannot do because of the virus lockdown – true human goods to be recovered as the world now carefully begins to re-open. But we should also be grateful for many things that are not happening, some inside the Vatican.

Personally, I’ve been healthier, maybe even happier these past months, not having to spend hours on planes. Particularly, not having to fly, in March, to a meeting in Assisi on the Economy of Francis and, last week, to the planned activities in Rome on a Global Education Pact for a “new humanism,” both now postponed to the Fall.

Economists close to Vatican offices are trying to introduce more proven, less Socialist-Lite principles into the preparations for the economics meeting.

The “new humanism,” however, raises more fundamental questions, not least because, as we learned to our sorrow in the 20th century, wrong notions of the human person quickly led to enslavement and death for millions.

The problem begins, as all deep problems do, with theology. The “New Humanism” the Vatican is promoting harks back to a document signed by both Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, during the 2019 papal visit to Abu Dhabi.

Controversy immediately erupted over the phrase: “The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God.” This seems pure religious indifferentism, the kind of thing popes once reflexively warned against. A Vatican spokesman and the pope later claimed that this phrase refers to God’s “permissive will” – he allows things to happen that he doesn’t will positively. The context – color, sex, and race – God-willed things, however, belied that argument.

But the problems begin much earlier in the document: “Through faith in God, who has created the universe, creatures and all human beings (equal on account of his mercy), believers are called to express this human fraternity by safeguarding creation and the entire universe and supporting all persons, especially the poorest and those most in need.”

As a general statement and, in particular, an effort to stop violence between Muslims and other faiths, this might pass muster. But something larger than the perennially-delayed age of global “human fraternity” seems in play.

The involvement of population controllers like Jeffrey Sachs and Bill Gates, China and the U.N., in this Global Education Pact tells a tale.


Many Christians balk at the very idea of humanism, and rightly, because it’s often a vehicle for a hard secularism. But Catholics, who believe in Faith and Reason, in a Savior who became true man so that we can become what God intended, cannot ignore authentic human things. That would be a kind of radical Lutheranism, rejecting reason and human effort in favor of sola fide, a kind of blind faith.

Christian humanism must begin with Christ and the Trinity. As Chesterton once wrote, the first pages of the Bible tell us God created Eve because it was not good for man to be alone. (As the lockdown has, doubtless, confirmed in millions of homes.) But, said GKC, Trinitarian doctrine suggests that it’s not good even for God to be alone. The very heart of personhood, even divine personhood, is to be in relation to other persons.

Human beings “participate” – to use a precise theological term – in that divine life; we’re all part of Christ’s Mystical Body. (If that seems abstract, Jesus explained in yesterday’s Gospel, “you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.” (Jn. 14:20) Without that, what we call human and humanism will be radically untethered – false – to the deepest of realities.

We can see how this plays out in other religions and philosophies. Ancient Stoicism, which has had a modern rebirth, is a stern school that, for all its attractions, is largely inhuman. Stoics didn’t believe that individuals survived death but – in its most typical expression – that we simply endure evil “stoically” since we all inevitably dissipate into the original Fire of Reason. For Hinduism and Buddhism, the world is illusion, not Creation. Different views of what the world is lead to very different ways of acting.

A Christian humanism may easily converse with Judaism; the early Church acknowledged that Jews worship the same Father who fully reveals Himself as the Trinity in the New Testament.

But Islam not only rejects the Trinity, in some instances violently. It rewrites both Old and New Testaments in ways that, truth be told, have no historical warrant.

And secularism today largely consists in viewing the “descent of man,” as Darwin deliberately put it, as the evolution of a complex animal with reduced emphasis on anything higher.

Commonweal magazine recently published a telling article about the once-dominant philosophy of Harvard professor John Rawls. Greatly simplified, Rawls asked readers to imagine that they were operating behind a “veil of ignorance.” If you didn’t know whether you’d be born male or female, black or white, gay or straight, what laws would you establish?

This sounds like a formula for impartiality but, even ignoring the philosophical problems with the theory (not our subject here), the Commonweal writer recalls how, in graduate school, if a question was raised about, say, how the principles should protect babies in the womb, the usual white liberal pieties towards women’s rights simply cut off discussion.

What looked like an impartial methodology was actually a way to sprinkle holy water on positions dear to late-20th-century liberal ideology.

There are parallel problems with the “new humanism” that the Vatican is promoting. If you think it’s an easygoing method for the global spread of quasi-Christian principles, existing divisions within and among nations and faiths will quickly show it’s not. Believers in other gods have quite different aims from the peaceful co-existence imagined by Vatican optimists – as is most starkly visible in the anti-Christian outrages that have occurred following Rome’s still-secret accord with China.

As St. Augustine saw 1500 years ago, “Rational life. . .does not owe its excellence to itself, but to the truth that it willingly obeys.” If Truth is a matter of indifference, we won’t get a “new” humanism, but something older, and far worse.


*Image: Trifacial Trinity by an anonymous artist of the Cusco School, c. 1760 [Lima Art Museum (Museo de Arte de Lima), Peru]

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.