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The Idol of Our Age - an excerpt


"Like a Paul Revere of the spirit, Daniel Mahoney sounds an alarm that should be heeded by all who are concerned about maintaining the indispensable cultural conditions for common life in a decent polity." - Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law, Harvard University

Benedict on the Temptations of Christ

mahony1Pope Benedict's critique of humanitarianism is perhaps best expressed in his luminous treatment of "The Temptations of Jesus" in the second chapter of the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth.  The temptation stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are recollections of an inner struggle in the soul of Christ.  "Tempted by the devil" (Matthew 4:1), Jesus must struggle to remain faithful to his task and not be misled by the provocations and false promises of the Evil One.  The Devil promises Christ political power and the amelioration of the "social problems" that plague humanity.  Will Christ set God aside as an "illusion" that gets in the way of truly pressing problems, or will he remain faithful to the mission that his Father has entrusted to Him?  The Devil imagines a world that human beings construct "by our own lights," without aid from the grace and goodness of the Eternal God.  In this understanding, everything is to be reduced to the "political and the material," to an essentially ideological understanding of human life.  This is what Christ in no uncertain terms rejects.  Christianity can never be understood as a merely "humanitarian" project without betraying faith in the promises of God or a true understanding of Jesus's mission on Earth.

The pope emeritus shows what is at stake in the Devil's admonition to "Command this stone to become bread" (Luke 4:30).  What an affront world hunger is! and how pressing this problem must appear to the One with a truly messianic vocation.  Must not it — the provision of bread — "be the first test of the Redeemer, before the world's gaze and on the world's behalf, to give it bread and to end all hunger?" This is what Marxism would so clamorously demand in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — a solution of the social problem, including hunger, before human beings could even begin to address concerns of the soul (if they indeed had souls).  Give the people bread and then worry about virtue and freedom, Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor famously exclaimed.  But Benedict highlights a great paradox: a materialist ideology such as Marxism led to hunger and starvation on a truly massive scale in Soviet Russia and Ukraine, Maoist China, Ethiopia, and North Korea.  These were not the results of "bad weather," but rather were built into the very DNA of Marxism-Leninism.  By ignoring the needs of the soul, by pushing to the side the inherent dignity of the human person, Marxism led to "ruin and destruction even of material goods themselves." "The most important things" are not material goods but the indelible fact that men and women are made in the image and likeness of God and must be treated accordingly.  (It could be added that Marxism could not do justice to elementary self-interest either, even of the most natural and legitimate kind.) "The negative outcome of the Marxist experiment" proves that the Devil's path — the humanitarian's path — is the road to perdition.  No social problems are so pressing that we should sacrifice human dignity and liberty in the effort to "solve" them immediately.  The proper "ordering of goods" is a precondition for avoiding "ruin and destruction" on the spiritual and the material planes.  With its primacy of the socially pressing, humanitarianism paradoxically sacrifices real human beings to what Pope Benedict elsewhere calls "the Moloch of the future."

The Devil imagines a world that human beings construct "by our own lights," without aid from the grace and goodness of the Eternal God.  In this understanding, everything is to be reduced to the "political and the material," to an essentially ideological understanding of human life.

Let us reiterate: if it is to remain true to itself, Christianity is not, and must not become, an ideological project.  In the last temptation in the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke, in a vision the Devil takes the Lord to a high mountain.  He "shows him all the kingdoms of the earth and their splendor and offers him kingship over the whole world." But the Incarnate Lord does not see his mission as one of establishing a humanitarian worldstate.  He resists the demonic temptation to become a "servant of power" and to bend to the requirements of a kingdom that loses sight of Almighty God and his purposes for humanity.  Christ's kingdom is ultimately not of this world, even if the seeds of the kingdom (like the "mustard seeds" of the parables) are announced in multiple ways through Christ's preaching and miracles.  Unlike Barabbas, Christ is no "robber," no "zealot," no freedom fighter.  The salvation the Son of Man offers is not political liberation, not emancipation in this world from the terrible challenges of sin and death.  His is a call to repentance and not a project to promote political "liberation." Pope Benedict is quite taken by the nineteenth-century Russian philosopher and theologian Vladimir Soloviev's portrait of the Antichrist, who announces with great fanfare the need to give priority "to a planned and organized world." Soloviev's Antichrist is a thoroughgoing humanitarian, as we shall see in Chapter Three — one who promises humankind a perverse "secular salvation" and a Kingdom without Christ the King.

The Folly of Liberation Theology

For all these reasons, Pope Benedict was a firm, if measured, critic of "liberation theology." He understood it as an ideological project that reduced Christianity to a vehicle for a reckless and inhuman version of political "emancipation." Uncritically appropriating Marxist social analysis, it transformed the Gospel's tension between the poor and "the poor in spirit" into a crude advocacy of "class struggle" where hate had primacy over love.  It too often saw the Kingdom of God at work in malign tyrannies such as Mao's China and Castro's Cuba.  Christians do indeed side with the poor, but not in any reductive ideological sense.  All groups, all classes, suffer from inordinate self-regard and are prone to sin and selfishness. 

The poor as an ideological category are a "temptation" put forward to undermine sensible political efforts on behalf of a common good that do justice to the rightful claims of all individuals and groups within decent political orders.

The poor in the modern world can be just as rapacious and power hungry as some of the rich.  The poor as an ideological category, as privileged beneficiaries of transformative revolution (in any case, a hopelessly utopian concept), owe nothing to Christian revelation.  As I will suggest later in this book, tens of millions of innocent human beings — kulaks, merchants, the bourgeoisie, aristocrats, religious believers, and independent thinkers of all sorts — were killed in the twentieth century in the name of proletarian revolution.  The poor as an ideological category are a "temptation" put forward to undermine sensible political efforts on behalf of a common good that do justice to the rightful claims of all individuals and groups within decent political orders.  One need only look at the sorry course of the Chavista revolution in Venezuela: law is under systematic assault, bread is absent from bakeries, the poor suffer terribly, the currency is degraded, and the middle classes are despoiled.  And Pope Francis, too sympathetic to liberation theology, says nothing despite the repeated appeals of the Venezuelan bishops, who speak as the conscience of the nation.  Pope Benedict repeatedly insisted that the program of the Good Samaritan should not be confused in any way whatsoever with the revolutionary agenda of The Communist Manifesto.  There lay the comprehensive falsification of Christ's Gospel and a latter-day succumbing to the temptations of the Devil, the Evil One.  Later, we shall explore that always-present demonic temptation with the help of Vladimir Soloviev, the author of the remarkably prescient A Short Tale of the Antichrist (1900).

"Caritas" versus Humanitarian "Love"

One of Pope Benedict's most significant contributions is to remind Christians and all men of good will that egalitarian social justice will never replace the need for love — caritas — in the lives of men or in the social order more broadly.  There will also be loneliness; there will always be those who suffer.  The corporal works of mercy are essential, but "care of the soul" should always have pride of place; it "often is even more necessary than material support." Benedict makes this point clearly in his 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love).  There he upholds the principle of subsidiarity and warns against an impersonal bureaucratic state usurping the responsibilities of citizens and believers.  A humanitarianism that saps an energetic and morally serious civil society makes the world a less loving place, and almost certainly a more regimented one.  Christian charitable activity must scrupulously avoid ideological cooptation and must never see its work as somehow buttressing an unjust society (an inhuman argument first put forward by Lenin).  We are obliged "to act humanely here and now" and not to succumb to misplaced eschatological hopes of an inter-mundane character.  Our program, the program of the Good Samaritan and Jesus Christ, is that of "a heart that sees" and not that of a humanitarian creed or secular messianism.


As Benedict sees it, God's love opens the soul to what is above it and transforms it; Comte's love closes us to the transcendental sources of true human dignity. 

Pope Benedict provides indispensable guidance for avoiding both the revolutionary and humanitarian temptations, both at odds with the faith of Christ and with decent, prudent, and humane politics.  The love that Benedict heralds is a love informed by divine caritas, and not a crude instrument at the service of human self-deification or the terrestrial selfsatisfaction of the human race.  As Benedict sees it, God's love opens the soul to what is above it and transforms it; Comte's love closes us to the transcendental sources of true human dignity.  One is an impostor, the other the real thing.  Humanitarianism as Comte first proclaimed it is an "idol" of the first order at the service of a soul-destroying illusion.  In their different ways, Pierre Manent and Pope Benedict alert us to the multiple ways by which "the religion of humanity" subverts authentic love, undermines true "communities of action," and undermines the full range of the cardinal and theological virtues that come to view in free political life.  The latter have nothing in common with the ideological projects that have deformed late modernity.  Politics is preeminently the realm of prudence, a moral virtue that allows us to do justice to principle, and humane and calibrated judgment, in the rough and tumble of political life.  The great Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke, who so nobly embodied this virtue, went so far as to call it "the god of this lower world."

mahoneys43The Church can recover her own work of mediation only when she truly appreciates the humanitarian temptation for what it is: not the completion or perfection of the Christian ethic in the secular world, but a massive "falsification of the good," as Alain Besançon has put it, one that finally subverts all that is decent in the contemporary world and in the life of the faith.  As we shall see in coming chapters, deeply insightful nineteenth-century Christian thinkers such as Orestes Brownson and Vladimir Soloviev, an American and a Russian, respectively, had already uncovered, with rare depth and penetration, what was entailed in the humanitarian distortion of the good.  It is to them that we turn in Chapters Two and Three.

Sources and Suggested Readings

The epigram comes from Pierre Manent, "La tentation de l'humanitaire," Géopolitique, no. 68 (2000): p. 8. The early quotations from Manent are drawn from his treatment of Comte in A World beyond Politics? A Defense of the NationState, translated by Marc Le Pain (Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006), p. 125, and Pierre Manent, "Human Unity Real and Imagined," First Things (October 2012).

I have drawn extensively from August Comte, System of Positive Polity, Volume 1, translated by John Henry Bridges (New York: Burt Franklin, 1875), especially the chapters "Intellectual Character of Positivism" and "Conclusion: The Religion of Humanity."

On the "inter-mundane eschatology" at the heart of Comte's reflection, see  Eric Voegelin, "Apocalypse of Man: Comte" in Voegelin, From Enlightenment to Revolution, edited by John H. Hallowell (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1975), especially p. 157. On the substitution of altruism for amor Dei, see p. 155. On Mill's and Littre's break with Comte, see p. 142. On the absence of Christ from the Calendrier, see the chapter "The Religion of Humanity and the French Revolution" in From Enlightenment to Revolution, p. 161.

On Comte's expectation of the permanent abolition of war from the avantgarde of humanity, see the discussion in Raymond Aron, Main Currents of Sociological Thought, Volume 1 (New Brunswick, NJ: 1998), p. 90. See p. 304 for Aron's particularly helpful discussion of Comte's contempt for liberal or representative institutions.

On the religion of humanity as a form of fanaticism, see Pierre Manent, Seeing Things Politically: Interviews with Benedicte Delorme-Montini, trans. by Ralph C. Hancock, Introduction by Daniel J. Mahoney (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press, 2015), pp. 151–152. On the contemporary contempt for "mediation," see Seeing Things Politically, p. 150.

See pp. 160–162 for Manent's discussion of the differences between Christianity and the religion of humanity, and between compassion and charity. I am also indebted to Manent's helpful discussion of Mother Teresa.



mahoneyDaniel J. Mahoney. "The Humanitarian Subversion of Christianity and Authentic Political Life." an excerpt from chapter one of  The Idol of Our Age (New York: Encounter Books, 2018) 18-24.

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The Author

Mahoneuy5543mahoneys43Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College. He has written extensively on Marxism and totalitarian ideology in the twentieth century. He is a specialist in French political philosophy, anti-totalitarian thought, and the intersection of religion and politics. His books include The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts ChristianityThe Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth about a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker, The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order, Defending Democracy against Its Modern Enemies and Immoderate FriendsHe is executive editor of Perspectives on Political Science and book review editor of Society. In 1999, he was awarded the Prix Raymond Aron.

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