Recognizing and rejecting “The Idol of Our Age”

The “religion of humanity,” says political philosopher Daniel J. Mahoney, “draws on Christianity but radically distorts it in the process. It tends to see man as the ‘measure of everything,’ and to forget the transcendental dimensions of authentic religion.”

(Background image: Andrew Schultz | Unsplash.com)

Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College, where he is a Professor of Politics. He received his B.A. from the College of Holy Cross and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Catholic University of America. His doctoral thesis was titled “The Liberal Political Science of Raymond Aron”, and in 1999 he was the recipient of the prestigious Prix Raymond Aron. A highly regarded expert on French political philosophy, Mahoney has authored books on Charles De Gaulle, Raymond Aron, Bertrand De Jouvenel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and the nature of democracy.

Daniel J. Mahoney

His most recent book is The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity (Encounter Books, 2018), which has been praised by Roger Scruton, R.R. Reno, Mary Ann Glendon, and Remi Brague for its critique of “the new humanitarian religion”. Professor Mahoney recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of CWR, about the roots and goals of “the religion of humanity”, critiques offered by several great thinkers, and why the Church must fight against this dangerous imposter.

CWR: What is “humanitarianism” and in what ways is it a religion? And how is different from or similar to socialism, Marxism, and secular humanism? Is there a spectrum, so to speak, ranging from a soft humanitarianism to a harsh totalitarian version?

Daniel J. Mahoney: By humanitarianism, I do not mean an admirable concern with good works or the corporal works of mercy. Everyone admires Doctors Without borders (even if the Church must be careful not construe itself as an NGO).

Humanitarianism draws on Christianity but radically distorts it in the process. It tends to see man as the “measure of everything,” and to forget the transcendental dimensions of authentic religion. It sees the project of this-wordly amelioration, of building a perfectly just social order (a rank impossibility), as the effectual truth of the Christian religion. It has little sense of sin or limits. Humanitarians tend to blame evil and criminality on “unjust” social structures (“social sin”), and believe in principle in the perfectibility of human beings and society. They dismiss the West as an essentially “culpable” civilization, racist, exploitative, and unjust, and are blind towards the totalitarian enemies of civilized order.

Humanitarianism’s heart and soul is pacifistic, believing in peace at any price (a current particularly ascendant in “progressive” Catholic circles, including this “progressive” papacy). Humanitarianism has no place for the politics of prudence, what the great Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke called “the god of this world below.” As we shall see, it tends to mix moralism and relativism in a truly toxic way.

Humanitarians have a soft spot for doctrinaire or fanatical egalitarianism and typically confuse love of the poor with collectivist or socialist politics although, one must add, humanitarians are not necessarily Marxists. Most humanitarians are blind to—or downplay—the grave evils of abortion and euthanasia and tend toward relativism in the realm of personal morality. But they are exceedingly moralistic, as I just noted, and dismiss those who oppose their agenda as racists, homophobes, Islamophobes etc. Name-calling replaces the exchange of arguments. They dispense with a rigorous or demanding natural moral law that appeals to something beyond “human needs.”

Humanitarianism generally entails a soft and moralistic effort to build the “kingdom of heaven on earth.” But in the twentieth century, humanitarianism gave rise to “hard” utopianism that would use any means to build a “new man” and a “new society.” Soft humanitarians often genuflected before totalitarian tyranny with almost religious zeal. Secular and clerical progressives were filled with limitless illusions about first the Soviet Union and then Maoist China, Castro’s Cuba, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and most recently the Chavista revolution in Venezuela. Predictably, they see no enemies to the Left, as the old saying goes. The Bishop of Cuernavaca, Mexico even proposed the canonization of Chou En-Lai in 1976, a Chinese Maoist who had no shortage of blood on his hands!

Christian humanitarians and progressives thus don’t even object to regimes that persecute, arrest, and kill their own co-religionists, something that shocked the great anti-Communist French political thinker Raymond Aron in the 1950s.

CWR: The 19th-century French philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte has a central, foundational place in your analysis of “the humanitarian temptation”. Why and how was he so important?

Mahoney: Comte (1798-1857) was a brilliant if rather bizarre sociologist and social theorist. He dismissed metaphysical and traditional philosophical reflection and thought only “how” questions, not “why” questions, mattered. His “religion of humanity” self-consciously aimed to replace “love of Humanity for love of God.” But authentic nobility entails, as the Hungarian moral philosopher Aurel Kolnai (1900-1973) put it, “the subordination of everything human to what is above man.” That is the meaning of Christian humanism which should never be confused with humanitarianism.

Comte dreamed of a world without transcendental religion or politics in any authentic sense of the term. Wars and nations would disappear, at least among the “avant-garde of humanity.” He spoke of “love” and “altruism” but in a way that divinized human beings. He failed to see that the self-deification of man always leads to his self-enslavement, as Kolnai often noted. Contemporary progressives, and not only in Europe, share Comte’s vision of a world where depoliticization and deChristianization, the jettisoning of nations and churches,  and all forms of human particularity, leads to a “unified humanity.”  They forget the old classical and Christian insight that we only have access to the universal through the “mediation” of particular communities that promote the common good.  In this sense, Comte remains the secret teacher and inspiration of those who want to abolish nations and religions and to establish a unitary and homogenized humanity.

Paradoxically, this “religion of humanity” has infiltrated the Churches and has undercut the capacity for moral and political reasoning among those who rest content with utopian moralizing and ideological cliches. Comte and Marx would be surprised to have so many followers within the Churches, especially the Church of Rome!

CWR: What are some of the warning signs that Christianity is tempted to become, or even is becoming in places, an “ideological project”?

Mahoney: The leading sign is when the Christian religion acts like the left-wing party at prayer, forgets the Church’s age-old wisdom about human nature, and ceases for all practical purposes to talk about “the care of souls.” Indulgence toward reductive, utopian, and atheistic social movements and regimes is a sure sign, too.

CWR: You contrast, in the introduction and opening chapter, the critical insights of Pope Benedict XVI with the views of Pope Francis, who you describe as “half-humanitarian” and “blind” to how “humanitarian secular religion subverts authentic Christianity.” What are some examples of this contrast in thought and focus?

Mahoney: Pope Benedict repeatedly stressed, that Christianity could never be reduced to a “humanitarian moral message” as he put it in his Regensburg Address in the fall of 2006. He believed in political reason (the virtue of prudence) informed by faith, and not in utopian moralism that ignored the drama of good and evil in the human soul. He understood, just as St. John Paul II understood, the grave evil of totalitarianism of both the Left and the Right. He saw through the ideological pretenses of liberation theology. The Church has its own “program,” that of the Good Samaritan, he stated. It does not need the hate, the crude materialism, and the endless delusions about human nature typical of The Communist Manifesto.

Pope Francis, in contrast, learned nothing, or next to nothing, from humanity’s experience with ideological tyranny in the twentieth century. He seems to have admired Fidel Castro, was slow to face the truth about the Maduro regime in Venezuela, and never emphasizes or repeats the Church’s condemnation of socialism and totalitarian collectivism. He seems to have confidence that the atheistic Communist Party of China can more or less run the Catholic Church in that still authoritarian country.

His lack of realism in that regard is stunning. He recently told a French interviewer that “one always wins with peace” and that “no war is just.” This is rank utopianism, devoid of any sense that charity demands the protection of the innocent against unjust aggression. It simply ignores the long-standing teaching of the Church on matters of war and peace. Do Bergoglio’s whims trump the wisdom of St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas? Or do Christians believe in historicism after all, with truth evolving in each age? Francis’s view of decent, liberal societies with free markets and a social safety network, are remarkably summary, worthy of an Argentinian Peronist. Francis’s call for Christians to be “stewards of nature”  is admirable; his failure to see the dark (pantheistic) side of environmental fanaticism is lamentable.

He speaks admirably of divine mercy but too often confuses it with democratic compassion and relativism. His off-the-cuff remarks sow endless confusion about the true meaning of the faith. He unilaterally changes the Church’s teaching on the death penalty but then says that life imprisonment is also inhumane. He is an adherent, or so it seems, of what C.S. Lewis called the “humanitarian theory of punishment.” How is that compatible with a belief in Hell or human beings’ freely and decisively rejecting God’s grace?

And one must add that the pope is not an oriental potentate: his chief responsibility is to safeguard the Apostolic inheritance and the deposit of faith. He should not be an innovator. And there is an ideological misuse of the “development of doctrine.”

CWR: You examine the religion of humanity through the lens of several thinkers, including the rather unique 19th-century American political thinker Orestes Brownson. Why is his personal journey and his mature thought so helpful?

Mahoney: Orestes Brownson (1803-1876) was a youthful political radical, a proponent of the religion of humanity who for a time vehemently denied the divinity of Christ. He was a “progressive” in every sense of the word. This New England Yankee converted to Christianity in 1844 and to constitutional republicanism at the same time under the influence of Aristotle’s Politics. He came to despise theocratic obscurantists and socialist humanitarians alike. He admired the American Republic but opposed the “democratic principle” that affirmed the merely “conventional” origin of political authority and that denied “the rule of eternal and immutable right” above the will of any class or group of people, whether they be oligarchic elites or a tyrannical democratic majority.

He hoped that Catholicism, the true faith, could inculcate an understanding of “liberty under God” as the basis of true republican government. Neither individualism, or “pure egoism,” or utopian humanitarianism, could balance liberty, virtue and public spiritedness in a manner appropriate to a free and decent republic.

Brownson also saw the threat of the humanitarian subversion of Christianity because he had once been a ferocious partisan of the religion of humanity. In this sense he was a political and religious prophet, a man well ahead of his time. Like Alexis de Tocqueville, he saw that the “spirit of liberty’ and the “spirit of religion” stand or fall together. Thanks to scholars such as Richard Reinsch, Gerald Russello. Russell Kirk, Peter Augustine Lawler and perhaps myself, we are now witnessing a much-need Brownsonian revival. He was a profound exemplar of political reason informed by faith.

CWR: In your chapter on the Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, you say that his Short Story of the Antichrist is “perhaps the most powerful and profound exploration of the humanitarian subversion of Christianity ever written.” Why such high praise?

Mahoney: The great Soloviev (1853-1900) saw that the Anti-Christ would take the form of a humanitarian who subverted Christianity from within. He saw all the limits of Tolstoyan pacifism (he insisted in, War, Progress, and the End of History, to which the “Short tale of the Anti-Christ is appended, that there could be a “good war” as well as an “evil peace.”) The Anti-Christ “falsified the good,” conflating authentic Christianity with humanitarianism as well as support for world government and radical environmentalism. He refused to bow before the Triune God and took his bearings from the Father of Lies. He put forward a defective mercy without either punishment, true justice, and soul-transforming repentance.

As Pope Benedict XVI shows in his treatment of the temptations of Jesus in the desert, the anti-Christ confuses the promises of God with the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Our Lord promises something more than socialist bread and circuses. Soloviev shows that we should never confuse love of the poor (or our neighbor more broadly) with a socialist or humanitarian political projects. That is the road of perdition.

CWR: How does the contrast between the pacifism of Tolstoy and the tough-mindedness of Solzhenitsyn aid in addressing the current state of secular humanitarianism?

Mahoney: Contra Leo Tolstoy, the great Solzhenitsyn believed in an “active struggle against evil.” Tolstoy confused the Gospel with passivity, with humanitarian projects, with radical pacifism, and with a deep suspicion of “organized” religion. Solzhenitsyn believed that evil is real, that it is rooted in fallen human nature, and that it must be resisted if the things of the soul are to be defended. Patriotism and love of country (and not false ideological projects) were obligatory for Christians, too. The legally constituted State is a powerful instrument for keeping evil at bay and fighting the ideological demons of which Dostoevsky so famously spoke.

A great character in Solzhenitsyn’s Red Wheel, the army chaplain Father Severyan, convincingly argues that Tolstoy is not an authentic Christian and that there are evils—many evils—that “are spiritually dirtier and more terrible that war.” But I must add: Soloviev and Solzhenitsyn, two great Orthodox Christians are not pacifists precisely because they are men of peace who believe that what is left of Christian civilization is worth defending. They both recognized that “loving our enemies” has nothing to do with “having no enemies.” This is a mistake that Pope Francis and his acolytes make all the time. It is a hallmark of secular and religious humanitarianism. And Solzhenitsyn showed us how one fearless man, dedicated to truth, could resist the totalitarian assault on the bodies and souls of human beings.

CWR: Your chapter titled “Pope Francis’s Humanitarian Version of Catholic Social Teaching” offers a wide-ranging and nuanced analysis of Francis’s social and political thought. What are the strengths of that body of work, and what are the weaknesses? What concerns you the most about his apparent goals and methodologies?

Mahoney: In the end that the weaknesses outweigh the strengths. The Pope’s appropriation of Catholic social teaching is partial and one-sided. We hear nothing from him recognizing the difference between Christian hope and ideological illusions, a distinction so keenly articulated in Benedict’s encyclical Spe Salvi. He never mentions the Church’s condemnations of socialism and Communism and rarely evokes its defense of private property properly used in the appropriate social context, informed by moral virtue. He invited Marxists, Third World demagogues, and Bernie Sanders to Rome to discuss John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus, the most pro-market social encyclical ever written! He sometimes acts as if Catholic social teaching originated in 2013, with his election as pope.

Pope Francis sometimes attacks gender theory and defends the integrity of traditional marriage. He is to be applauded for that. He opposes same-sex marriage and abortion on demand but is very tepid in speaking out against both evils. At the same time, Francis fatally refers to more or less inaccessible “ideals and “values” and not the theological and cardinal virtues at the center of Christian spiritual and ethical life. He often confuses solidarity with something like socialism and rarely talks about subsidiarity, the notion that our civic responsibilities ought not to be turned over to a bureaucratic and centralized state. Catholic social teaching at its best defends the diffusion of power, intermediate associations, and a demanding sense of decentralized political and personal responsibility. These are not themes of Francis’s pontificate. Far from it.

And he is rather too keen to accommodate the spirit of late modernity, to “kneel before the world” as Jacques Maritain once admirably put it.

CWR: Why is a correct understanding of conscience so vital to addressing the religion of humanity? And how does the thought of Benedict XVI aid in that endeavor?

Mahoney: Conscience is our “listening heart,” as Scripture calls it, our internal portal to an order of truth and moral judgment. As the French Catholic political philosopher Pierre Manent has put it, it is that moral and cognitive faculty internal to human beings that provides precious help for moral prudence and political reason. As Cardinal Newman argued in his famous Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, true conscience has nothing to do with subjective arbitrariness.

Somehow, our contemporaries have transformed conscience into a justification for relativism and moral laxity. But conscience properly understood allows us to overcome what C.S. Lewis so suggestively called “the poison of subjectivism. “ Conscience allows free man and women to live in truth and to reject those lies that deny that human beings have a nature that sets boundaries to our misnamed “autonomy.” The classics knew of something like conscience but did not give it a name. It is a gift from Christianity (the phenomenon of course belongs to man as man), to all those who strive to know the meaning of the human person and those actions that are truly oriented to truth and virtue. Conscience allows us to navigate liberty, truth, and virtue, in  a way that is fitting for the moral and political animals that we are.

CWR: Any further, final thoughts?

Mahoney: We Christians must remain faithful to our own religion, full as it is of truth and ample moral resources, and not confuse it with the impostor which is the “religion of humanity.” I hope The Idol of Our Age contributes mightily to an understanding of the distinction between these two religions. As the future Pope Benedict beautifully said in a sermon delivered in Bonn on November 26, 1981 called “Christians Faced With Forms of Totalitarianism,” authentic Christianity combines “the hope of faith” with “political reason and its sense of proportion.” It has nothing to do with ideological utopianism, “the mythical hope of a self-made paradise.” It combines eschatological hope, faith in God’s promises for a Kingdom not finally of this world, with the sobriety of knowing the distinction between what is possible and impossible in a sinful world.

And let us note that the then Cardinal Ratzinger reminded us on this occasion that there can be no “rule-free society” of pure autonomy or human willfulness. Nor should Christians place their hopes in a theocratic or “divine state.” Integralism is the evil twin of utopian or humanitarian illusions. It, too, is bereft of respect for the great political and moral virtue of prudence that remains central to all authentic Christian political reflection.  It is to the arts of moral and political prudence, informed by right reason and authentic faith, that we must return.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Carl E. Olson 1113 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

12 Comments

  1. Pretty good article overall, but Catholic writers continue to suffer from a general lack of Biblical literacy. The Good Samaritan parable, for instance, contains no hint of a program for Christians. But the author says this, because that’s what he’s always heard and he’s never bothered to study the parable much. If he did, he would find that it teaches something very different from what he’s been told.

    • Before being so dismissive of Dr. Mahoney’s remark, you might want to dig more deeply into what he is referring to: John Paul II’s 1984 Apostolic Letter “Salvifici Doloris,” which is about suffering. The entire seventh (VII) section of reflects in detail on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and includes the following:

      30. The parable of the Good Samaritan, which —as we have said—belongs to the Gospel of suffering, goes hand in hand with this Gospel through the history of the Church and Christianity, through the history of man and humanity. This parable witnesses to the fact that Christ’s revelation of the salvific meaning of suffering is in no way identified with an attitude of passivity. Completely the reverse is true. The Gospel is the negation of passivity in the face of suffering. Christ himself is especially active in this field. In this way he accomplishes the messianic programme of his mission, according to the words of the prophet: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord”(93). In a superabundant way Christ carries out this messianic programme of his mission: he goes about “doing good”(94). and the good of his works became especially evident in the face of human suffering. The parable of the Good Samaritan is in profound harmony with the conduct of Christ himself.

      Finally, this parable, through its essential content, will enter into those disturbing words of the Final Judgment, noted by Matthew in his Gospel: “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was in prison and you came to me”(95). To the just, who ask when they did all this to him, the Son of Man will respond: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me”(96). The opposite sentence will be imposed on those who have behaved differently: “As you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me”.”

      One could certainly extend the list of the forms of suffering that have encountered human sensitivity, compassion and help, or that have failed to do so. The first and second parts of Christ’s words about the Final Judgment unambiguously show how essential it is, for the eternal life of every individual, to “stop”, as the Good Samaritan did, at the suffering of one’s neighbour, to have “compassion” for that suffering, and to give some help. In the messianic programme of Christ, which is at the same time the programme of the Kingdom of God, suffering is present in the world in order to release love, in order to give birth to works of love towards neighbour, in order to transform the whole of human civilization into a “civilization of love”. In this love the salvific meaning of suffering is completely accomplished and reaches its definitive dimension. Christ’s words about the Final Judgment enable us to understand this in all the simplicity and clarity of the Gospel.

      I don’t know (as I cannot read minds as well as you apparently can), but you seem to associate “program” with politics, where as Mahoney and John Paul II use it in a spiritual and theological sense.

      • On the difference between justice programs and charity, there is also this:

        “While helping the world and receiving many benefits from it, the Church has a single intention: that God’s kingdom may come, and that the salvation of the whole human race may come to pass” (Gaudium et Spes, 45). Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (said to be a “Catholic writer”) later distinguished between justice and charity in God is Love (Deus Caritas Est, 2005). Beyond programs is always this:

        “…there will never be a situation where the charity of each individual Christian is unnecessary, because in addition to justice man needs, and will always need, love….My deep personal sharing in the needs and sufferings of others becomes a sharing of my very self with them: if my gift is not to prove a source of humiliation, I must give to others not only something that is my own, but my very self; I must be personally present in my gift” (n. 34).

        • “I must be personally present in my gift”

          This is what makes the entire welfare state approach to “charity” so difficult. Money is coerced to fund programs where no gift of self is possible.

      • Your understanding of Matthew 25 is even worse than your understanding of the Good Samaritan parable. We need to pay more attention to what the text actually says, instead of reading it, assuming that we know what it teaches, and then letting our theological imaginations run wild. The message of the Good Samaritan parable is “merciful men are your neighbors, even if they are not members of your own ethnic in-group.” Christians are supposed to identify with the man in the ditch, instead of imagining themselves as the hero of the story rescuing the poor man. As for Matthew 25, if you had even the slightest familiarity with the way words and phrases are used in the Bible, you would know that “the nations” refers to pagans,
        “brethren” refers to the disciples of Jesus, and “the least ones” refers to his followers as well. This is not a judgment of Christians on the basis of how they have treated the poor-in-general, it is a judgment of pagans on the basis of how they have treated Christians. But you’re too busy theologizing to notice such details. Typical.

        • Um, okay. Whatever. I was quoting the late pontiff, in case you failed to notice. We could probably have a more beneficial conversation about this if you didn’t assume so much about your supposed insights and granted a bit more attention to what was actually being said.

  2. “Humanitarians believe in principle in the perfectibility of human beings and society, of building a perfectly just social order (a rank impossibility), as the effectual truth of the Christian religion”. Although Mahoney is practically correct he’s incorrect insofar as Christ’s commandment to become as perfect as the Father is perfect, to practice justice on all levels. It seems perhaps not intended to principally repudiate Vat II’s Gaudium et Spes. And post Vat II there’s a reactionary trend among traditionalists to impugn Vat II in toto. Man in fact is “the measure of everything” in accord with the gift of reason, although he is not the Rule of everything. There are multiple ways of understanding conscience “the portal of the heart” attractive, but in essence conscience, cum scientia means to act with knowledge. What becomes lost in a conversation that fails to recognize the clear borders between principles of knowledge of truth, action and Rules [although Mahoney justifiably critiques the inadequacy of ‘humanitarianism’, secular humanism?] is the tendency toward political colloquialism and the blunting of Christ’s dynamic precepts that by nature transcend the natural order.

  3. Professor Mahoney,

    Untying the gordian knot that seems to be the life of the mind, heart, and soul of 21st century man; is an intimidating prospect; and yet, you succeed because of your great courage, clarity of thought, and charity of heart.

    God Bless,
    Jim Gill

  4. “He received his B.A. from the College of Holy Cross and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Catholic University of America.”

    These are the “idols of our age.”

  5. Thus wrote Mahatma Gandhi: “The human voice can never reach the distance that is covered by the still small voice of conscience”.

4 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Recognizing and rejecting “The Idol of Our Age” -
  2. Pope Francis and the “religion of humanity’ – Catholic World Report
  3. Pope Francis and the “religion of humanity’ – chaos
  4. Come l’Anticristo falsifica il Cristianesimo – Cristianesimo Cattolico

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*