Sense and Nonsense: God’s Governance

Men are subject to subtle temptations. The most dangerous of these temptations suggests that, by our own power and ingenuity, we can both identify the root problem causing human ills and eliminate it. At bottom, it is a technical, rather than a personal problem. We can solve it without solving the question of our souls.

Of the many memorable lines in Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical on charity, the following one struck me most: “When we consider the immensity of others’ needs, we can…be driven towards an ideology that would aim at doing what God’s governance of the world apparently cannot: fully resolving every problem” (36). Evidently, Christian charity is conceived precisely against this presumption of “resolving every problem.” It is a “presumption” because it implies that we can improve on “God’s governance of the world,” when the Divinity itself failed in this very task.

Among pious, energetic, and liberal people, it is commonplace today to look out on the rest of the world, with all its problems, and earnestly demand that something be done about them and soon. Thinking on a grand scale, we will solve all the problems of everyone, especially the poor and weak, if we can just figure out their causes and eliminate them. Perhaps it is the ownership of property? The family? The state? All we need to do is identify the problem and eradicate it. A mystical form of secularism seems at work here.

Yet we now have a pope warning us precisely against such a facile solution. He even suggests that it is not Christianity but “ideology” that would aim at this lofty enterprise, as if there is some connection between a wrong solution and a theological proposition.

What is the theological proposition at stake here? It is that the divine governance is really the root of what is wrong with the human condition. We are ill-made from the beginning. All political ideology thus finds its status as a better proposal, as a cure for something that God could, but did not, Himself solve. Hence follows the bitter “anti-God” sentiment that is often found in ideology—the will to impose our self-generated ideas on the world.

The pope is not suggesting that we shouldn’t do what we can about dire human problems, though he understands that they will not completely disappear even with our best efforts. He simply does not think that government and justice can solve everything. The results of justice are not achieved without charity. That is why this encyclical is a defense of practical charity that itself depends on an individual, personal response to real people wherever they are.

Why does the pope find a connection between ideology and the claimed failure of divine governance of the universe? It is because the divine governance includes evil. The location of evil is not in matter, nature, or institutions, but in the power of our wills to choose what is wrong, albeit in the name of choosing something good. Since the ultimate purpose of the divine governance is that we freely choose to love God in the course of our earthly lives, to eliminate this freedom would at the same time eliminate our contact with our highest destiny.

The work of the divine governance is personal. It seeks to save us precisely in our freedom, a freedom that includes our sins as a possibility. Ideology would save us by having us deny any need to choose freely the one salvation that we are offered, the only one that will succeed in the purpose of the divine governance—that we may love God and God may love us as persons who also love one another.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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