Archbishop Chaput: On the Power of the Powerless

Let’s start with a simple fact: Man’s oldest and most persistent sin is idolatry. And if the human story teaches us anything, it’s that idolatry has an infinite wardrobe of disguises—and an endless number of victims. In the modern era, the go-to idol is the state, usually in the liturgical vestments of science.

The Third Reich euthanized some 300,000 mentally and physically disabled persons. Then it killed another 6 million Jews, Gypsies, social outcasts, and political prisoners in the name of Aryan racial superiority. The political heirs of Karl Marx (Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others) murdered 25 million people in the Soviet bloc; 40 million in China; 2 million in a nation of just 7 million in Cambodia; and millions more elsewhere—all to create a new world and restart history from “Year Zero,” cleansed of any memory of the past, and based on a model of man as his own master; humanity as the real and only god.

The body count from the last hundred years is both well documented and painful to revisit. We’ve learned—or at least we think we’ve learned—an important lesson. And the lesson is this: Any political party or ideology that claims to create a new kind of man, a self-sustaining, self-redemptive humanity, is a fraud. It’s just the latest installment in a very old gnostic fairy tale. Gnosticism grew up alongside Christianity, sometimes intertwining with it; and the modern gnostic zealot, whether he calls himself a fascist, a Nazi, a Marxist, or even a certain brand of “progressive,” is never really irreligious. And he’s certainly not an “unbeliever,” even when he says he is. He’s a particular kind of believer; a man convinced he has the secret knowledge, the gnosis, that unlocks the power to fix a broken world. And he clings to that sacred knowledge just as religiously as any 14th century monk clung to his Bible.

The difference, of course, is that the God of the monk was—and is—true. The god of the gnostic isn’t. Each new version of the gnostic zealot dresses up his little godling in new language with new tools of coercion. But underneath, it’s always the same idolatrous lie. Man is not a god, and there’s no secret knowledge that can make him so.

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