Bioethically, we no longer know men from women; legally, we no longer know when life starts or stops; morally, we no longer know right from wrong or virtue from vice. Too often, our personal lives are squalid, our political affairs are corrupt, and our pastoral leadership is reprobate. The cause? The world, the flesh, the devil? Yes, and yes, and yes. These can be grouped under the heading of “dissociative disorder,” meaning that we no longer know who we are because we deny Whose we are (1 Cor 6:19, 7:23). We worship false gods (Ex 20:3, Wisdom 14:27) and so create a “Magisterium of the Mirror,” telling us that evil is good, that injustice is justice, that the sewer is the sacred. We have built our own “heaven” on earth but, in arrogance and stupidity, we have, instead, created another hell (Is 14:14, Jer 7:24). We have sown the wind, and we are reaping the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7), the terrible storms from which are only now just beginning. There is no redemption in and from the empty cisterns of our corrupt urges and appetites, but only from repentantly and resolutely turning back to Him.
My people [says the Lord] have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns, that can hold no water (Jeremiah 2:13).
To kill with a “depraved heart” means to act with wanton indifference toward innocent human life. Since Roe v. Wade, more than sixty million abortions have been executed in the U.S. Now the Biden Administration, locked into a mephitic morality which defends and celebrates evil, delivers to us a political program – the “whole government” to support abortion – requiring a revivified Jeremiah to denounce it: “Pay attention, you foolish and stupid people, who have eyes, but cannot see, and have ears, but cannot hear” (5:21). Liberalism is the “Way of Man,” forsaking the Way of God. It is the path to perdition.
To desert the Way of God and to attempt to substitute the Way of Man is the primordial error of a prideful humanity. Protagoras contended that Man is the measure of all things. Pilate mockingly asked about truth (thereby implicitly denying it), while standing in front of its incarnation. Pelagius is associated with the utopian notion of Man’s perfectibility. St. Augustine challenged that notion, contending that sin demands a salvation beyond human means.
Protagoras, Pilate, and Pelagius—and their epigones—are the designers of the “cracked cistern,” a trope by which is meant a perilous, if ubiquitous, understanding of politics. There is, in fact, a point at which we may say that “politics begins” in salvation history. The serpent approaches the woman, telling her that despite God’s admonition not to eat of the fruit, she surely should help herself: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” This is the birth of politics, which, understood as a struggle for power and dominance, began when Man thought that he could become divine.
We can be like gods. We can develop human institutions which will supplant divine commands. The only evil is to fail to recognize and act upon the lie that there is no evil. What is “evil” we may convert into “good” by designs of our own choosing. The Magisterium of the Mirror allows us secularists – “cured” of the moral paralysis which results from attention to the sacred – find truth in convenience, beauty in pleasure, goodness in self-exaltation. These are the cracked cisterns which hold no water.
We begin to restore a sense of Christian politics by respecting rather than by rejecting the idea of limitation, of mortality, of imperfectibility. We are, in short, either God’s or gods. We either accept the transcendent or we reject it, insisting, as did Feuerbach, that “God” is simply what Man can and will become. Hence, what is sacred must become profane; what is supernatural must become natural; what is miraculous must become mundane. Christians are given to understand that we cannot and must not try to wrench good from evil; the secular world insists, rather, that because “evil” is merely a social construct, we may indulge in it, at certain times, in order to resurrect a “greater good” out of it. Freedom, in this view, is a mere instrument of social engineering or a word used to justify sybaritism.
In a rarely read encyclical, written about six weeks after the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, Pope Pius XII wrote:
Once the authority of God and the sway of His law are denied . . . the civil authority as an inevitable result tends to attribute to itself that absolute autonomy which belongs exclusively to the Supreme Maker. It puts itself in the place of the Almighty and elevates the State or group into the last end of life, the supreme criterion of the moral and juridical order, and therefore forbids every appeal to the principles of natural reason and of the Christian conscience.
The Holy Father continued:
We do not, of course, fail to recognize that, fortunately, false principles do not always exercise their full influence, especially when age-old Christian traditions, on which the peoples have been nurtured, remain still deeply, even if unconsciously, rooted in their hearts.
These venerable Christian traditions are the stone water jars (John 2) which hold, not just water, but wine made from water.
As long as we live in society—and Athens and Jerusalem have both instructed us that we are social beings—there will be tension between what we want and what society will permit us. That tension, however, pales into virtual insignificance with the struggle which exists between our being citizens of heaven and citizens of earth; between being simultaneously of God and of Caesar. Political realists have long believed that power (not charity or love) and virtu (or the drive for dominance and control and not virtue) animate men, personally and politically. From that axiom we may derive another: government grows – and corrosively chafes at restrictions, earthly or heavenly, placed upon it. The very existence of divine law limits the growth of politics, so that the reflex of positive (or civil or municipal) law is to ignore or, all the better, to substitute itself for, natural or divine law.
There is truth in Lord Acton’s well-known, if often ignored, comment that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The sense of that maxim is, in fact, a part of the American political treasury of thought. James Madison, in Federalist 51 wrote that
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?
Pope John Paul II offered a similar thought in 1991:
Man tends towards good, but he is also capable of evil. He can transcend his immediate interest and still remain bound to it. The social order will be all the more stable, the more it takes this fact into account and does not place in opposition personal interest and the interests of society as a whole, but rather seeks ways to bring them into fruitful harmony. In fact, where self-interest is violently suppressed, it is replaced by a burdensome system of bureaucratic control which dries up the wellsprings of initiative and creativity. When people think they possess the secret of a perfect social organization which makes evil impossible, they also think that they can use any means, including violence and deceit, in order to bring that organization into being. Politics then becomes a ‘secular religion’ which operates under the illusion of creating paradise in this world. But no political society – which possesses its own autonomy and laws – can ever be confused with the Kingdom of God.
The means by which we are to judge politics are increasingly denied to us. One cannot judge by history, for historical reality must be deconstructed. One cannot judge by moral standards, for morality is relative to time and place. One cannot judge by ultimate standards because there is no Ultimate. We are reduced, in the political arena, to judging matters by Man’s standards. Of only one thing can we be certain: God is not part of political judgment. As for the United States, it is no longer “one nation under God,” and that very phrase (from the Pledge of Allegiance) has become a profound embarrassment to secular Americans.
This fundamental fact of human—and therefore political—existence is at the heart of Pope Benedict’s reflection about Jesus. He writes:
Constructing a world by our own lights, without reference to God, building on our own foundation: refusing to acknowledge the reality of anything beyond the political and material, while setting God aside as an illusion—that is the temptation that threatens us in many varied forms.
Moral posturing is part and parcel of temptation. It does not invite us directly to do evil—no, that would be far too blatant. It pretends to show us a better way, where we finally abandon our illusions and throw ourselves into the work of making the world a better place. It claims, moreover, to speak to true realism: what’s real is what is right there in front of us—power and bread [see Luke 4:1-13]. By comparison, the things of God fade into a secondary world that no one really needs.
God is the issue. Is he real, reality itself, or isn’t he? Is he good or do we have to invent the good ourselves? The God question is the fundamental question, and it sets us right down at the crossroad of human existence.
The Edenic temptation – the heretical notion that if only we have sufficient “environmental justice” we can re-create the Garden of Eden – has infected even the Church. On 8 December 1975, Pope Paul VI published an apostolic exhortation about the need for evangelization and “liberation” – surely a major concern of the Church in this, or in any other, time. Yet the Holy Father expressed therein a worry:
We must not ignore the fact that many, even generous Christians who are sensitive to the dramatic questions involved in the problem of liberation, in their wish to commit the Church to the liberation effort, are frequently tempted to reduce her mission to the dimensions of a simply temporal project. They would reduce her aims to a man-centered goal; the salvation of which she is the messenger would be reduced to material well-being. Her activity, forgetful of all spiritual and religious preoccupation, would become initiatives of the political or social order. But if this were so, the Church would lose her fundamental meaning. Her message of liberation would no longer have any originality and would easily be open to monopolization and manipulation by ideological systems and political parties. She would have no more authority to proclaim freedom as in the name of God.
This is the heresy of the self-apotheosis of Man—the arrogant attempt by a prideful humanity to divinize itself, or to bring about what the philosopher Eric Voegelin famously called the “immanentization of the eschaton,” by which he meant the meretricious political promise of erecting a paradise upon earth.  Thus does so much of the Catholic Catechism deal with the right and duty of the Church to provide perspective upon and, insofar as it can, protection from the megalomania of princes promising paradise. Indeed, if there is an item in the Catechism which may be said to be “chilling,” this is it:
Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the ‘mystery of iniquity’ in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh.
The Antichrist, according to Catholic teaching, is thus not a myth, a legend, or a nightmare. The Antichrist is someone who proclaims himself to be the messiah. The human desire for safety and security, fulfillment (in the sense of instant gratification) and pleasure, leisure and sport, resulting in a kind of moral and political stupor; the twenty-first century reality of the stardom which the media seem able to confer; and the abysmal tendency of so many to fall into worshipful devotion of political, athletic, or entertainment idols (a credulous hero worship)—all this ought to be very worrisome to Christians. It is the Antichrist’s nursery.
History provides appalling precedent: the Prince, the Legislator of Rousseau, the Leviathan of Hobbes, the Superman of Nietzsche, the Duce, the Fuehrer, the Great Helmsman, the Russian Vozhd, the Dear Leader of North Korea, and countless others who give their people the promise of a great cistern of holy water but deliver, instead, a pot of poison. One is reminded that, in 1978, the religious leader Jim Jones, promising his people a paradise in Guyana, gave them, in the end, a vat of poisoned kool-aid from which they were to drink and thus commit mass suicide. More than 900 people died from the poison of that cracked cistern.
From the Prophets to the Church Fathers, to the classical writers and the great medieval scholars, to Toynbee and Spengler, one finds firm foundation for the belief that there is a permanent need for rulers to be held always to account, lest poisoned waters flow from the cracked cistern of politics. Although President Biden seems unaware of it, the Church has constantly taught that rulers will be judged here and hereafter. All politics plays out against the moral horizon of the drama of the economy of salvation. The Church, from the perspective it has on the course and core of history, must never shrink from its duty of moral judgment.
There is a compelling example of this in With Burning Sorrow, a 1937 encyclical by Pope Pius XI. As the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime in Germany began to mount, Pope Pius XI issued a Catholic call to spiritual arms:
Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community – however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things – whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.
Pope Pius XI issued another clarion call, this time against Communism, a mere five days after his cri de coeur against the Nazis. In Divini Redemptoris the Holy Father scathingly referred to Communist ideology as a “new Gospel” because “it ignores the true origin and purpose of the State [and] because it denies the rights, dignity and liberty of human personality.”
As the Catechism puts it: “Every society’s judgments and conduct reflect a vision of man and his destiny. Without the light the Gospel sheds on God and man, societies easily become totalitarian.” If Pope Leo XIII, writing in 1890, was correct that the Church must “make strong endeavor that the power of the Gospel may pervade the law and institutions of the nations,” how much more so is that endeavor required today, when we confront the challenge to sacramental marriage; millions of abortions; the absurdity of thinking that men can become women and women, men; and the specter of legalized euthanasia – among many other depravities which Leo XIII could hardly have seen more than a century ago. But those who do not look beyond false political gods to the real God will join, once more, in the terrifying chorus: “We have no king but Caesar.”
The restoration of Catholic political theory summons us to understand that there is a valid dichotomy at work in politics: in the absence of moral agreement upon enduring principles of statecraft (and, implicitly, upon the human nature from which spring those principles), there is no alternative to a clash of wills and the use of the instruments of power. When there is no power of love, there will be love of power. As Pope John Paul wrote:
Totalitarianism arises out of a denial of truth in the objective sense. If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another. If one does not acknowledge transcendent truth, then the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others. People are then respected only to the extent that they can be exploited for selfish ends. Thus, the root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person . . . .
In the moral chaos of today’s world, Catholics must supply a vision of the good society’s concerns and confines. As Pope John XXIII wrote: “All men . . . are bound to accept the teaching of the gospel. For if this is rejected, the very foundations of truth, goodness, and civilization are endangered.”  Rejection of the Gospel, personally or politically, is hardly new. One must wonder, however, whether the widespread hostility toward the Gospel which we see in the western world in 2021 – a hatred of Christianity deriving from bitter atheism and a rampant secularism encouraging an appalling bioethical imagination – is not only accidentally Herodian but essentially and emphatically diabolical.
In order to be witnesses for the Gospel today and in order to restore Catholic wisdom to help guide debate in the public arena, Catholics require a political anamnesis, meaning a calling to mind of enduring Catholic teaching. These principles tell us, among other things, that we do not redeem ourselves; that government has legitimate, if limited, powers; that we are always to obey God before men – all succinctly summarized in five words from the Catechism: “Caesar is not ‘the Lord.’”
Jacques Maritain put this succinctly in his book Man and the State, in which he wrote that “man is by no means for the State. The State is for man.” Indeed, he said, “putting man at the service of that instrument [the State] is political perversion.” We know, however, that the State must menace liberty if it is to grow and assume messianic proportions. That is a compelling reason why Catholics must support the idea of subsidiarity, meaning that the government is to discharge its legitimate duties at the lowest echelons of political power (rather than consolidating such powers at the highest levels). Subsidiarity “is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits [ostensibly] for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies.”
Much of this comes down to what we may see as the most frightening reality of the early 21st century: a systematic and practically universal denial of God, which is tantamount to denial of truth. And when truth is denied, the abrogation of genuine freedom is surely and swiftly to follow; depraved hearts become the norm. As Pope John Paul II wrote, the tsunami of ethical relativism and the concomitant tendency in the secular world to deny the natural law inevitably reduces the political art “to a mere mechanism for regulating different and opposing interests on a purely empirical basis”; democracy, he counsels, should never “be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality.” The late Father Richard John Neuhaus argued some years ago that atheists cannot be good citizens because they lack the means of providing “a morally compelling account of the regime of which [they are] part.” Such an account, he said, must be based upon “reasons which draw authority from that which is higher than the self.”
The modern democratic state is eager to deny the linkage between freedom and truth, something easily done if and when the Creator is denied. “Where God is denied and people live as though he did not exist or his commandments are not taken into account,” wrote Pope John Paul II, “the dignity of the human person and the inviolability of human life also end up being rejected or compromised.” The perverted logic of abortion, euthanasia, denial of established marriage, and Mengele-like research follow.
The political reality of the early twenty-first century is that of solipsism, which we may understand as egoism on steroids. If “I” am the truth, then truth collapses into a jungle of subjectivism in which the only recognized laws are those of superior power, and politics becomes, at best, a means of manipulation in which I, and those whom I attract into alliance with me, secure what we want, when we want it, in whatever way suits us. Pope John XXIII was prescient:
All the evils which poison men and nations and trouble so many hearts have a single cause and a single source: ignorance of the truth – and at times even more than ignorance, a contempt for truth and a reckless rejection of it. Thus arise all manner of errors, which enter the recesses of men’s hearts and the bloodstream of human society as would a plague. These errors turn everything upside down: they menace individuals and society itself.
Protagoras (Man is the measure) and Pilate (What is “Truth”?) and Pelagius (We are self-redeeming) hold sway in our time and in our place. In his Templeton Address on 10 May 1983, Aleksandr Solzenhitsyn (1918-2008) offered a concise explanation for the evils of our day: “Men have forgotten God.”
About seventy-five years before that address, a saint told the world that secularism-hedonism-materialism-scientism-atheism could be described in the single word modernism, which he called “the synthesis of all heresies.” One fears that about 115 years after that remark, the efforts to patch and repair society’s political cistern have, at last, come to naught: the Modernist crack is irreparable without an infusion of divine grace, requiring us to turn our souls, minds, and hearts to God.
One now looks forlornly at the cracked cistern of politics, knowing that the living waters we need must and will be ours—but only from another, and true, source. And the last plaintive, yet hopeful, Biblical prayer resonates and resonates and resonates (Rev 22:17, 20).
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 Plato responded that God, not man, is the measure of all things.
 Genesis 3:5.
 Cf. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), #1733, which tells us that “There is no true freedom except in the service of what is true and just.”
 Summi Pontificatus (20 Oct 1939): 53.
 Philippians 3:20.
 See Matthew 22:21 and Romans 13.
 Centesimus Annus (1 May 1991): 25; see also CCC #407.
 Cf. 2 Corinthians 5:16, 10:12.
 This is, of course, precisely the problem with those “Catholic” politicians whose devotion to Christ and to the Church He founded stops abruptly when their courage and commitment are most needed. See my article “Infamous Falsehoods and Distortions: The Catholic Democrat Statement.”
 Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Doubleday, 2007): 28-29.
 Evangelii Nuntiandi (8 Dec 1975): 32.
 Cf. Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes (#12): “Believers and unbelievers agree almost unanimously that all things on earth should be ordained to man as to their center and summit.” In #19, the same document then admonishes us against atheism, which it (correctly) regards “as one of the most serious problems of our time.” Did not the authors of this maladroit (at best) document not perceive a glaring contradiction here?
 See items 87, 144, 407, 408, 450, 890, 892, 1269, 1783, 2032, 2039, 2105, 2246, and 2420.
 CCC #675.
 See Wisdom 6:8, Hebrews 13:7, Luke 12:48, Pope St. Pius V, Regnans in Excelsis (27 April 1570): 3, 5; Pope Leo XIII, Immortale Dei (1 Nov 1885): 5; Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Washington, D.C.: USCCB, 2004): 396, 397.
 See, in this regard, the commendable text of the Manhattan Declaration, released on 20 November 2009.
 CCC #2032. See also Can. 747 §1. “The Church, to which Christ the Lord has entrusted the deposit of faith so that with the assistance of the Holy Spirit it might protect the revealed truth reverently, examine it more closely, and proclaim and expound it faithfully, has the duty and innate right, independent of any human power whatsoever, to preach the gospel to all peoples, also using the means of social communication proper to it.”
 Mitt Brennender Sorge (14 March 1937): 8.
 (19 March 1937): 14.
 CCC #2257; cf. Proverbs 29:18; Colossians 2:8, Ephesians 4:14, Hebrews 13:9. Cf. Evangelium Vitae, #20, #70-#74; Veritatis Splendor, #99-101.
 Sapientiae Christianae (10 Jan 1890): 31.
 Although Pope Leo’s prayer to St. Michael the Archangel suggests that, indeed, the Pope did indeed foresee many of the horrors of the twentieth century. And yet, from so many whose Catholic wisdom and courage we now need, we hear only—silence or synodal catechesis.
 John 19:15.
 Centesimus Annus (1 May 1991): 44.
 Ad Petri Cathedram (29 June 1959): 8. Cf. Proverbs 29:18 and 14:34.
 Consider cloning. Consider the freezing of human embryos. Consider the research attempts to integrate human and animal life. Consider the research to produce humans without heads, so that we all might have a ready-made “parts store.” See the late Jean Bethke Elshtain, Who Are We? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000).
 Cf. CCC #1354, 1362, 1103.
 Eric Sammons helps us by concisely explaining the spiritual ennui—the religious relativism and apathy—in which we are mired. See Deadly Indifference: How the Church Lost Her Mission and How We Can Reclaim It (Manchester, NH: Crisis, 2021).
 Wise counsel implies wise counselors, who steadfastly support the traditional teaching of the Church. It is most worrisome, then, when the death penalty is regarded as “inadmissible” (whatever that means). If that centuries-old teaching can change (in principle; in practice, its use might well be very limited), what teaching is certain not to “evolve”? Surely, some may hope that forbidding the blessing of homosexual couples as impossible will, like the change in the death penalty, soon be “updated.” Then we can “hope” for approval of homosexual “marriage,” “women priests,” transgender priests, contraception, and even abortion and euthanasia. The Church ought to teach all nations; instead, the Church seems to be ideologically seduced by the secularized nations.
 Acts 5:29; CCC #2242.
 CCC #450.
 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 13. He contended that “Mankind is still in a prehistoric age with regard to the application of the Gospel in actual life” (p. 232).
 In this connection, reading the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is troubling, in that it seems today almost “quaint” instead of, well, Constitutional.
 One might consider the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in this regard. In his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict wrote that Subsidiarity is “an expression of inalienable human freedom” (#57). See also the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, #419 and CCC #1894.
 CCC #1885; see also #1883, 1894, 2209.
 Evangelium Vitae: 70.
 First Things, August-September 1991.
 Cf. CCC #1742: “The grace of Christ is not in the slightest way a rival of our freedom when this freedom accords with the sense of the true and good that God has put in the human heart.”
 Evangelium Vitae: 96.
 Josef Mengele (1911-1979) was a doctor infamous for his barbaric experiments on Nazi death camp prisoners.
 Cf. Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (6 Aug 1993): 32.
 Ad Petri Cathedram: 6.
 Cf. Pope St. Pius X, Pascendi Domenici Gregis (8 September 1907): 39. One reads in 2 John 9: “One who is so ‘progressive’ as not to remain in the teaching of Christ does not have God” (NAB).
I have made this point before on line. See The Catholic Thing (28 January 2018), Crisis Magazine (31 January 2019) and OnePeterFive (29 December 2020). Cf. 2 Chr 7:14, Tobit 13:6, and Joel 2:12.
Deacon James H. Toner (M.A., William & Mary; Ph.D., Notre Dame) is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of numerous books, articles, reviews, and monographs. He has taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has contributed many columns to The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, One Peter Five, and the Wanderer, as well as myriad academic and military periodicals. He and his wife Rebecca have three sons and eleven grandchildren.