Put not your trust in princes,
in the sons of men, in whom there is no salvation.
When his spirit departs he returns to his earth;
on that day his plans perish.
— Psalm 146, 3-4
We all look for heroes in life—people we can admire, take inspiration from, look to for leadership and great accomplishments.
We elevate all manner of prominent men and women to such stature: political figures, military leaders, media personalities, entertainment stars, accomplished academics, scientists, medical doctors and researchers.
As often as not, such earthly heroes ultimately disappoint us, when their frailties and inevitable human shortcomings manifest themselves. And then we abruptly depose them from the saintly pedestals upon which we had improvidently placed them in the first place.
We go from one extreme to the other: attributing almost God-like status to certain human beings in response to the good we perceive them doing; then bitterly condemning and abandoning them when they fail to live up to our unrealistic expectations.
In fact, most such people, no matter the prominent earthly status they have achieved, are little different from us: fallible human beings, trying (and often succeeding) in doing good things, but also subject to the same temptations and failures we all experience along our earthly journey. This does not undo their good works, nor necessarily discredit their inspiring example or leadership.
It does remind us, however, of the folly of attributing divine-like qualities to even the most seemingly admirable human beings. As the Psalm tells us, salvation—the ultimate and only transcendent purpose of our life on earth—comes from God, and God alone. Even religious leaders, as we have been reminded with devastating consequences in recent decades, can fall short of their sacred calling as shepherds of souls. Indeed, as my mother used to observe—even prior to revelations of the terrible clergy sexual abuse scandal—our priests, precisely because of their special closeness to Christ, are subject to greater temptations to evil, and need our prayers and, when they succumb to temptation, our forgiveness.
Of course, as events over the 20th and early 21st centuries have demonstrated with horrifying clarity, this compulsion to entrust our world to “the sons of men” can also empower truly malevolent forces who, in the name of creating an earthly utopia, perpetrate unspeakable evils.
Shortly before encountering this Psalm verse in the July 28 daily readings, I had read a powerful apocalyptic Catholic novel, “Lord of the World,” given to me by a good friend and former colleague from my days in our diocesan Office of Family Ministry.
“I advise you to read it,” Pope Francis has said of this book—with good reason. Written and originally published in 1907 by English Catholic priest and convert Robert Hugh Benson—whose father had been the Archbishop of Canterbury, primate of the Anglican Church—it is remarkably prescient—prophetic, actually—in its vision of the world 100 years hence, at the start of the 21st century.
What Benson describes—without using the term—is a secular humanism that has taken control of the world, in which divine power is not denied, it is transferred to humanity. A transcendent God does not exist, but humankind, on our own—led by one supreme figure, human himself yet all-knowing and all powerful—achieves the earthly nirvana that is its true destiny.
This human divinity will bring about “peace” through violence, “freedom” through subjugation, and an end to human suffering through destroying the victims, rather than the causes, of that suffering.
We saw this approach tried—and failed—throughout the 20th century, as atheistic, totalitarian ideologues seized power, imprisoned, tortured, and slaughtered millions in their efforts to achieve what they envisioned as the perfection of humanity. And we see it today, in continued totalitarian threats, but more so among the cultural elites throughout the western world who relentlessly attack religion as they strive to elevate flawed humanity to the realm of the divine from which they have expunged Almighty God.
Rejecting this, however, does not mean denying our proper role—and responsibility—to help build a better world. Pope St. John Paul II showed us how: with a Christian humanism that, rather than trying to displace God, cooperates in His plan for humanity, using the individual gifts He has bestowed on us, and guided by the natural law he has imprinted on every human heart.
So that is what this Psalm verse says to me: that we are called as human beings to work together, and to support others working to improve the human condition; but that we do so placing our trust in God, and working in cooperation with His plan—not denying His divine reality while placing our trust in powerful earthly princes whose plans, absent God’s guidance, will surely perish.
As Clint Eastwood might put it, “Man has got to know his limitations.”