Every epoch has its secular religion, a perverse imitation of Christianity that takes part of the Christian proposition and diverts it toward this world. It was not so long ago that communism transformed charity for the poor into hatred for capitalist society and ultimately for every society that recognizes the rights of the human person.

Today, something like a “religion of humanity” has taken hold of supposedly enlightened opinion and increasingly guides the judgments and actions, private or public, of people in the West, especially in Europe. This is not simply a passing fashion; it is a large-scale project for governing the world through international rules and institutions, and especially the organization of commerce, so that nations, losing their character as sovereign political bodies, are henceforth only regions of a world en route to globalization, that is, unification.

And, as formerly in the communist conception of history, the is and the ought are regarded as coinciding: If you doubt that globalization is desirable, you will be told it is irresistible and you refuse to see reality; if you doubt that it is irresistible, you will be told it is desirable and you reject the evidence of the Good. A unified world, no longer composed of distinct and sovereign nations, is presented to us as the supremely legitimate object of our desire, the central hope and object of the religion of humanity.

Christians are particularly susceptible to approve of the present tendency and to view it as a felicitous sign of the times, because globalization attacks the reality and the legitimacy, the fact and the law, of sovereign nations, which the Church has always regarded at least with mistrust and has sometimes explicitly condemned or chastised. The Church’s hostility is not unfounded: These sovereign political bodies are inseparable from a will to power that leads both princes and subjects to address their wishes to the earthly city and to set themselves up as “independent,” to the detriment of the divine kingdom and the human vocation. In fact, the consolidation of nations in Europe is inseparable from an increasing domestication of the Church, which sometimes leads to its expulsion from the public sphere.

The Reformation signified the “nationalization” of the universal Church, and from that time on the nation, not the Church, was the community par excellence in Europe. The Church contributed less and less to determining Europe’s political and spiritual configuration: Witness Benedict XV’s admirable and vain efforts early in the twentieth century to moderate nationalist frenzies. From a Christian point of view, nations can seem like idols formed by pride. It was thus not by chance that the first and decisive impulses for the “European project” came from Catholic statesmen. For many Europeans today, the initiative of Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, and Alcide De Gasperi was not only a courageous and judicious political choice but also a sort of collective conversion from the immemorial political order of power to a new order of disinterested cooperation.

However tempting may be the “grand narrative” that justifies the European project”and the ongoing project of global unification”it rests upon a one-sided reading of European history and on a biased estimation of that properly European political form known as the nation, a bias that suggests it is not so easy as one would wish to rise above one’s political passions. Furthermore, it requires a superficial understanding of what the constitution of an effectively universal human association requires. Injustice with respect to the nation and incomprehension of human universals reinforce each other.

The nation-state is not immune from the ambiguity of human works. Produced by sinful man, it simultaneously expresses his grandeur and his weakness. We have briefly evoked its flaws, but it is important to recall its merits as well. If God, in creating man, left him to his own devices, then the nation has also had a part in the goodness of creation, because it is both the framework and the result of the most constant and varied efforts by human groups to organize self-government. The credit goes to the first inventor, and the honor of Athens will never be taken away; outside of Christian Europe, one has never seen such stable and extensive political bodies in which so many human beings have found the conditions for an honorable and conscientious life.

Furthermore, though nations may be carried away by the will to power, the division of Europe into rival nations prevented imperial petrification, and the extraordinary fertility of European history results from the constant interplay among them. The recognition by each nation of the sovereignty of others, which permitted coexistence and even emulation among nations of very unequal power, is one of the great accomplishments of European public law. Now that small European countries have been placed under guardianship on the basis, or the pretext, of the financial crisis, we can see the profound inequality that threatens the life of Europeans as soon as some of them are denied the right to be independent.

The contribution of the nation-state to moral life also should be underlined. I am not thinking here of the education, through national language and literature, that preserves its legitimacy with difficulty today in the face of the worldwide circulation of information that knows only generic human beings. I am thinking rather of this: There is no more powerful source of moral development for everyone than concern for the common good, or the res publica .

It is not a question of generalizing norms of conduct, which could only produce a mechanical and mutilated morality, but rather of looking beyond ourselves in order to take account of the community that is greater than each one of us which we form together. The education and the deployment of the human virtues require the participation in a unified action before the members of which we feel ourselves responsible. For this action we incur both praise and blame. If we lose that participation, we will have nothing left to orient ourselves by but a general idea of humanity, which cannot draw us away from the passivity of private life.

It will certainly be objected that the eclipse of nation-states will overcome particularism and thereby provide us with a truly universal perspective that takes into account not only the circumscribed group but all human beings. This is not only the most widespread and popular illusion in Europe and the West; it is also the illusion by means of which powerful forces mean to tear us away from the active concern for the common good that in its political aspect is called friendship and in its religious aspect is called charity.

One can, of course, speak of the common good of humanity, but it is an extrinsic common good, because humanity does not constitute a real community of action. A common good like the preservation of breathable air can be preserved only by the activity of each real political community (each nation), activity that includes collaboration with other nations. Nature will not be preserved by a humanity that does not exist politically. We live only where we act, and we act only in the community we form with our fellow citizens and associates. International institutions can be useful instruments for collaboration among nations, but they do not make humanity into a community. There is, of course, a human species, but it is actualized only within the plurality of human communities.

Christians ought to be concerned by the use being made of the notion of humanity. From the Christian perspective, humanity is healed and unified through the element of charity, of which the Church is the bearer and the instrument. Charity is a common action carried out visibly or invisibly by the Church and her Head. The Church invites everyone to participate in this common action. There is no other way to really heal and unite a humanity wounded and divided by sin.

Reigning opinion dismisses this proposition because it excludes those who refuse it and opposes to it the proposition of a humanity virtually unified and healed, as, beneath the separate activities of separate human groups, there is present or latent a humanity that nothing separates or distinguishes. It is a humanity already visible and tangible to those who are able to see and to feel the similarity of human beings behind their differences, who experience the sentiment Tocqueville considered the democratic emotion par excellence, “fellow-feeling.”

Obviously, this contemporary religion of humanity excludes and rejects the Christian religion. The healing and unity that the Christian seeks through participation in charity is sought by the European who “believes in humanity” in the sense of the resemblance among human beings. What the Christian only hopes to find at the culmination of a transformative process that is the work of God himself, and through participation in the community of action that is the Church, the humanitarian claims to obtain by detaching himself from all communities of action and by passively enjoying his resemblance to other men. It is in letting themselves move beyond action and responsibility for action that today’s Europeans find salvation for themselves, giving it to themselves and experiencing certainty in so doing. This humanitarian faith does not ignore works (humanitarian acts), but these actions by themselves, as useful as they are, contribute little to the strengthening of human communities. Humanitarian virtues are admirable, but they are not productive of community.

To be sure, the Christian proposition, which requires long-term actions whose results are uncertain and largely invisible, is less attractive than the humanitarian proposition, which realizes its promise as soon as it is formulated because it both begins and is fulfilled in the recognition of the humanity of the other person. This can encourage the Church to present herself in the terms and the forms of the religion of humanity. That move would harm the integrity of the Christian proposition and only serve to further validate the religion of humanity. The Church would be better advised to deal amicably with the other real communities known as nations, which, Christian or not, at least provide the framework within which human beings can effectively search for the common good.

I can imagine the enlightened European response to these observations. Perhaps you are right, they would say; perhaps common action, political or religious, is the highest human effort, but it’s also fraught with risks, and ultimately insufficient. After all, at times when the Church exerted herself to the utmost in order to bring human beings together into the Christian body, she was led to commit or tolerate actions for which she has not yet been forgiven. And as for the nation-states”though they do not bear exclusive responsibility for the disasters of the twentieth century”at least in Europe they have lost the capacity and even the will to satisfy the hearts and fix the horizons of their citizens. They offer to protect their citizens from the upheavals of globalization, and citizens, whatever they say, in reality do not ask for more.

Furthermore, continues the enlightened European, it is necessary to organize the human world on different bases from the common actions that were performed by nations and churches. This new basis resides in the common rules provided by the reciprocal dependence of human beings, the organization of commerce, instead of relying on the dangerous competition of collective bodies. The reciprocal dependence of the Chinese worker and the American consumer promises us a humanity perhaps less glorious, but doubtless more calm, and ultimately more human than that of our fathers.

This argument certainly does not lack persuasive force, and it forms the basis of the point of view that directs nearly all of Europe’s decision makers. It deserves a response.

It must be pointed out that the theory of the pacifying and civilizing effects of commerce is a locus classicus of modern European history and that, unfortunately, the facts have refuted it as regularly as they have confirmed it. Voltaire described with ecstasies of enthusiasm the London Stock Exchange, where all religions and sects gathered and worked in cordial understanding, and where the only heretic was the bankrupt. The hopes of the Enlightenment hardly prepared our ancestors for the quarter century of wars of the Revolution and the Empire.

Yet those hopes did not disappear, and they resurged even more strongly in the nineteenth century. Auguste Comte assured us at the time that we had necessarily left behind the “theological and warrior” age. We all know what happened next, and it’s useless to continue this recitation. The present phase of globalization is not necessarily condemned to the same destiny as the two previous phases, but we should recall that others before us, who were neither less lucid nor less courageous than ourselves, entertained the same hopes we do. That ought to incline us to sobriety.

For the rest, it’s not so difficult to see where the limits of the power of commerce are located. Its force resides in its facility. Agents in an exchange relationship need only very limited agreements on the characteristics and prices of the objects in question and a certain reciprocal confidence that permits each to engage his capital or other resources. But that’s little enough in the end; the actors may never see each other and may deal through intermediaries that neither sees except for a moment in a transaction already devoid of human relationship. In short, commerce requires little “in common,” and so it produces little that is common.

The question, therefore, is whether we can live humanely without things in common or with having in common only the rules of the game that bind specialized institutions that do not need to be political and that function better when they are less political. We cannot. Human life involves relations more important than the exchange of goods and services. Human life encompasses relations of justice, which cannot be subsumed under the “rules of the game.”

At the mention of the word justice , weary Europeans shrug their shoulders, but shortly thereafter they explain the grievances of this or that human group by invoking the “humiliation” that the group has suffered at the hands of the West for two centuries. They do not take account of how much of the disdain they attach to relationships of justice reflects two large political facts: They have dominated the world for two centuries, and in the latter period they transferred this responsibility to their American cousins. He who enjoys domination without accepting the responsibility of government is in the worst position to judge political relationships. Anesthetized by this long irresponsibility, Europeans dream of a humanity reunited in peace by the rules of commerce and the spread of the feeling of common humanity.

To apprehend the vacuity of this notion, it suffices to pose certain questions. How will the United States handle the decline of its capacity to assure the political direction of the world? How will China handle the sudden augmentation of its resources and its power in Asia and in the rest of the world? How are Europeans going to organize their relations with the Muslim world in the new situation created by the settlement of numerous Muslims in the European countries? How are the Muslims, for their part, going to organize the “community of believers” in the new situation?

None of these questions is answerable by extending the rules of commerce and the sense of a common humanity. However desirable these things may be, they hardly affect the relationships that I have just mentioned, because these relationships bear on the direction of the actions carried out by common entities that are political or religious.

Europeans have for some time refused to take account of the gravity of these relationships because they feel themselves capable of seeing, beneath apparent divisions, a humanity already tending toward unification. This religion of humanity is, of all religions, the one that is easiest to show as being based on an illusion. The world will not find its order and its tranquility through the multiplication of the faithful of this religion. This is a strictly European affair, and it will remain so. The world will repose, as always, on the precarious equilibrium determined by the political and spiritual decisions of human communities, and for the description of which there is no other lexicon than the catalog of the cardinal and theological virtues.

There is a precondition, however, to the exercise of these virtues in the political and even in the spiritual order. It is to achieve an exact view of the present state of affairs. The principal factor today is the weakening of the directive capacity of the West, even though the United States remains by far the most powerful individual nation. This relative weakening, in connection with the corresponding reinforcement of previously “peripheral” powers, has produced a “multipolar world,” which many people hope will find its equilibrium in this very plurality.

For my part, I think that the international order can leave hegemonic power behind only with difficulty, and that the weakening of America is freighted with menaces. But this is not the place to pursue these conjectures. What must be emphasized is that today, in the light of “a common world,” all the greatnesses that previously had been overshadowed by the Western monopoly on “progress” are now coming into view. Where there used to be the West and the rest, there is now the West, China, India, the Islamic world, and so on. The political role of Israel exposes our naïve dreams of global unification.

But as I have emphasized, humanity must not be confused with the idol that has been created out of the feeling of a common humanity. Real humanity is made from coexistence and from the tension among the propositions about humanity that are not addressed by the dreams of humanitarians. China, Islam, the Jewish people, the Christian world”these are not just colors of a human rainbow; they are distinct political and spiritual entities that present themselves as propositions and affirmations about humanity and that ought to be rendered compatible by statesmanship and by a philosophical and theological reflection that takes each of these propositions seriously and does not treat them as closed “cultures” on the road to a single humanity. It is not sufficient to say that we are all human beings. What is important is to find the means of a political and spiritual mediation among these propositions, because the West will soon no longer be strong enough to hold the world together. This effort of mediation is spiritual as well as political.

It seems to me that the Catholic Church is called to play a decisive role. Whether she will play it will depend precisely on the virtues of Christians. What role?

When I look at the trend of the present state of affairs, one thing strikes me. Most of the world’s great religious and political communities have a temptation to some form of extremism. There is the Jewish “zealotry” quite recognizable in the colonization of Judea and Samaria; there is the fundamentalism, or “literalism,” of the Protestants that has given rise in the Christian world to a missionary spirit mingled with powerful political and social passions; the Russian Orthodox Church, liberated from communist servitude, has made itself the declared supporter of the successor power and encourages nationalism; and of course there is Islamism. As for the religion of humanity, I have already evoked its fanaticism.

The contemporary Catholic Church is not given to such transports. One can say without exaggeration that she does not know bias or political passion. Perhaps this praiseworthy impartiality is as much the product of her weaknesses as of her virtues. Perhaps it is in part the consequence of the fact that every imprudent gesture on her part is immediately criticized by this or that other party, so that she keeps herself in check. It doesn’t matter.

Only the Catholic Church is in a position to enter into a serious conversation with each one of these greatnesses that I have just mentioned. Because she is the only real universal community”the only “perfectly spiritual republic””she can address herself to all other religious communities who seek support in a political association and in a certain confusion of spiritual and political orders. She can address herself as well to the pagan empire that is China. In a word, she is the center from which and toward which the spiritual constellation of humanity is ordered.

It’s a characteristic of the present situation that mediation is urgently required, while impartiality seems impossible. Consider the relationship between Israel and the “nations.” In recent years, the state of Israel has experienced a disquieting loss of legitimacy. Not only does the Muslim world continue to reject it for well-known religious and political reasons, but contemporary universalism, the religion of humanity so powerful in Europe, has scarcely any better understanding of a nation that desires to preserve its existence and its sovereignty by means that include the force of arms. In response to this loss of legitimacy, Israel has increasingly based its rights on references to the Shoah. Its actions and threats are explicitly meant to prevent a new extermination.

Without judging the political or moral merits of this move, I would like to emphasize that it touches the very meaning of Judaism. The original vocation of the Jewish people was to be the witness and the vehicle of the Covenant between humanity and a God who is friend to humanity. If Israel roots its legitimacy henceforth in the Shoah, it makes itself spiritually dependent on its worst enemies, and bases its legitimacy in that absence or silence of God summed up in the name Auschwitz.

Only a Catholic Church that takes account of its debt to and its dependence on the Jewish people and the calling of Israel will be capable of witnessing to divine friendship. The religion of humanity and the religion of the Shoah are two versions, enemies and friends, of a religion of the absence of God that is currently destroying and demoralizing the West. The West will take courage only if it recovers faith in the goodness and friendship of God. The Catholic Church, mediatrix of the Mediator, has no other political task than making itself a convincing witness of the goodness of God.

Pierre Manent is director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.