“The Fall of the Gods” by Father James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S. J.

Georgetown University, DC, 20057-1200


“In this Psalm (81), in a great concentration, in a prophetic vision, we can see the power taken from the gods. Those that seemed gods are not gods, lose their divine characteristics, and fall to earth. Diis estis et moriemini sicut homine (“You are gods, but you shall die like man,” cf. 81: 6-7): the weakness of power, the fall of the divinities. This process that is achieved along the path of faith of Israel, and which is summed here in one vision, is the true process of the history of religion, the fall of the gods.”

–Benedict XVI, Opening Address to Synod of Bishops for the Middle East.[1]


In an extraordinary address to the opening of the Near East Synod, the Holy Father recalled that the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. defined Mary as the Theotókos, the Mother of God. Fifteen hundred years later, Pius XI established “Mary, the Mother of God,” as a feast in the Church. When John XXIII opened Vatican II on October 11, 1962, he put it under the patronage of Mary, the Mother of God. At the end of the Council, Paul VI added the patronage for the subsequent work and effects of the Council to “Mary, the Mother of the Church.” Benedict adds that these two titles refer to the same mother. The present Synod of Bishops on the Near East, that cradle of Christianity, now no longer in Christian hands, likewise began on October 11. Coincidences!

The Church has memory. We might even say that “the Church is memory.” The essential things do not pass away, only heaven and earth will pass away, not God’s Word. In the Mass, after the Consecration, what do we do but remember? “We recall His, passion, resurrection from the dead, and His glorious ascension….” We make them present, or, perhaps better, these events are present in Christ’s eternal now, in the Body and Blood of Christ, which the words help us to remember and realize. But why does Benedict bring in Mary and the famous definition of some four hundred years after Christ? Why is the title, “Mother of God,” so significant? And what’s its relation to “the “Mother of the Church”?

This pope always speaks with the greatest profundity. He recalls the most remarkable things. Here, he begins by reminding us that the very idea of God having “mother” was and remains shocking to almost all religious minds. As Msgr. Sokolowski has often and eloquently pointed out, the great and abiding opposition to Christian revelation is not that “God is God,” but that “God became man.” Is not this contradictory? The explanation of why it is not is at the very foundation of the Catholic mind. Almost the whole history of theology is bound up with the defense of this latter proposition and the reality of what it signifies. All other religions minds and traditions cannot or will not accept the fact that Christ was both God and man. (See Christian Faith & Human Understanding, 69-85).


It is extremely interesting that Benedict XVI would choose this seemingly irrelevant topic for a Synod on the Near East. Why isn’t he talking of Islam, or Israel, or peace treaties, or relativism, anything “useful”? The fact is: he is. Until our minds are clear, our politics will be muddled. The first step, as Benedict always intimates, is mind clearing, not “mind-cleansing.” Catholicism does not really begin its theologically explanatory mission until it thinks clearly. Not all theologians do this, of course. Revelation is also directed to mind, to philosophy. We should not doubt it.

What’s the connection between the Theotókos and current events? The core issue is whether we still worship “false gods,” even when we do not call them such? But no one in the ancient world (and few today) could see how the eternal God had a mother, even though there were all kinds of cavorting among the classical Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. In spite of the “god is Mother” crowd, it just does not work. Christ was God. He is the Second Person within the Godhead. He is also man. He had a mother. But He never called his Father “Mother.” He called Him “Father.” He told us to do the same. Christ told us to use the words “Our Father.” He told us to do the same. But Christ Himself always spoke of and to “My Father.” The word “Father” means something. The word “mother” means something too, but something else.

“Mother” is what Christ called Mary. That is what she was. He probably called her “Mary” once in a while. Yet, the “Mother of God” is what the Council of Ephesus defined. The infant born of her was true man, true God, one Person, two natures that are distinct. Mary is designated as “the Mother of God” because her Son was true God. What else could we call her? The Church ever since has firmly held this teaching as central in the understanding of the particular revelation that it has received. It did  not just make it up, but heard it, and figured its meaning out in as clear and exact philosophical terms as possible. The Church passes it on for us to believe and know; it thinks about it, but it does not change it. God did have a mother, one Mary, of whom we read in the New Testament. There is no doubt that she is there. She was not a goddess, though she was “blessed.”

Now this fact that Mary was not a goddess is where Benedict takes up the intriguing issue of “the fall of the gods.” This is such a striking theme in this address to the Synod. I presume the good bishops noted it. What gods have fallen because of Mary? The Old Testament is full of idols of stone and wood that the Hebrews come across in their neighbors. They were warned: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy, 6:4). The first Commandment seems to be designed to protect against the most subtle of the temptations of man, the temptation to worship false gods, including himself and his ideologies. Invariably, the worship of false gods results in a false understanding of man, for man is made to love and worship the true God. It is in his being.

“The man Jesus is God.” He did not just have “something to do with God.” He was not just a prophet, or a good guy, or a revolutionary, though He probably had a touch of these too.  God indeed “became” man, but He was already and still is God. That did not change. Indeed, we might better say that, as a result of God “descending” to be man, He really took us up to the divinity. This is really what the Resurrection is about. We do not become “gods.” We remain ourselves, body and soul. But we are invited to live at a lever higher than our nature. We can do this because Christ was true man and God. He did it. He invited us into the society formed by Him on the basis that man, after his own possibilities, is invited into the inner life of the Godhead as his ultimate end and good. The only other thing available to him is the rejection of this offer.


The fact that Mary was a woman, a human being, but also the Mother of God meant, logically, that the ancient concepts of the gods could no longer stand. It had to fall. Something greater had occurred in her motherhood. The “Mother of God” and the “Mother of the Church” are “intrinsically” linked. Mary is present at the moment of Christ’s Incarnation and birth, as she is also present in Acts at the beginning of the Church from whence the Apostles are now directed to “the whole world.” Christ unites “the cosmos” in Himself. He is the “Head of a great body, or the Great Church” directed by the Holy Spirit. Mary is the “heart” of the Church.

Between the birth of Christ and the birth of the Church lies the life, the Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension of the Lord. This tells us how God went about making His presence known in the world. These events, with His words, indicated who Christ was, what He was about in this world, that of our salvation. “God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son….”

To emphasize what he is driving at, the Pope turns to Psalm 81. Here God is still among “gods.” With the announcement of the Incarnation, “we can see power taken from the gods.” This removal is because God did not “incarnate” Himself in a spirit or a neighborhood god. He chose the Virgin in Nazareth, a real creature, a human person of the species man. The whole divine enterprise evidently depended on her “fiat.” Now, “those that seemed to be gods are not gods.” How could they compare with Mary’s Son?

The “fall of the gods” followed Israel and proceeded into the Church. Something else was being prepared by God with respect to the gods, something even the Hebrew leaders did not anticipate. This plan is the “true process of history of religion.” What goes on in history is the preparation of our kind to enter the Kingdom of God, to participate in the divine life.  Such is what is really happening in the places and times we can identify, including our own times. The center of this new history is the Incarnation. On the human side, it is the consent of the Virgin, without which it could not take place in the way that it did. The “problem” of the history of religion is precisely “the fall of the gods.” That is, what undermined the gods that we see even in the Old Testament? The answer is that something greater has come to pass to overshadow the shadowy gods.

Aristotle’s First Mover, Benedict maintains, does not “go out” to the world. He draws nothing to himself. But the God of the Hebrews, in Christ, does go out of Himself. The initiative is not on man’s side. God intervenes within history in a human way, that is, by becoming man Himself in the Word made flesh. Christ does not cease to be Word or God. That is what He is as the Second Person to whom the Father has eternally generated but not outside of Himself. Christ, the “redeem of man,” as John Paul II called Him, is the reflection of the Father as received. Christ, in turn, with the Father, sends the Spirit. This divine intervention comes to us not as necessity but as gift.


Like Aristotle’s god, God need not create, but can. It is not altogether certain to me that had Aristotle known revelation that his philosophy could not have accepted it. In fact, I think it could have without becoming a totally different philosophy. It would have simply have been an improved philosophy, as Aquinas suspected. Aristotle’s isolated god was not totally illogical, granted what he knew. He did not know revelation. We only know that the One God created because He did and told us He did. That is why we think about it to show that it is not unreasonable. In the book of Revelation, we also read of “the fall of the angels.” Not all fell, but some did. The fall of the angels and the gods that needed to fall may not be totally unrelated, especially when we see what Benedict calls modern “divinities.”

But Benedict speaks here of those who are not “truly angels.” He is speaking of the gods, spirits, ideas that deflect us from our final end. They are more familiar than we perhaps like to admit. These false gods too occur all through history. They are idols. We have martyrs to prove their danger and constant presence, even today, perhaps especially today. “The fall is not only the knowledge that they are not God; it is the process of the transformation of the world, which costs blood, causes the suffering of the witnesses of Christ.” We can, if we look, see this going on, this continued persecution by false gods. We do not like to know about it.

“Let us remember the great powers of history today,” Benedict tells us. The pope adds something quite provocative: “Let us remember the anonymous capital that enslaves man which is no longer in man’s possession but is an anonymous power served by men, by which men are  tormented, even killed.” Something strange, pervasive exists in the culture, “the culture of death,” as John Paul II called it. The individuals who bear and promote it often seem like unthinking zombies or automata. They refuse to admit the results of ideas they think popular and powerful. They blind themselves.

Benedict next gives examples of “powers” that do these horrid things. First he mentions the “power of terroristic ideologies.” “Violent deeds are apparently made in the name of God, but this is not God; they are false divinities that have to be unmasked; they are not God.” Again, this remark is but a recapitulation of both the First Commandment and the daily news. Who is Benedict talking about here? He does not explicitly say. But, as far as I know, the only groups who do violence “in the name of God” are those claiming Islamic origins. Benedict next lists “drugs” as another anonymous but all pervasive presence and power. Finally, he cites the prevalence of “public opinions,” those many groups and laws that deny, or make difficult, marriage and chastity.

Benedict calls these ideologies of today “divinities” in the more classic sense of false gods or idols. Such “divinities” must fall. But they are powers that “can destroy the world.” The pope does not exaggerate. They can and are. The pope returns to book 12 of Revelation, about the fleeing woman and the flowing river. “I think that the river is easily interpreted: these are the currents that dominate all and wish to make faith in the Church disappear, the Church that seems no longer to have a place in the face of the force of these currents that impose themselves as only rationality, as the only way to live.” What suffers the force of these aberrant currents is the “face of the people.” The greatest aberrations thus also propose themselves as reason. For this reason alone we need to philosophize to see why it is nos.

In the end, it is the ordinary human being and family who bear the brunt of the ideologies, now increasingly put into law and practice, the scourges of divorce, abortion, homosexuality, and the plans of those who would make human nature and life unrecognizable in the name of improving our lot, things dealt with in Spe Salvi. The pope is right to see this extraordinary lecture on “fall of the gods” to be an aspect of what Theotókos really means throughout the history of dogma and the Church. Mary was the “Mother of God.” We only know and can know God through her Son. She, a mother, stands for the fact that God did become man, again the most difficult and most consoling of all doctrines that really touch our lives, our ordinary lives and the lives that we are called to lead, the inner life of the Trinity itself, something we are first given, should we choose it. All the false divinities and ideologies are but desperate efforts to escape the truth that Mary is the Mother of God and what flows from this fact.

[1] Benedict XVI, October 11, 2010, L’Osservatore Romano, October 13, 2010.

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