Divine Mercy and the Limits of Evil

MEMORY AND IDENTITY: CONVERSATIONS AT THE DAWN OF A MILLENNIUM. By Pope John Paul II (Rizzoli, 2005), 172 pp. HB $19.95.

To “review” a book of a pope, especially of the late John Paul II, is a presumptuous enterprise, to say the least. But not to notice this remarkable book and reflect on it is an act of intellectual sloth. It is an amazingly profound book. In so many ways, it grips one’s soul, even if someone thinks he does not have a soul. It is a book of great depth and still rather easy to read. Even your average college professor can understand it as well as your average grandmother. It is written as a conversation, one based on an earlier conversation after which the Pope had time to reflect on it and rewrite or rethink what he had said.

The book ends with an “Epilogue,” which is about the assassination attempt on the Pope’s life. This last conversation, we are told, took place with the Pope’s secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisy, at a “small dining room of the Papal Palace at Cartel Gandolfo.” This is the sort of “table talk” that Luther never had. The whole book carries with it a sense of immediacy and warmth. One might almost say that it is about what Karol Wojtyla learned while he was pope, perhaps because he was pope. One has the impression while reading this fascinating book that this great man we knew as John Paul II was alert and watching every second of his papacy, wondering what it was about, proposing his answers, seeing the teachings of the Gospels unfold before him. “I am constantly aware that in everything I say and do in fulfillment of my vocation, my mission, my ministry, what happens is not just my own initiative. I know that it is not I alone who act in what I do as the Successor of Peter” (165).

In one of his earliest addresses as Pope, Benedict XVI referred to his predecessor’s teaching on the purpose of evil, or at least his answer to evil, that is contained in this moving book. I recall reading somewhere years ago that, on being appointed the Head of the Congregation on the Doctrine of Faith, Josef Ratzinger accepted this difficult and fundamental post only if he could, in his (Ratzinger’s) own way, continue his own philosophical, literary, and theological reflections. In a way, Pope Wojtyla followed the same example. If we take books like this one, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, or Giftand Mystery, we see not so much the papal teaching authority, but the man who is pope reflecting on the meaning of the world, Christianity, culture, and all the issues that have interested this man. These two men, Wojtyla and Ratzinger, intellectually, were, in the history of the Church, perhaps the greatest one-two punch since Peter and Paul.

One thing that struck me forcefully while reading this book was how Polish John Paul II remained even while traveling all over the known world and living in the Seat of Peter. This book is a constant reflection of the place of Poland, as a nation, as a part of Europe, as a nation that lost and found itself, as a philosophical enterprise. We find little about Italy in this book, not that John Paul II did not love Italy. He did. But here is perhaps the charter of why Benedict XVI is now our pope since John Paul II in this book shows why the major problems that the Church confronts have their origins in Europe’s own understanding of and loyalty, or lack of it, to what caused it to be Europe in the first place, namely, Christianity. The early chapters of this book show John Paul II as, among other things, a philosopher of history, indeed a philosopher period. But throughout this book the emphasis is on the history of what happened in this man’s time, in Europe. It brings him face to face with the mystery of evil, or even more, with its “limits,” as he calls them.

No doubt, the philosophical and theological reflection on evil is a crucial apologetic and polemic issue. The existence of various evils, on large or small scales, is, as we know from Aquinas, one of the major reasons given for unbelief. Are such reasons valid? We will find few more original and penetrating discussions of evil, few more frank confronting of what it is, than those made by this man who evidently experienced in one way or another the worst that our era had to offer. John Paul II not only knows about Nazism and Communism, he also is not afraid to call unjust killing what it is, wherever it occurs. “The fall of the regimes built on ideologies of evil put an end to the forms of extermination just mentioned in the countries concerned. However, there remains the legal extermination of human beings conceived but unborn. And in this case, that extermination is decreed by democratically elected parliaments, which invoked the notion of civil progress for society and for all humanity” (11). How many Catholics, indeed how many legislators and judges of any persuasion in this and other countries, can read that blunt passage with a clear conscience?

And what is the limit of this evil that has indeed been found in modern times more perhaps than in other times? “If I have wanted to underline the limit imposed upon evil in European history, I must conclude that the limit is constituted by good—the divine good and the human good that have been revealed in that history, over the course of the last century and of entire millennia. But it is hard to forget the evil that has been personally experienced—one can only forgive. And what doesn’t it mean to forgive, if not to appeal to a good that is greater than evil?” (15). In this very passage we recognize, of course, the passage from Augustine that Aquinas cited to answer the same question.

As I said, a surprising amount of this book is taken up by the question of what is a nation, particularly in the light of Polish history. At first this subject will seem rather odd. But besides all his efforts to save the family and love through his theology of marriage and the body, John Paul II wants to save nations too. He does not think that nations have “souls” of course, but he knows man is a social and political animal. He contrasts “patriotism” with “nationalism.” We are intended to live in the nations. The world community, such as it is, cannot simply absorb the variety of the nations, this would not be the good. “Every danger that threatens the overall good of our native land becomes an occasion to demonstrate this love. Our history teaches us that Poles have always been willing to make great sacrifices to preserve this good, or to regain it. The many tombs of soldiers who fought for Poland on different fronts around the world testify to this…” (66). We recall the Poles in the American Revolution. Wojtyla was not a pacifist. “The Western democracies deluded themselves thinking they could achieve something by negotiating with Hitler” (141).

The title of this book is Memory and Identity. In this sense it is a profound Augustinian reflection on memory and how both men and nations know what they are because they remember. And of course, this leads the Pope to the Eucharist and to Mary who are pictured in the sources of revelation as “remembering.” “Do this in memory of me.” Mary remembered all the things that happened to Christ even from his Incarnation. “To tell the truth, memory belongs more to the mystery of woman than to that of man. Thus it is in the history of families, in the history of tribes and nations, and thus too in the history of the Church” (150).

One thing characteristic of minds like that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI is that they understand what they oppose. It has long been assumed that the Church is something that is out of date, that it is simple, even blind. What this book makes startlingly clear is that the Church in its leadership at the level of the papacy is astonishingly alert to the theoretic and practical issues, to the ideas that shoot through the modern mind. “To live as if God did not exist means to live outside the parameters of good and evil, outside the context of values derived from God. It is claimed that man himself can decide what is good or bad. And this program is widely promoted in all worst of ways” (48). The essence of modernity as it conceives itself as a complete explanation of all that matters is the claim to be able to decide what is good and what is evil. When Pope Wojtyla reminds us, as he does in this book, that this was the very proposition that was made to our first parents in Genesis, we know that our “modernity” is not so modern. We realize that our Christian leadership does know what it is talking about. We wonder only why we do not listen. This is again the mystery of evil and its limits in the divine mercy.

This is a book not to be missed. It is the second from the last book that this great man gave to us. In the end, he both taught us how to live and how to die. Here he has much to say on how we think and how our thought relates to our lives and to the truth of things.

James V. Schall, S.J.
Georgetown University
Washington, D.C.

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