Ideologies of Evil

by Pope John Paul II


This meditation on the ideologies of evil was taken from Pope John Paul II's book Memory and Identity. Each chapter of the book suggests the answer to a question which either exercised his mind or which he provoked in discussion with laymen and priests. This chapter explains how the philosophy of Descartes has replaced that of St. Thomas Aquinas. "If we wish to speak rationally about good and evil, we have to return to Saint Thomas Aquinas, that is, to the philosophy of being. With the phenomenological method, for example, we can study experiences of morality, religion, or simply what it is to be human, and draw from them a significant enrichment of our knowledge. Yet we must not forget that all these analyses implicitly presuppose the reality of the Absolute Being and also the reality of being human, that is, being a creature. If we do not set out from such "realist" presuppositions, we end up in a vacuum."

Larger Work

Memory and Identity



Publisher & Date

Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2005

How, then, did the ideologies of evil originate? What are the roots of nazism and communism? Why did they fail?

These questions have a profound philosophical and theological significance. We need to reconstruct the "philosophy of evil" in its European and extra-European dimensions. This reconstruction will take us beyond the realm of ideology and into the world of faith. We need to consider the mystery of God, the mystery of creation and, in particular, the mystery of man. In the first few years of my ministry as Successor of Peter, I tried to express these three mysteries through the encyclicals Redemptor Hominis, Dives in Misericordia, and Dominum et Vivificantem. This triptych explores the Trinitarian mystery of God. Everything I said in the encyclical Redemptor Hominis I brought with me from Poland. Likewise, the reflections offered in Dives in Misericordia were the fruit of my pastoral experience in Poland, especially in Krakow. That is where Saint Faustina Kowalska is buried, she who was chosen by Christ to be a particularly enlightened interpreter of the truth of Divine Mercy. For Sister Faustina, this truth led to an extraordinarily rich mystical life. She was a simple, uneducated person, and yet those who read the Diary of her revelations are astounded by the depth of her mystical experience.

I mention Sister Faustina because her revelations, focused on the mystery of Divine Mercy, occurred during the period preceding the Second World War. This was precisely the time when those ideologies of evil, nazism and communism, were taking shape. Sister Faustina became the herald of the one message capable of off-setting the evil of those ideologies, the fact that God is Mercy—the truth of the merciful Christ. And for this reason, when I was called to the See of Peter, I felt impelled to pass on those experiences of a fellow Pole that deserve a place in the treasury of the universal Church.

The encyclical on the Holy Spirit, Dominum et Vivificantem, was conceived a little later: it had its gestation in Rome. It developed during meditation on Saint John's Gospel, on the words spoken by Jesus during the Last Supper. It was in those final hours of Christ's earthly life that we were given perhaps the most complete revelation on the Holy Spirit. One passage from that farewell discourse is highly significant for the question we are considering. Jesus says that the Holy Spirit "will convince the world concerning sin" (Jn 16:8). As I tried to penetrate these words, I was led back to the opening pages of the Book of Genesis, to the event known as "original sin." Saint Augustine, with extraordinary perceptiveness, described the nature of this sin as follows: amor sui usque ad contemptum Dei—self-love to the point of contempt for God.[1] It was amor sui which drove our first parents toward that initial rebellion and then gave rise to the spread of sin throughout human history. The Book of Genesis speaks of this: "you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Gn 3:5), in other words, you yourselves will decide what is good and what is evil.

The only way to overcome this dimension of original sin is through a corresponding amor Dei usque ad contemptum sui—love for God to the point of contempt of self. This brings us face to face with the mystery of man's redemption, and here the Holy Spirit is our guide. It is he who allows us to penetrate deeply into the mysterium Crucis and at the same time to plumb the depths of the evil perpetrated by man and suffered by man from the very beginning of his history. That is what the expression "convince the world about sin" means, and the purpose of this "convincing" is not to condemn the world. If the Church, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can call evil by its name, it does so only in order to demonstrate that evil can be overcome if we open ourselves to amor Dei usque ad contemptum sui. This is the fruit of Divine Mercy. In Jesus Christ, God bends down over man to hold out a hand to him, to raise him up, and to help him continue his journey with renewed strength. Man cannot get back onto his feet unaided: he needs the help of the Holy Spirit. If he refuses this help, he commits what Christ called "the blasphemy against the Spirit," the sin which "will not be forgiven" (Mt 12:31). Why will it not be forgiven? Because it means there is no desire for pardon. Man refuses the love and the mercy of God, since he believes himself to be God. He believes himself to be capable of self-sufficiency.

I have referred briefly to the three encyclicals, which seem to me to offer a fitting commentary on the entire teaching of the Second Vatican Council, and also on the complexity of the historical period in which we live.

Over the years I have become more and more convinced that the ideologies of evil are profoundly rooted in the history of European philosophical thought. Here I should mention some aspects of European history, and especially its dominant cultural trends. When the encyclical on the Holy Spirit was published, there were some sharply negative reactions from certain quarters in the West. What prompted these reactions? They arose from the same sources as the so-called European Enlightenment over two centuries earlier—particularly the French Enlightenment, though that is not to exclude the English, German, Spanish, and Italian versions. The Enlightenment in Poland followed a path all its own. Russia, on the other hand, apparently escaped the upheaval of the Enlightenment. There, the crisis of Christian tradition arrived from a different direction, erupting at the beginning of the twentieth century with even greater violence in the form of the radically atheist Marxist revolution.

In order to illustrate this phenomenon better, we have to go back to the period before the Enlightenment, especially to the revolution brought about by the philosophical thought of Descartes. The cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) radically changed the way of doing philosophy. In the pre-Cartesian period, philosophy, that is to say the cogito, or rather the cognosco, was subordinate to esse, which was considered prior. To Descartes, however, the esse seemed secondary, and he judged the cogito to be prior. This not only changed the direction of philosophizing, but it marked the decisive abandonment of what philosophy had been hitherto, particularly the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and namely the philosophy of esse. Previously, everything was interpreted from the perspective of esse and an explanation for everything was sought from the same standpoint. God as fully Self-sufficient Being (Ens subsistens) was believed to be the necessary ground of every ens non subsistens, ens participatum, that is, of all created beings, including man. The cogito, ergo sum marked a departure from that line of thinking. Now the ens cogitans enjoyed priority. After Descartes, philosophy became a science of pure thought: all esse—both the created world and the Creator—remained within the ambit of the cogito as the content of human consciousness. Philosophy now concerned itself with beings qua content of consciousness and not qua existing independently of it.

At this point it is worth pausing to examine the traditions of Polish philosophy, especially what happened after the Communist party came to power. In the universities, every form of philosophical thought that did not correspond to the Marxist model was subjected to severe restrictions, and this was done in the simplest and most radical way: by taking action against the people who represented other approaches to philosophy. Foremost among those who were removed from teaching posts were the representatives of realist philosophy, including exponents of realist phenomenology like Roman Ingarden and also Izydora Dambska of the Lviv-Warsaw school. It was more difficult to deal with the exponents of Thomism, since they were based at the Catholic University of Lublin and the Theology Faculties of Warsaw and Krakow, as well as the major seminaries, but they too eventually fell victim to the merciless hand of the regime. Certain eminent thinkers who maintained a critical attitude toward dialectical materialism were also regarded with suspicion. Of these I particularly remember Tadeusz Kotarbiriski, Maria Ossowska, and Tadeusz Czezowski. Clearly it was not possible to remove from the university's teaching program such courses as logic and the methodology of science; yet in different ways the "dissident" professors could be subjected to restrictions, thus limiting by every possible means their influence on students.

What happened in Poland after the Marxists came to power had much the same effect as the philosophical developments that occurred in Western Europe in the wake of the Enlightenment. People spoke, among other things, of the "decline of Thomistic realism" and this was understood to include the abandonment of Christianity as a source for philosophizing. Specifically, the very possibility of attaining to God was placed in question. According to the logic of cogito, ergo sum, God was reduced to an element within human consciousness; no longer could he be considered the ultimate explanation of the human sum. Nor could he remain as Ens subsistens, or "Self-sufficient Being," as the Creator, the one who gives existence, and least of all as the one who gives himself in the mystery of the Incarnation, the Redemption, and grace. The God of Revelation had ceased to exist as "God of the philosophers." All that remained was the idea of God, a topic for free exploration by human thought.

In this way, the foundations of the "philosophy of evil" also collapsed. Evil, in a realist sense, can only exist in relation to good and, in particular, in relation to God, the supreme Good. This is the evil of which the Book of Genesis speaks. It is from this perspective that original sin can be understood, and likewise all personal sin. This evil was redeemed by Christ on the Cross. To be more precise, man was redeemed and came to share in the life of God through Christ's saving work. All this, the entire drama of salvation history, had disappeared as far as the Enlightenment was concerned. Man remained alone: alone as creator of his own history and his own civilization; alone as one who decides what is good and what is bad, as one who would exist and operate etsi Deus non daretur, even if there were no God.

If man can decide by himself, without God, what is good and what is bad, he can also determine that a group of people is to be annihilated. Decisions of this kind were taken, for example, by those who came to power in the Third Reich by democratic means, only to misuse their power in order to implement the wicked programs of National Socialist ideology based on racist principles. Similar decisions were also taken by the Communist party in the Soviet Union and in other countries subject to Marxist ideology. This was the context for the extermination of the Jews, and also of other groups, like the Romany peoples, Ukrainian peasants, and Orthodox and Catholic clergy in Russia, in Belarus, and beyond the Urals. Likewise all those who were "inconvenient" for the regime were persecuted; for example, the ex-combatants of September 1939, the soldiers of the National Army in Poland after the Second World War, and those among the intelligentsia who did not share Marxist or Nazi ideology. Normally this meant physical elimination, but sometimes moral elimination: the person would be more or less drastically impeded in the exercise of his rights.

At this point, we cannot remain silent regarding a tragic question that is more pressing today than ever. 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 invoke the notion of civil progress for society and for all humanity. Nor are other grave violations of God's law lacking. I am thinking, for example, of the strong pressure from the European Parliament to recognize homosexual unions as an alternative type of family, with the right to adopt children. It is legitimate and even necessary to ask whether this is not the work of another ideology of evil, more subtle and hidden, perhaps, intent upon exploiting human rights themselves against man and against the family.

Why does all this happen? What is the root of these post-Enlightenment ideologies? The answer is simple: it happens because of the rejection of God qua Creator, and consequently qua source determining what is good and what is evil. It happens because of the rejection of what ultimately constitutes us as human beings, that is, the notion of human nature as a "given reality"; its place has been taken by a "product of thought" freely formed and freely changeable according to circumstances. I believe that a more careful study of this question could lead us beyond the Cartesian watershed. If we wish to speak rationally about good and evil, we have to return to Saint Thomas Aquinas, that is, to the philosophy of being. With the phenomenological method, for example, we can study experiences of morality, religion, or simply what it is to be human, and draw from them a significant enrichment of our knowledge. Yet we must not forget that all these analyses implicitly presuppose the reality of the Absolute Being and also the reality of being human, that is, being a creature. If we do not set out from such "realist" presuppositions, we end up in a vacuum.

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