The Parting Gift: A Review of JPII’s Last Book

The Problem of Evil

Memory is the faculty that models the identity of human beings at both a personal and collective level. Christ invoked the law of memory when He instituted the Eucharist during the Last Supper: “Do this in memory of Me” (Lk 22:19). “Memory evokes recollections,” says the pope. Just as the Church is the living memory of Christ, so there are many dimensions of memory. Echoing Lincoln 's “mystic chords of memory,” he notes that memory provides man with deep self-understanding, whether it be in the context of the family, the clan, the nation, language, or culture.

Memory and Identity focuses on the mysterium iniquitatis as manifested in the monstrous ideologies of the 20th century, Nazism and communism. The discussion turns on the problem of evil that, according to the teachings of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, is always the absence of some good that ought to be present in a given being. It is a privation, never a total absence, of good. Good and evil are grounded in the same soil: human nature.

Central to the Holy Father's reflections on the mystery of good and evil is the Enlightenment that, at least in France, attacked the Church as l'infâme. This leader of the institution most abhorred by the philosophes allows that the Enlightenment “has yielded many positive fruits” despite giving rise to “the ideologies of evil” in the history of European philosophical thought. John Paul II recognizes the varieties of Enlightenment thinking in different countries. He would probably concur with Gertrude Himmelfarb and others who have described the positive aspects of the Scottish, English, and American Enlightenments as recognizing the role of virtue and religion in a liberal social order. He describes “a stimulating synthesis of the relation between Christianity and the Enlightenment” in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

The Cartesian Turning Point

The pope reconstructs the “philosophy of evil” in Europe in the last century. He identifies mankind's desire to be like God (Gn 3:5) and take upon itself the right to decide what is good and what is evil as the key element in this turn of thought. The only way to overcome this error is through a corresponding love for God to the point of contempt of self. John Paul II believes man overcomes this propensity only with the help of the Holy Spirit. Refusing this aid would constitute what Christ called “the blasphemy against the Spirit,” the sin that “will not be forgiven” (Mt 12:31), since there is no desire for pardon. “Man refuses the love and mercy of God, since he believes himself to be God. He believes himself to be capable of self-sufficiency,” says the pontiff.

The pope pinpoints the pre-Enlightenment thought of Descartes as a revolutionary turning point in European thinking. Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) signifies the subordination of existence (esse) to subjective consciousness. He claims that “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.” God has been reduced to an element of human consciousness, no longer considered the ultimate explanation of the human being. All that remains is the idea of 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,” says the late Holy Father. Indeed, a similar pattern emerged in the Soviet Union and other countries subject to Marxist ideology. As famously articulated by Dostoyevsky's Ivan Karamazov, if God does not exist, everything is permitted.

Spiritual Self-Defense

For those who were subjected to the last century's systematic evil, “there remains only Christ and His Cross as a source of spiritual self-defense, as a promise of victory.” The world is redeemed by God. This marks the divine limit placed upon evil by good, hate by love, death by resurrection.

Human freedom is a fundamental concern of Memory and Identity. A kind of primitive liberalism defines freedom merely as a release from all constraint or limitation, operating according to private judgment, oblivious to ethical responsibilities. “There is no freedom without truth,” says the pope, tracing his reasoning back to Aristotle. The good that is to be accomplished by human freedom is the good of the virtues. If freedom ceases to be linked with truth and begins to make truth dependent on freedom, it can result in dangerous moral consequences. This abuse of freedom can lead to a reaction that results in the imposition of yet another totalitarian system. Men of intemperate minds cannot be free, said Edmund Burke. “Their passions forge their fetters.”

The book's epilogue is a compelling, first-person description of the 1981 attempted assassination of the Holy Father. The late pope views his survival as a testimony to divine grace. “Yet it was as if someone was guiding and deflecting the bullet,” he maintains. This incident was “one of the final convulsions of the arrogant ideologies unleashed during the twentieth century.” His would-be assassin, Ali Agca, was a professional commissioned by others. John Paul II does not mention the Kremlin by name, but the subtext is clear. This event was typical of “an evil of gigantic proportions, an evil which availed itself of state structures in order to accomplish its wicked work, an evil built up into a system.”

According to John Paul the Great, evil is there partly “to awaken our love, our self-gift in generous and disinterested service to those visited by suffering. In the love that pours forth from the heart of Christ, we find hope for the future of the world. Christ has redeemed the world: ‘By His wounds we are healed' (Is 53:5).”

G. Tracy Mehan III served as assistant administrator for water at the US Environmental Protection Agency, 2001-2003. He is a principal with The Cadmus Group, Inc., an environmental consulting firm in Arlington, Virginia.

(This article originally appeared in Crisis Magazine and is used by permission.)

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