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, and then used their power 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 the countries subject to Marxist ideology. This was the context for the extermination of the Jews, and also of other groups, for example Romany peoples, Ukrainian peasants, 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.
The Limit Imposed Upon Evil in European History
Evil sometimes seems omnipotent, it seems to exercise absolute dominion over the world. In your view, Holy Father, does there exist a threshold that evil is unable to cross?
I have had personal experience of the "ideologies of evil". It remains indelibly fixed in my memory. First there was Nazism. What we could see in those years was terrible enough. Yet many aspects of Nazism were still hidden at that stage. The full extent of the evil that was raging through Europe was not seen by everyone, not even by those of us situated at the epicenter. We were totally swallowed up in a great eruption of evil and only gradually did we begin to realize its true nature. Those responsible took great pains to conceal their misdeeds from the eyes of the world. Both the Nazis during the war and, later, the Communists in Eastern Europe tried to hide what they were doing from public opinion. For along time, the West was unwilling to believe in the extermination of the Jews. Only later did this come fully to light. Not even in Poland did we know all that the Nazis had done and were still doing to the Poles, nor what the Soviets had done to the Polish officials in Katy; and the appalling tragedy of the deportations was still known only in part.
Later, when the war was over, I thought to myself: the Lord God allowed Nazism twelve years of existence, and after twelve years the system collapsed. Evidently this was the limit imposed by Divine Providence upon that sort of folly. In truth, it was worse than folly—it was "bestiality", as Konstanty Michalski wrote. Yet the fact is that Divine Providence allowed that bestial fury to be unleashed for only those twelve years. If Communism had survived for longer and if it still had the prospect of further development to come, I thought to myself at the time, there had to be some meaning in all this.
In 1945, at the end of the war, Communism seemed very solid and extremely dangerous--much more so than before. In 1920 we had had the distinct impression that the Communists would conquer Poland and continue further into Western Europe, poised for world domination. In fact, of course, it never came to that. "The miracle on the Vistula", that is, the triumph of Pi_sudski in the battle against the Red Army, muted those Soviet ambitions. After the victory over Nazism in 1945, though, the Communists felt reinvigorated and they shamelessly set out to conquer the world, or at least Europe. At first, this led to the repartition of the Continent into different spheres of influence, according to the agreement reached at Yalta in February 1945. The Communists merely paid lip-service to this agreement; in reality they broke it in various ways, above all through their ideological invasion and political propaganda both in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Even then I knew at once that Communist domination would last much longer than the Nazi occupation had done. For how long? It was hard to predict. There was a sense that this evil was in some way necessary for the world and for mankind. It can happen, in fact, that in certain concrete situations, evil is revealed as somehow useful, inasmuch as it creates opportunities for good. Did not Johann Wolfgang von Goethe describe the devil as "ein Teil von jener Kraft / die stets das Böse will and stets das Gute schafft"? Saint Paul, for his part, has this to say: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom 12:21). That, after all, is the way to bring about a greater good in response to evil.