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.
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. Yet it is hard to forget the evil that has been personally experienced: one can only forgive. And what does it mean to forgive, if not to appeal to a good that is greater than any evil? This good, after all, has its foundation in God alone. Only God is this Good. The limit imposed upon evil by divine good has entered human history, especially the history of Europe, through the work of Christ. So it is impossible to separate Christ from human history. This is exactly what I said during my first visit to Poland, in Victory Square, Warsaw. I stated then that it was impossible to separate Christ from my country's history. Is it possible to separate him from any other country's history? Is it possible to separate him from the history of Europe? Only in him, in fact, can all nations and all humanity cross "the threshold of hope"!
Redemption as the Divine Limit Imposed Upon Evil
How precisely are we to understand this limit on evil that we have been discussing? What is the essence of this limit?
When I speak of the "limit imposed upon evil", I am thinking above all of the historical limit which Providence imposed upon the evil totalitarian systems established in the 20th century, namely National Socialism and Marxist Communism. Yet I find myself wanting at this point to explore some further reflections of a theological nature. I do not simply mean what is sometimes described as a "theology of history". Rather, I mean a deeper theological reflection, analyzing the roots of evil, in order to discover how it can be overcome through Christ's saving work.
It is God himself who can place a definitive limit upon evil. He is the essence of Justice, because it is he who rewards good and punishes evil in a manner perfectly befitting the objective situation. I am speaking here of moral evil, of sin. In the Garden of Eden, human history already encounters the God who judges and punishes. The Book of Genesis describes in detail the penalty imposed on our first parents after their sin (cf. Gen 3:14-19). And their penalty has been prolonged throughout human history. Original sin is an inherited condition. As such, it signifies the innate sinfulness of man, his radical inclination towards evil instead of good. There is in man a congenital moral weakness which goes hand in hand with the fragility of his being, with his psycho-physical fragility. And this fragility is accompanied by the multiple sufferings indicated in the Bible, from the very first pages, as punishments for sin.
It is impossible, then, to speak of the "limit imposed upon evil" without considering the ideas contained in the passage just quoted. God himself came to save us and to deliver us from evil, and this coming of God, this "Advent", which we celebrate in such a joyful way in the weeks preceding the Nativity of the Lord, is truly redemptive. It is impossible to think of the limit placed by God himself upon the various forms of evil without reference to the mystery of Redemption.
Could the mystery of Redemption be the response to that historical evil which, in different forms, continually recurs in human affairs? Is it also the response to the evil of our own day? It can seem that the evil of concentration camps, of gas chambers, of police cruelty, of total war and of oppressive regimes-evil which, among other things, systematically contradicts the message of the Cross-it can seem, I say, that such evil is more powerful than any good. Yet if we look more closely at the history of those peoples and nations which have endured the trial of totalitarian systems and persecutions on account of the faith, we discover that this is precisely where the victorious presence of Christ's Cross is most clearly revealed. Against such a dramatic background, that presence may be even more striking. To those who are subjected to systematic evil, there remains only Christ and his Cross as a source of spiritual self-defense, as a promise of victory. Did not the sacrifice of Maximilian Kolbe in the extermination camp at Auschwitz become a sign of victory over evil? And could not the same be said of Edith Stein-that great thinker from the school of Husserl-who perished in the gas chamber of Birkenau, thus sharing the destiny of many other sons and daughters of Israel? And besides these two figures, so often named together, how many others in that tragic history stand out among their fellow prisoners for the strength of the witness they bore to Christ crucified and risen!
The mystery of Christ's Redemption puts down deep roots in our lives. Modern life is a predominantly technological civilization, but here too the mystery leaves its efficacious mark, as the Second Vatican Council reminds us: "To the question of how this unhappy situation can be overcome, Christians reply that all these human activities, which are daily endangered by pride and inordinate self-love, must be purified and perfected by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. Redeemed by Christ and made a new creature by the Holy Spirit, man can, indeed he must, love the things of God's creation: it is from God that he has received them, and it is as flowing from God's hand that he looks upon them and reveres them. Man thanks his divine benefactor for all these things, he uses them and enjoys them in a spirit of poverty and freedom: thus he is brought to a true possession of the world, as having nothing yet possessing everything."
It could be said that the whole of the Constitution Gaudium et Spes is an exploration of the definition of the world with which the document begins: "Therefore the world which the Council has in mind is the whole human family seen in the context of everything which envelops it: it is the world as the theatre of human history, bearing the marks of its travail, its triumphs and failures, the world, which in the Christian vision has been created and is sustained by the love of its maker, which has been freed from the slavery of sin by Christ, who was crucified and rose again in order to break the stranglehold of the evil one, so that it might be fashioned anew according to God's design and brought to its fulfillment."