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Benedict on Aquinas: "Faith Implies Reason" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | February 1, 2007 | Part Two | Part One

John Paul II makes the following startling statement: "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." What we think is not an indifferent matter, particularly if we think our minds are not bound by what is. This intellectual source of evil calls for a reexamination of the Enlightenment, which had a somewhat different form in each European country, including Poland. It erupted with particular violence in the 20th century with Marxism.

Demonstrating his own careful philosophical studies, John Paul II examines the effect of Descartes and how his thought differed from the philosophy of St Thomas. Aquinas began with being, with what is. Descartes began with thought itself, the famous cogito. At first sight, this difference might seem a mere philosopher's quibble and not the origin of modern evils. But Pope Wojytyla makes a good case for why this difference enabled modern ideologies to be so lethal:

In the pre-Cartesian period, philosophy, that is to say 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 St Thomas Aquinas, and namely the philosophy of esse.

In Aquinas, thus, God was a real and self-sufficient Being who created an actual world to which we are open. God was the "necessary ground of every being."

The shift that took place with Descartes meant that God was "thought." All being, including the divine being, remained within thought. Indeed, in Descartes, for anyone to know anything outside of one's self, he first had to prove the existence of God in his mind. "Philosophy now concerned itself with beings qua content of consciousness and not qua existing independently of it."

The significance of this shift in emphasis is that a Creator God who is subsistent Being (Aquinas) might be able to communicate with real being from outside the causation of creatures, but a God totally under the control of our minds (Descartes) could not do this.

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.

And it was, ironically, precisely this notion of God as being a "topic" of free explanation, ungrounded in being, that the Pope Wojtyla sees as the origin of modern ideological evil.


Evil in the basic sense can only "exist" in something actually good and real. This position is the foundation for any initiative to counteract it. The "good" in the being lacking something, the evil, is always there to continue its path of goodness. This is why, in the world of real being, real esse, there is always "hope," even in the worst evil. Thus, John Paul II could ask about the "limits" of evil. He responded that the limits are only to be found in the "divine mercy." "Evil, in a realist sense, can only exist in relation to good and, in particular, in relation to God, the supreme good" (10). Strictly speaking, there is no "evil" in an idea. The "idea" of evil as such is a good; we are supposed to know what it is.

What was redeemed by Christ was real evil, or better the evil that existed in some real good. The Cross--the redemption through suffering--is the result of evil. But it is the divine way to turn it around to the good. "Man was redeemed and came to share in the life of God through Christ's saving work." That is, the Incarnation was real; the Son became man and dwelt amongst us. This man, foretold by the prophets, was killed on the Cross in a state execution. This happened in real time, in a real place. We know the names of those who carried it out. It is not a product of any imagination. We only know what it is because it happened. Scripture has a factual historical component without which it is myth. This is why Scripture scholars, as it says in Fides et Ratio, also need to know a realist philosophy.

What happens, however, if we have a Cartesian philosophy to explain our redemption? "The entire drama of salvation history had disappeared as far as the Enlightenment was concerned. Man remained alone: alone as creator of is 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" (10). It is worthwhile noting the sharpness of John Paul II's intellect here. That Latin phrase, etsi Deus non daretur, was from the famous Dutch international lawyer Hugo Grotius. It was, as Charles N. R. McCoy used tirelessly to point out, the key concept by which God was removed from natural law which, in turn, became itself "autonomous." Once autonomous, subject only to our own consciousness, we could fashion it as we pleased in principle. From hence forward, ominously, we had "natural rights" which were not based in anything but human will.

This result is precisely what John Paul II spells out. "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." And that, he thinks--since this is what did happen--is the intellectual origin of 20th century ideologies of evil These crimes seem outlandish until we realize their intellectual heritage.

But John Paul II, like Benedict, sees this same ideology not only in Marxism or Islamic voluntarism but also in our liberal and democratic tradition that itself denies any grounding in esse, in being, in what is.

The fall of the regimes built on ideologies of evil put an end to the forms of extermination just mentioned in the countries concerned (Germany and Russia). 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.

Killing the unborn, of course, is not "civil progress," especially in a world like that of Europe itself in desperate need of babies.

John Paul II, who seemingly never tired of talking of "human rights," was quite aware of the dangers involved in a conception of voluntarist rights with no grounding in what is. "It is legitimate and even necessary," he continued, "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." There can today be little doubt that this new "ideology of evil" is prevalent among us. There can be no doubt that many refuse to call it what it is, "an ideology of evil."

If we "close ourselves off to life," to ourselves, and from God, as Benedict put it, we "impoverish" only ourselves. The point of these reflections, then, is that evils and their ideologies have an intellectual history and their own inner persuasiveness. The philosophy of Aquinas, its realism, is not merely an indifferent option. It teaches us what is at stake when we refuse to allow our minds know reality but insist rather that our own consciousness is responsible for our freedom and our own reason. We claim ourselves to be the causes of what is good and what is evil, both in our own lives and in our public fora. Neither John Paul II nor Benedict denies the good things that exist in the modern world. Both insist, however, in our knowing where we go philosophically wrong. They insist that we see the result of ideas that are no longer rooted in what is.

But there are "limits" to evil. God draws good out of the good in which evil exists. Yet, the divine mercy is not a "voluntarism" that would permit God to declare what is good to be evil and what is evil to be good. God is good. Rather it is a "mercy," a willingness itself to accept suffering, even of the Cross, to forgive those who want to be forgiven. The divine mercy is neither a denial of justice nor a formation of a world with principles opposite of natural law and the Commandments. Rather it is an effort to appeal to our freedom, to our minds, the only basis on which we can finally, if we will, acknowledge the good that is.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:

Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
St. Thomas and St. Francis | G.K. Chesterton
"A Requirement of Intellectual Honesty": On Benedict and the German Bishops | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Intellectual Charity: On Benedict XVI and the Canadian Bishops | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
John Paul the Great | William Oddie
• Are Truth, Faith, and Tolerance Compatible? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
• Why Do We Need Faith? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
What Is Catholic Social Teaching? | Mark Brumley
The Regensburg Lecture: Thinking Rightly About God and Man | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Pope Benedict XVI, Regensburg, and Islam | Various Articles and Authors
Author page for Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
Author page for G. K. Chesterton

Related Ignatius Press Books and Resources:

Summa Theologica (hardcover) | St. Thomas Aquinas
Summa Theologica (softcover) | St. Thomas Aquinas
Aquinas: On Reasons for Our Faith | St. Thomas Aquinas
Guide to Thomas Aquinas | Josef Pieper
The Human Wisdom of St. Thomas | Josef Pieper
John Paul II & St. Thomas Aquinas | John Paul II
St. Thomas Aquinas and the Preaching Beggars | Brendan Larnen, Milton Lomask, and Leonard Everett Fisher
St. Thomas Aquinas Commentary on Colossians | St. Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas and the Liturgy | David Berger
Trinity in Aquinas | Gilles Emery
Memory and Identity | John Paul II
Love and Responsibility | Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II)
The Jeweler's Shop | Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II)
The Legacy of John Paul II: Images and Memories | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
Pope John Paul II: In My Own Words | Pope John Paul II
Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II | George Weigel
Miracles of John Paul II | Pawel Zuchniewicz
Covenant of Love: Pope John Paul II on Sexuality, Marriage, and Family in the Modern World | Fr. Richard Hogan and Fr. John LeVoir
The Funeral Mass of John Paul II (DVD)

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. His most recent book is The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006).

Read more of his essays on his website.

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