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We Are the Risk of God: Reflections On the Limits of Divine Mercy | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | February 25, 2011 | Ignatius Insight

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"It could be said that human history is marked from the very beginning by the limit God the Creator places upon evil."
— John Paul II, "Redemption as the Divine Limit Imposed upon Evil." [1]

"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."
— John Paul II, "The Limit Imposed on Evil in European History." [2]


Pope John Paul II will be beatified on the Feast of the Divine Mercy in May. In his reflection on "The Mystery of Mercy," John Paul II wrote: "It is as if Christ had wanted to reveal that the limit imposed upon evil, of which man is both perpetrator and victim, is ultimately the Divine Mercy." [3] He had lived through the two great totalitarian experiences of the twentieth century, now becoming vague memories for most of us. Yet, he could not help but want to know, if he could, why God allowed such terrible things to happen. Not a few use these evils as reasons not to believe or to claim that God is not good. But John Paul used them rather as an occasion to reflect on what God was teaching us by allowing them to happen with, of course, the free cooperation of the men who carried them out.

In a famous passage, St. Augustine said that God never allows evil unless some good can result through its occurrence. He does not "cause" it but allows it. The persistent question that most of us have, however, has to do with God's "relation" to evil. We want to "blame" Him, not ourselves. Thus, if evil exists in the world, as most will recognize that it does, we must, to explain it, involve God's part in the whole mess. This approach would leave us innocent. We shift the blame to God.

John Paul comes at the question of evil through the perspective of the divine mercy, a teaching of the Polish nun, Sister Faustina, whom John Paul admired. Pope Benedict XVI later explained in Spe Salvi that the divine mercy has to be properly related to the divine justice, to judgment. A world of justice alone is barren and cold. A world of mercy alone tends to accept everything. Both are necessary. But they do not replace each other.

The first section of Pope Wojtyla's little book Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium is entitled "The Limit Imposed upon Evil." The very first thing we notice in logic on reading this title is that evil is not absolutely unlimited. More broadly, no "absolute" evil exists. Nor is evil a "thing." Evil always exists in what is good. Evil has its limits, however extensive its presence may seem. God, in other words, will not simply eradicate evil from the world as if he has the power or desire to do so. The possibility of evil is contingent on the possibility of freedom and love.


We must keep certain distinctions in mind. The first is that, if only God existed, no evil would exist. So had God wanted to eliminated evil, all He had to do was to not create anything. But He did create beings who could choose against Him. Any other kind would not be worth having. He did not create in order that they would so choose; he created that they would not. But he also created them to be free. He did not create automata that had no choice. He created them free because he wanted them freely to love him. If they "had" to love him, the whole effort would have been worthless.

So evil has something to do with creation? The Manichean heresy held that two gods existed, one of good and one of evil. The good god created spirit and the bad god created matter. The book of Genesis rejected such a position. It held that all things were good in their creation including material things. Evil is thus not a created "thing."

"What is evil, then?" Some people want to identify it with suffering. They want to "withdraw" from a world that includes suffering. Suffering normally, however, is a sign that something is wrong in a real world. If we never suffered, we would not know what is wrong with us when we are sick. Suffering is a kind of map that indicates where something is wrong.

Moreover, suffering is not directly a moral evil. Suffering can be endured. Moreover, as Socrates said, "It is better to suffer evil than to do it." This principle means that worse things than suffering exist. The virtue of courage is designed to help us face suffering and pain, to endure them. Indeed, suffering has a redemptive aspect. Since Christ, suffering can be endured for the good and for the sins of others in union with his sacrifice. He too taught us that suffering is not the worst evil.

Suffering happens when something goes wrong. This consequence means that suffering happens in beings who are good but not perfect in their own order. Suffering is not the real evil; the most basic evil is not in the physical order. We attribute evil, for example, to the devils, who were once spirits of high intelligence. They could not suffer physical evils because they lacked bodies. But evidently they could choose to do evil things. The evil that the fallen angels do is similar to the sin of Adam and Eve. Evil formally resides in beings— human or angelic—possessing free will.

Evil thus is not a thing but the lack of a good in a being in which what is lacking should be present. But what John Paul II wanted to know was whether evil had any limits. In talking of the difference between the suffering in Eastern Europe and in Western Europe during World War II, the pope thought that God allowed greater suffering in the East. The people there were more prepared to face it than were those in the West. It is an application of St. Paul's principle that God would not ask more of us than we can endure. We remember the spiritual principle that God chastises those he loves, not because he somehow enjoys it but because he asks sacrifices of those He loves for the good of others.


John Paul II argues that the limits of evil are defined by the divine Mercy. What does this mean? The implication is not that everyone is automatically saved by the divine mercy that will excuse every sin. It won't. It will forgive every sin that can be forgiven, but that is the point. Forgiveness is contingent on repentance. What was new in the world as a result of the Incarnation was precisely that sins were forgiven in principle by the sacrifice of Christ. Since he was both God and man, he alone bridged the gap of the heinousness of sin.

In the classic idea of punishment that we find in Plato and Aristotle, we see that the purpose of punishment, particularly voluntary punishment, was to restore the order that we have broken in our sins. Plato even states that we should want to be punished, that we are incomplete without it. Voluntary punishment is a sign that we recognize our part in putting disorder in the world.
Plato also held that if we commit a crime against someone, that act can only be forgiven by the one against whom the crime or sin was committed. What Christianity adds to this principle is that every sin is also an offense against God. This is why we cannot restore the order by ourselves.

Christianity combines both of these points. The sacrifice of Christ atones for the offense against God, and the public acknowledgement restores the validity of the law we voluntarily broke. Moreover, our sins can be forgiven by God, we can suffer the punishment, but the one against whom we sinned may still not forgive us. This refusal, however, is not our problem. The willingness to forgive is also included in revelation as one of our own responsibilities.

The limits of the divine mercy then are what God can forgive. He cannot forgive what is not asked or acknowledged. If he "imposed" forgiveness on us, we would cease to be free. This would negate the whole drama of our freedom and its consequences. God can respond to evil with good, as can we. Divine mercy broadens the scope of God's relation to us. But that broadening included the redemption on the Cross. God responded to the initial human disorder by driving Adam and Eve out of Paradise. They lost the way to God that was offered to them. But they were promised and finally give a second way, one that still respected their freedom and let the consequences of their acts remain in effect.

The limits of the divine mercy, then, are established by what even God cannot do. He cannot make us free and then make us un-free. What he can do is make us free and, when we abuse our freedom, offer us a way to restore the law or love we have violated. But even here, it is up to us. God can give us an example of what our sins cost. But he cannot make us see it or admit our part in it.

Would it have been better then for God not to have created us? By no means. God indeed risked something in creating free beings. He risked that some would reject his love. But he paid this price. We are redeemed in a fallen world in which justice remains alongside mercy. God preferred something rather than nothing. This is the reason we exist with the offering to us of eternal life, if we respond to his invitation. Such is the drama of the world we live in. We are the risk of God. Those who refuse the gift of grace, however many there be, are left with their choice. God cannot take that away from them. This is the limit of the divine mercy.


[1] John Paul II, Memory and Identity (New York: Rizzoli, 2005), 38.
[2] Ibid. , 14.
[3] Ibid., 55.

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, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age, is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

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