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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
"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
"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
— John Paul II, "The Limit Imposed on Evil in European History."
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."  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
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
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.
 John Paul II, Memory and Identity (New York: Rizzoli, 2005), 38.
 Ibid. , 14.
 Ibid., 55.
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
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
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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