Memory and Identity

Of all the many documents produced by the Second Vatican Council, none systematically takes up the question of God. More precisely, though the documents refer again and again to God, and in Trinitarian terms, none is devoted to rethinking the church’s understanding of God and God’s relation to the world.

Here is what the late John Paul II says in Memory and Identity about the attempt on his life on May 13, 1981: “It was as if ‘someone’ was guiding and deflecting that bullet.” The pope’s secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, remarks about the events of the day: “In all this, the hand of God is visible. Everything points toward it.”

Here is what John Paul says about Nazism: “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’....Yet the fact is that divine providence allowed that bestial fury to be unleashed for only those twelve years.”

Memory and Identity originated in conversations that John Paul II had with two Polish intellectuals in 1993. An editorial note explains that the pope reworked these conversations, but does not specify either when he did so or to what extent. The book retains the form of a conversation, with questions and answers, but the pope’s answers go on for so long that it is difficult to imagine him speaking here to anybody.

The book does not show John Paul at his best. His discussion of “the history of European philosophical thought” needs clarification. Some of what he says is also rather dubious. For example, “If man can decide by himself, without God, what is good and what is bad”-for John Paul, this presumption is the mark of Enlightenment thought-“he can also determine that a group of people is to be annihilated....This was the context for the extermination of the Jews and also other groups.” Surely “this” alone, namely Enlightenment thought, was not the full context. The history of Christian anti-Semitism must figure here somehow. Further, historical men and women have decided with God, or so they thought, that some people should be annihilated. This fact frightened and motivated Enlightenment thinkers.

The legacy of the Enlightenment is difficult to assess. As Cardinal Walter Kasper has observed, the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et spes represents a breakthrough for the church in coming to terms with what he calls “the modern problem of autonomy.” But John Paul does not contribute here to the development of this breakthrough. The following two sentences from his book indicate, shockingly, his view of the Enlightenment: “The modern history of Europe, shaped-especially in the West-by the influence of the Enlightenment, has yielded many positive fruits. This is actually characteristic of evil...” For “God can always draw forth good from evil.” Later, the pope writes that, “in all its different forms, the Enlightenment was opposed to what Europe had become as a result of evangelization.” Thus, what he calls “the propaganda of the Enlightenment” must be opposed by Christians, a call that he directs to his fellow Poles, whom he presents throughout the book as stronger and more authentic than citizens of the corrupted “West.” A note of anxiety, though, inflects John Paul’s reflections on his native land. In fact, it sometimes seems that much of the pope’s animus toward what he calls “the problem of liberalism” in Western Europe and the United States is inspired by his anxiety for the future of Poland.

But what is most striking about this book is the pope’s deep faith in divine providence. The belief that God is present and active in history-further, redeeming history-is basic to Judaism and Christianity. But can it credibly be claimed, as the pope does, that “the entire twentieth century was marked by a singular intervention of God,” saving us from ourselves? The pope sees the hand of God in allowing Nazism “only twelve years of existence.” He and his secretary see the hand of God in saving his life from the assassin’s bullet. (See the documents published by the Vatican applying the third secret of Fatima to John Paul.) But if God is to be understood as controlling and directing history, even guiding and deflecting bullets from time to time, does not the question need to be asked: Where was God during-to speak of only the greatest outrage of the last century-the murder of 6 million innocent Jews, including 1 million children? Given the tens of millions of other innocents killed during the twentieth century, it might be claimed that the last century was marked by a singular withdrawal of God, not intervention. To claim that God “allowed” Nazism “only” twelve years, while intervening to prevent the pope’s own death, raises questions about God. To counter that God works in mysterious ways-in the words of Job’s friend Eliphaz, “Have you listened in the council of God?”-seems obscene, even blasphemous after the Shoah. Can mass murder credibly be conceived to belong in some divine plan? Moreover, would the God who somehow sanctioned such crimes be a God we should worship?

Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Hume, and Kant asked questions of this kind. (The author of the book of Job did, too.) The unnamed editors of the late pope’s book expressed the hope “that each reader will find here an answer to some of the questions that he carries in his heart.” John Paul’s last book raises but does not answer the question of God.

Published in the 2005-06-03 issue: 

Bernard G. Prusak is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

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