- The Catholic Thing - https://www.thecatholicthing.org -

On Evil

The “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” of the Ten Commandments were given to us, Chesterton thought, so that, knowing the few things we should avoid, we could enjoy the millions of other things that were quite all right to do. The Commandments were not given to cramp our style. They broaden almost infinitely the scope of what is out there for us to know and accomplish. The things we should not do, when we do them anyhow, usually, if we are honest with ourselves, turn into ashes in our mouths. They make us less than what we ought to be and know we ought to be.

Every so often, it’s a good practice to take a look at evil. We live in a noticeably broken world. We need to account for it lest we be blindsided by our inattention to the real reason things do indeed go wrong. The world is likewise filled with amusing theories about why things go wrong. Most of these theories, when unpacked, avoid the real location of evil.

Evil is not an illusion. When it is put into the world, it makes a difference. But nobody claims that absolutely nothing is wrong. The man who steals locks his door at night. Or, as Samuel Johnson once made the same point, if a man at an elegant dinner party solemnly tells the guests that he sees no theoretical reason for private property, the host should count the family silver at the end of the evening.

But evil is not just another “thing” either. All things are good. We might speak of evil men or angels. When we do, we do not mean that what-it-is to be this man or this angel is evil. It isn’t, even when a given man or angel in fact does something terrible. Evil exists in an otherwise good agent.

Why isn’t this just pious double talk? It is, unless we are willing to think more carefully about it. This view will sound grandiose, but evil exists in the world of both men and angels because of a rather rash decision on the part of the Godhead. This decision invited beings that were not gods, and never would be, into the internal life of the Trinity. This “invitation” was, strictly speaking, “unnatural” both to men and angels. Whatever was “due” to them, it was not a rightful participation in God’s own life. To so participate, they had to be invited and elevated in their very being.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1562 [Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels]
But once this elevation happened, the tables were turned against God. That is, by His own creative choice, God could not bring into His life anyone who chose not to enter it. If He tried to bring them in against their wills, He would be contradicting both Himself and the free creature He made.

So God was stuck. If any of these creatures, after discernment in their consciences, decided that they preferred themselves and their own ways, they had to be left with what they chose. Any friendship, especially the divine one, must also be chosen on both sides. God, indeed, on seeing an initial human rejection, did inaugurate a counter-plan. We call it redemption. It was premised on the fact that men still had to accept redemption’s way: through the Cross. Angels evidently, because of their nature, could not be given a second chance.

So what does this transcendent stuff have to do with evil? Everything, as it turns out. St. Paul tells us that the world itself “groans” because of the disorders of the free creatures, who seem to be related to each other in good and evil. The location of evil thus is found in a being that need not choose evil but does. He puts into the world, in other words, an act that lacks something that ought to be there.

Excuse me, but just how does someone go about putting a lack into his own actions? It’s pretty simple, actually. We may not have it articulated into a fancy “theory,” but we have ourselves and what we do as a laboratory in which to observe the point. Every choice we make could have been otherwise. This is what freedom of the will means. The Commandments suggest to us, and we know most of it by experience, that certain things ought not to be done.

As Socrates said, “it is never right to do wrong.” What we do is not frivolous. Our lives mean something to God and to everyone around us. Evil means that by what we do in this world, we can choose implicitly or explicitly to reject God’s invitation to participate in His eternal life. God took a chance in creating us free. To prevent this freedom from ever going wrong by choosing evil required God not to create us in the first place. This path was not chosen.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.