“Apocalyptic thought: This may be the Judgment of God. Pachamama leads to suspension of all true worship of the Blessed Triune God. In the Major and Minor Prophets of OT, God revokes true worship when His people drift to idols”
— Taylor Marshall
Twitter, March 8th, 2020
As a doctor specializing in the field of Oncology, I have a particular interest in the issue of human suffering. As a Catholic, this interest is heightened by the quest for answers to the age-old question: “Why does a good God allow suffering?” I have studied this topic at length, never quite finding the answer I was looking for, but continuously persisting for knowledge that goes beyond simplistic apologetics and unsatisfactory answers.
It is, therefore, extremely unpleasant to cross paths with tweets like the one quoted above. Even more so, that it was not written by an anonymous troll, but by a former apologist of renown, who still retains a large following and has influence in a certain sector of the Church. It is a perfect showcase, however, of what happens when Catholics (even highly intelligent ones) cut themselves off from the obedience due to Christ, which is necessarily exercised through His Vicar: such Catholics inevitably undergo a downward spiral that eventually consumes both their intellect and their charity.
Dr. Taylor Marshall pins the fault of the coronavirus epidemic, which has assailed Italy and forced the Church to suspend public ceremonies (including Mass), on the alleged idolatrous act performed in the Vatican Gardens during a prayer service at the beginning of the Amazon Synod of 2019. We have already seen other, similar appropriations of natural disasters from Catholic media figures that disseminate this incorrect account of what transpired in the Vatican Gardens.
Claims such as these are not based on a correct understanding of what we know about God and suffering; namely suffering due to natural causes.
When we talk of suffering, we need to understand that most people do not as much fear suffering per se, as they fear meaningless suffering. As psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl postulates: “despair is suffering without meaning.” It is, therefore, an extremely human response to ascribe a purpose to our sufferings, thereby making them more bearable and possibly more controllable.
Unfortunately, throughout history, humans have distorted this coping mechanism, and attributed suffering to evil. In ancient times, when tribal mentalities were widely disseminated, this was done through scapegoating. This meant that people would give a meaning to their suffering by assigning blame to others. As long as they could identify someone else as being the direct cause of their suffering, they could cope with it by hating or fighting that person or entity.
Even today, it is not unusual to find examples of this. It is very natural, though not entirely common, for terminal patients or their family members to retrace their medical history in order to try to find mistakes in the work of their healthcare team. Others may react by blaming God for all their ills, and revolting against Him.
This phenomenon can also be seen in highly religious people, especially when they exhibit a Manicheistic worldview, clearly divided between the good guys (them) and the bad guys (those who do not share their religious values). This is a form of modern-day tribal thinking. There’s “us,” and there’s “them.” And if there is something wrong with the world, then the fault must lie with “them,” since God is good and would never allow for such wrongness otherwise.
Please take note: according to Dr. Marshall’s interpretation, those responsible for the coronavirus epidemic (and the restrictions on Mass and other Church activities that ensued) are the people who performed the service in the Vatican Gardens. Also implicated in this assignment of blame is Pope Francis, who allowed the “pagan” ceremony to take place. In his conspiracy theory book, Dr. Marshall strongly implies that this Pope is the culmination of what he calls an “infiltration” in the Church by evil forces, both natural and supernatural. In constructing his narrative, Dr. Marshall splices the Church into the ones who are in the wrong and those who are right, assuming that the former are the ones who caused God to send a plague that made the Church cancel Masses in Rome as divine judgment. In other words, the “others” are at fault.
Never did Dr. Marshall entertain the possibility that the epidemic might have been a punishment for sacrilegiously dunking into the Tiber of several statues that represent Our Lady of the Amazon to the natives. Quite the contrary: the vandal who performed this stunt was lauded and interviewed by Dr. Marshall, who later even hosted him during his visit to Texas for a speaking engagement. But he is one of “us.” He cannot be blamed.
Dr. Marshall also never considers the possibility that these sacramental restrictions may be a punishment for the way ideologues hijacked the Amazon Synod, which should have been primarily concerned with how to best make the sacraments accessible to Catholics in remote regions. Those ideologues made it all about the issue of priestly celibacy, which is more about First World Culture Wars (of which Dr. Marshall is an active part) than about the Amazonians. Maybe God would like to show First World Catholics what it feels like to not have easy access to the Eucharist.
Neither does Dr. Marshall factor the possibility that this is a divine punishment for a globalized economy of greed, because that would conflict with Dr. Marshall’s political sympathies.
No, the fault for the coronavirus epidemic always lies with “the other,” who clearly must have committed sins that God must punish in order to restore balance. As for Dr. Marshall and his followers, they implicitly present themselves as part of the solution, since they stand opposed to the sinful “others” who caused the problem in the first place.
Dr. Marshall brings up the Old Testament to justify his claim, but in doing so, he is promoting a shallow and fundamentalist (because he excessively literal) reading of the Sacred Scriptures. It is indeed true that there are many biblical examples of natural disasters and diseases as a manifestation of God’s wrath. I certainly do not exclude that this can be a reason why suffering exists in some cases. But this is just part of the story.
The Bible must be read as a whole, not as isolated snippets cherry-picked specifically to vindicate a predefined proposition. When we read the Bible as a whole, we can appreciate how the people of Israel–who in the beginning also suffered from this tribal mentality I mentioned earlier–gradually came to a greater knowledge of God’s wisdom by pondering aspects of reality which for which simplistic ideas cannot account.
This is why, in biblical wisdom literature, the book of Proverbs is followed by the book of Ecclesiastes. Proverbs basically gives advice on how to achieve a happy and successful life by following God’s commandments. The corollary of this logic is that those who do not follow God’s commandments will inevitably live unhappy and unsuccessful lives.
However, this is toned down in the very next book of the Bible, Ecclesiastes. Kohelet observes reality and rightfully concludes that there is not always a direct correlation between merit and divine reward, or between sin and divine punishment:
“I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the learned, nor favour to the skillful: but time and chance in all (…) There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, as it were by an error proceeding from the face of the prince: A fool set in high dignity, and the rich sitting beneath. I have seen servants upon horses: and princes walking on the ground as servants.”
— Eccl 9:11, 10:5-7
A third wisdom book actually makes this its main topic: the Book of Job. Job is a righteous man that, through no fault of his own, suffers all kinds of misfortunes (most of them through natural causes) on his property, family, and himself. When he is overcome with leprosy, some of his friends come to visit him. They assume that Job cannot receive so many ills while being blameless, and try to force him into an examination of conscience so he can repent. Job firmly rejects the charges, and continuously asserts his righteousness. In the end, Job is proven correct and God rebukes his friends, commanding them to ask forgiveness for their baseless accusations and insinuations.
In to the New Testament, Jesus Christ vindicates the wisdom books by repeatedly correcting this kind of proto-Prosperity Gospel that had taken hold of His compatriots. When asked to comment about some Galileans who had been killed by Pilate while they were offering sacrifice to God (Lk 13:2-5), Jesus answers that those Galileans were not more sinful than other Galileans, and therefore their tragic deaths could not be accounted for by their sinfulness. Jesus then brings up an accident to make the same point: a tower had crumbled in Siloam and killed eighteen people, but this had nothing to do with any wrongdoing on their part. Jesus shifts the attention away from speculations about the state of the soul of the victims, and asks His audience to focus on their own sins instead, lest they be the ones who perish. This is precisely the opposite of what Dr. Marshall has done.
Similarly, Jesus clearly says elsewhere that the Father makes the sun rise upon both the good and bad, and rain fall both on the just and the unjust (Mk 4:45). At another point in the Gospel, we get this passage:
“And Jesus passing by, saw a man, who was blind from his birth: And his disciples asked him: Rabbi, who hath sinned, this man, or his parents, that he should be born blind? Jesus answered: Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents; but that the works of God should be made manifest in him”
— Jn 9:1-3
And our cultural distance with the people of that time does not allow us to fully appreciate what was really at stake when Jesus taught that it is easier for a camel to pass by the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 19:24). The scandalized and fearful reply from the disciples is instructive: if the rich can’t be saved, then who can? The disciples, imbued with the mindset of the day, thought that riches were a sign of God’s blessing upon those who lived righteous lives. Time and again, Jesus inverts and subverts their natural expectations, by placing God nearer to the ones who suffered the most.
Jesus does this, not just through His teaching, but above all with His life. In the end, He willingly underwent horrible tortures and one of the most draconian man-inflicted killing methods of all time. He suffered all this, even though He was the most blameless of all men. In doing this, He also fulfilled the Old Testament, by making Himself one with the suffering voices in several Psalms, the Book of Lamentations and also the Hymn of the Suffering Servant from Prophet Isaiah.
Christians, however, took some time to assimilate this teaching. When the Black Plague spread through Europe, killing between one- to two-thirds of the population, Pope Clement VI saw it as divine punishment. Even so, the pontiff did play a vital role in taking the reins while chaos surrounded him. First of all, Clement did not simply settle with supernatural explanations, but asked for advice from the men of science of his time. The depiction of him surrounded by torches in order to burn the miasma floating in the air, as his physicians had instructed him to, has become very well-known.
But most importantly, Clement was instrumental in avoiding the scapegoating that naturally arises during tragic situations of great collective suffering such as this. When people started to blame the Jews for their misfortune, and holding pogroms, the Pope did not accept the simple explanation that the plague was caused by those who did not accept the divinity of Jesus Christ. Rather, Clement issued two bulls condemning the mistreatment of Jews, in no less severe terms than denouncing the anti-semites as “seduced by that liar, the Devil.”
Clement’s logic surely follows that of the wisdom books, and is a breath of rational fresh air amid an atmosphere of fear and superstition. He says:
“It cannot be true that the Jews, by such a heinous crime, are the cause or occasion of the plague, because through many parts of the world the same plague, by the hidden judgment of God, has afflicted and afflicts the Jews themselves and many other races who have never lived alongside them.”
— Pope Clement VI
Can we not say the same about the coronavirus and the supposed “Pachamama worshippers”? Would God kill so many people who had nothing to do with the Amazon Synod, just to send a message about the alleged desecration of St. Peter’s Basilica? Are we really talking about the same god who refused to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if only ten righteous people lived there?
It is also important to consider is how this claim makes the loved ones of the deceased feel. Does this really serve a purpose in drawing people to God? Again, we must look to the past to learn our lessons today. One of the greatest natural disasters to ever have stricken the West was the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. This earthquake measured 9.0 on the Richter scale and killed 10,000 people (according to conservative estimates). Some fundamentalists, like Jesuit priest Gabriel Malagrida, were quick to capitalize on this tragedy by asserting that the earthquake was a divine punishment, and the people needed to repent and reform their behaviors. There was, however, a small problem with this interpretation: the earthquake took place on All-Saints Day, when most devout people were celebrating Mass inside the churches that fell on them. On the other hand, brothels seemed to be relatively spared, since they were built on a different part of town.
Many historians see this earthquake as a turning point on the History of Philosophy. Theologians and religious philosophers had immense trouble explaining to the European scandalized masses how a good God could have allowed such a thing to happen. Humanists and rationalists, who were still on the rise until then, had a boost on their credibility. They had an explanation, while the religious people did not: there was no God and the earthquake had only natural causes; hence its apparent randomness. As for Fr. Malagrida, he was tried by the Inquisition and condemned to death as a heretic (even if, granted, his trial was mostly politically-driven by a rationalist prime-minister tasked with rebuilding the city).
Therefore, suffering caused by natural disasters seems to breed two diametrically-opposed, but equally damaging responses: atheism and fundamentalism. However, fundamentalism, by failing to provide convincing explanations to people who are rightfully horrified by these disasters, also breeds atheism. For even non-religious folk, endowed as they are with natural reason, are able to objectively observe reality and reach the same glaring conclusion as Kohelet: that the just suffer alongside the impious. By ignoring this obvious phenomenon, Dr. Marshall treads dangerously on the path of anti-evangelization.
If natural disasters and diseases are not caused by divine punishment, why do they exist? The Book of Job, dedicated precisely to this topic, takes a surprisingly sophisticated approach to the issue. While both New Atheists and religious fundamentalists, so certain of themselves, believe they have the answer to this particular conundrum, the Book of Job replies by not giving a definite answer and simply embracing the tension between a merciful God and unmerited suffering.
Granted, the Book of Job gives us an actual explanation for Job’s suffering. In the beginning of this book, we are awarded with a glimpse of the heavenly court. We know that Job was a righteous man, but Satan accused him of only being just out of self-interest, so he would be blessed by God. However, Job himself is never told why he suffered, or why his suffering ended. God answers Job’s demands for an explanation by basically saying that, as God, He is in possession of facts and knowledge that Job’s limited human mind cannot possibly comprehend.
Likewise, I have found that asking for definite answers as to why suffering happens is typically useful in only two situations: 1) when you or a loved one is the one undergoing suffering and you need to make sense of the suffering in order to respond to it in a more constructive way; and 2) when a sufferer asks you for an explanation (provided that you ascertain whether the person is really requesting an intellectual reply and not simply hiding a plea for validation or empathy in that request). In every other situation I have encountered, speculating on why a certain person is suffering is futile: an exercise of vain conjecture that can only lead to the kinds of judgementalism exhibited in Dr. Marshall’s tweet.
It is much more productive, according to my experience, to stop asking “why did this happen to this person?” and simply focus on the question “how can I help his person?” Philosophically musing about topics we simply are not well-equipped to tackle can lead to paralysis in the face of a dire need for decisive action. Helpful action, however, seems to be the approach that Pope Francis has taken, by complying with the directives of the health specialists, by asking priests to comfort the sick, and by praying (and asking for prayers) for all involved.
In the meantime, while we might never know before Judgment Day why God has allowed this coronavirus pandemic, we can certainly rule out some causes for this decision of His. For example, we know from reason that the coronavirus was not caused by an invasion of velociraptors in New York, since that never happened. Likewise, we can know for certain that the coronavirus pandemic was not caused by Pachamama idolatry in the Vatican, because, as I have documented extensively, such idolatry never took place. The only ones still peddling this widely debunked nonsense are people who want to keep this manufactured controversy lit, in order to use it to undermine the Pope.
People like Taylor Marshall.
Finally, an important question remains unanswered: what motivated this tweet from Dr. Marshall? Was he really struggling with the reasons why God has allowed the coronavirus pandemic? Was he grappling with why God would’ve forced Rome to shut down all public Masses? Or was he just itching to find an outlet to keep the narrative going? Was he awaiting any calamity to take place so he could pin it on “Pachamama” and therefore capitalize on it? Unfortunately, this seems to be the most plausible explanation. If so, then Dr. Marshall has tried to take advantage of this most human need for answers in the face of suffering, in order to advance his predefined agenda.
This is very grave. Fortunately, it is also contained. No one takes this explanation seriously besides those who were already convinced beforehand. In other words, no one besides Dr. Marshall’s audience of like-minded individuals, who still believe the Pachamama nonsense and who are always looking for excuses to criticize the Pope. Their apocalyptic opinions on the reason for the widespread suffering caused by the coronavirus pandemic will likely never spill outside their echo chambers and have no actual impact on the real world.
And thank God for that. Victims of tragedies deserve better from Catholics than merely being turned into pawns in Culture Wars. They need our compassion. Their pleas for explanations about their suffering should be satisfied with answers that actually convey real meaning and peace. This is our duty, as Christians.
[Photo credit: CC0 Public Domain]
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.