I think it’s completely natural for believers to look at this pandemic and the profound suffering it is causing and ask themselves “why?” The Catechism calls the experience of suffering and evil a “scandal” before going on to say, “If God the Father almighty, the Creator of the ordered and good world, cares for all his creatures, why does evil exist? To this question, as pressing as it is unavoidable and as painful as it is mysterious, no quick answer will suffice” (CCC 309).
While no quick answers will suffice, they certainly are tempting. Unfortunately, like Job’s friends in the Old Testament, there are many people who have been all too quick to offer their analyses. Some high-profile Catholics have insisted that the pandemic is a divine punishment for the pope allowing Christians from the Amazon to engage in the Christian worship practices of their native culture in the Vatican or for the “great sacrilege” of Catholics receiving Communion in the hand instead of on the tongue. In their desperate search to explain the present suffering, these figures have distorted the Gospel.
Before blaming the pandemic on divine wrath, the faithful should pause and ask themselves, “Who is God?” As Pope Francis said in his homily for Divine Mercy Sunday:
“God never tires of reaching out to lift us up when we fall. He wants us to see him, not as a taskmaster with whom we have to settle accounts, but as our Father who always raises us up. In life we go forward tentatively, uncertainly, like a toddler who takes a few steps and falls; a few steps more and falls again, yet each time his father puts him back on his feet.”
Would our God really cause the physical and economic suffering of millions of people around the globe as punishment for Catholics following the licit and Church-approved practice of receiving Communion in the hand? What kind of merciful God would do that? Certainly not a loving father, or even a fair-minded judge. These are the actions of a petulant tyrant.
God has revealed to us that he “did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living” (Wis 1:13). Suffering and death are not actively willed by God. It was only because of sin that “visible creation has become alien and hostile to man” and death entered human history (CCC 400). However, God does permit his free creatures to commit acts of grave moral evil (CCC 311). This is what we call God’s “permissive will.” God doesn’t actively want evil in the world, but he allows us to experience the consequences of our actions. While Jesus is clear that tragedy isn’t necessarily a direct result of personal sin (Cf. Lk 13:2-5 and Jn 9:3), all suffering and death is a consequence of sin in some way: whether it’s my sin, someone else’s sin against me, or living in a world broken by original sin.
God established creation with natural laws that govern its movement. If I drop a 20-pound weight, it will fall to the ground. If I drop it on my foot, I will experience pain. Likewise, if humanity abuses creation, wrecks ecosystems, and pollutes the environment there will be natural consequences to our behavior. Nearly 30 years ago, Saint John Paul II taught:
“Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray. Instead of carrying out his role as a co-operator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed by him.” (Centesimus Annus 37)
Or, as Pope Francis pointedly said during his Earth Day address last week:
“We have failed to care for the earth, our garden-home; we have failed to care for our brothers and sisters. We have sinned against the earth, against our neighbours, and ultimately against the Creator, the benevolent Father who provides for everyone, and desires us to live in communion and flourish together. And how does the earth react? There is a Spanish saying that is very clear about this. It goes: ‘God always forgives; we humans sometimes forgive, and sometimes not; the earth never forgives’. The earth does not forgive: if we have despoiled the earth, its response will be very ugly.”
This is why the Holy Father has been so adamant that we cannot return to life as usual after the pandemic, because that’s what led to this tragedy in the first place. Economic inequality has made millions of people more vulnerable to this disease and it’s likely that urban expansion and climate change contribute to the cause and spread of diseases like COVID-19. During his March 27 Urbi et Orbi address, Pope Francis explained that this pandemic isn’t a time of God judging us, but a time for us to judge the way we will respond and move forward. He goes on to say:
“Lord, your word this evening strikes us and regards us, all of us. In this world, that you love more than we do, we have gone ahead at breakneck speed, feeling powerful and able to do anything. Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste. We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick. Now that we are in a stormy sea, we implore you: ‘Wake up, Lord!’”
We cry out to God for help, not because he is smiting us with this plague. God also is not simply sitting back indifferently, to let us wallow in the consequences of our own choices. No! God is still close to us! “At every time and in every place, God draws close to man” (CCC 1) and “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). God doesn’t allow suffering and death only because he respects our freedom, he also permits it because he “mysteriously, knows how to derive good from it” (CCC 311). That mysterious promise is the source of our hope in the midst of this pandemic. Let us cling to the Risen Jesus, our living hope, and beg for the grace that drives away our fear, increases our faith, and purifies our hearts.
Image Credit: The Seventh Plague by John Martin
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is. He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation.