How do we as Christians speak about the evil of this current crisis without sidestepping the issue of suffering with pious platitudes? The levels of suffering confronting us today run layers deep for our lives. The number of infected with rise dramatically in the weeks ahead and those in authority warn us about a shocking number of those who will die as a result. Those with compromised immunities either from age or ailments suffer this the most. And, our family members compose that list. For us, those most vulnerable cannot be brushed aside like numbers in a game of statistics; we see the faces of our parents, grandparents, children and friends in these numbers. This creates a feeling of anxiety and fear, the sense of an approaching invisible enemy and one we may unknowingly carry even to those we love. We shelter in place and sense the pressures that come from staying in home, the pressures of providing for family without a job or while juggling with work from home, while schooling at home, and providing distant care for our loved ones. In a matter of weeks, the apparent security of our technologically sterile and predictable world became tested by the approach of disease and mortality. This “new world” of our age now comes face-to-face with evil not on distant sands combatting political foes, but here, at home, with an unthinking and uncaring virus. In a word, these days confront all of us with the question of evil. How does the Christian who believes in a good, all-powerful, all-knowing, merciful and ever-present God grapple with this global highlight upon the question of evil?
In Catholic circles, the experience of suffering can often be met with well-intentioned phrases like “There must be a reason” or “God wanted this to teach us something” or “just offer it up.” For those suffering real agony, these expressions can feel like shallow attempts at making evil “okay.” For those suffering, simple words do not soothe the pain. In the end, these pious expressions can sometimes turn on those we try to comfort. People experiencing suffering, pain, illness, injustice, and evil can begin to feel guilty about feeling the pain or wanting it ended or feel unfaithful in asking why evil happens. Then, these un-nuanced words can portray God in a rather dismal light. In them, does God becomes one who inflicts evil upon those He also calls His children and then expects them to thank Him for the pain? Is this the God ultimately revealed through Jesus Christ, or does it sound more like the smiters of pagan mythology playing games with those lesser creatures who stole fire from the gods? Because we each experience evils in our life – some more poignantly and severely than others – we each needed to wrestle with our faith opposed by evil. Sometimes those phrases about lessons from suffering, God’s mysterious intentions, and joining our sufferings to Jesus’ Cross do help us. Sometimes those words did manifest a deeper meaning of our suffering that made those hardships bearable. But, we can go deeper and we must go deeper should we launch into the questions evil poses.
At times, this going deeper may feel overly intellectual and stilted or uncaring in its analysis. And, yet, spending time pondering this question theologically will profit us in our search for meaning in suffering. The rich tradition of theology and Scripture study within our Church’s history offers great wisdom for us today. The Church does not give simple, neatly minted phrases for us. Rather, the Church draws us into the mystery of God who revealed Himself through time, and especially manifested the secrets of His love through Jesus Christ. The Church does not give simple replies to this question because in many ways the entirety of the Christian message answers the problem of evil (Catechism paragraph 309). This answer to evil comes not from mere philosophy, but from the very heart of a loving God who unveils Himself for us.
In attempting to address the problem of evil and suffering I will be drawing from Pope Saint John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter titled “On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering” (I’ve inserted a link to that document which you can access by clicking on its title). When quoting from that document itself, I will use the paragraph numbers given in that letter. In those quotes from the letter, I will use the acronym SC from the letter’s Latin title “Salvifici Doloris” followed by a number that indicates the paragraph in which the quote is found, e.g. (SC, 5). When quoting Scripture, I will draw from the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE) and use the usual notation with the abbreviated title (e.g. Lk for Luke) followed by the chapter number and verse number, e.g. (Lk 10:19). It is my hope that this sifting through the rich tradition of the Church’s theology and Scripture will help us in these times. I hope that you will look into those quotes from John Paul II’s letter and the Scripture passages in a spirit of prayer. In doing this series, I hope to offer the “good” of the Good News revealed through Jesus Christ. I do not want to give “easy answers,” because your struggle with this issue – whether due to this pandemic or any suffering experienced by you – deserves no light response. This will not exhaust the issue or remove the pains, but with Pope Saint John Paul II I hope I can apply some balm for these times.
God Bless You,