This is one of those questions that are as old as humanity: Could it really be possible that a good and all-powerful God not only allowed evil and sin to come into the world but also continues to tolerate them?
Looking at the world, the case for the prosecution seems pretty strong. The human race can’t seem to rid itself of its addiction to violence in all its many splendored forms. It can’t figure out how to share its considerable resources so that everyone has enough. It seems bent on destroying the planet on which it depends for existence. It doesn’t take very good care of many of its children. Ignorance, selfishness, meanness, short-sightedness, vulgarity, corruption, and dishonesty are commonplace. Many people are so wrapped up in themselves that they barely notice anything around them beyond what they want or what is getting in their way. Most days are pretty much the Seven Deadly Sins on Parade. Pockets of goodness exist, but somebody doing something nice for another person is a news story.
On top of all that, things don’t seem to have changed much. In the early church a movement of Christians called Gnosticism looked at all the badness going on around them and concluded creation was just that—bad—and that the God they had been taught to believe created the world couldn’t really be God, given the results. There had to be some other, true God.
Early church fathers like Saints Irenaeus and Augustine recognized that to challenge the most basic belief of all—about God—threatened the entire faith on which that belief was based, so these great theologians spent a lot of time refuting Gnostic-type beliefs. They realized though, that they had to come up with their own explanation of how evil and sin came into the world and how God allowed—and continued to allow—them to exist.
The argument went like this. When God creates something, that something is by necessity outside of God, which means God’s perfect power and goodness do not translate into what is created, which thus has limits, imperfections, and flaws. Like many people of faith of his time, Augustine looked to the biblical story of the Fall of humanity and suggested that the flaw that allowed Adam and Eve to disobey the one and only rule God gave them was pride. Pride was a kind of self-willfulness. It gave you a sense you could exist on your own without reference to God.
All that theology may be cold comfort in response to death, illness, accident, injury, betrayal, cruelty, and other bad things, but the “good news”—literally—is that throughout all time God has revealed that it is the divine intention to bring God’s beloved creation back into harmony. The gift of God’s only Son has been the greatest demonstration of that offer of love. That Son was himself the victim of evil and sin, yet God was able to draw the great good of salvation and eternal life from even that cosmically bad event.
Sin turns you away from God and others, and while the possibility of sin may be unavoidable in this created world, it is always possible to choose to go from being self-centered to other-centered.
• The Catechism of the Catholic Church has an excellent discussion of creation, nos. 268-314
• See also Pope John Paul II’s talk “Created Things Have a Legitimate Autonomy”
• For Irenaeus’ discussion of these issues, see Book 4, Chapter 38 of his Against Heresies
• For Augustine, see Chapters 1-5 of Book 14 of his City of God
Religious communities of women and of men have worked tirelessly on behalf of human rights throughout the centuries. It might be the monastic brother who serves as the monastery’s porter and feeds the hungry who knock on his door. It might be the religious sister trained as a civil lawyer who lobbies in Washington, D.C. on behalf of economic justice for those who are poor and vulnerable. It might be the cloistered nun who has given herself to praying ceaselessly for those who are caught up in drug abuse and drug war violence. It might be a missionary who is helping rural farmers in with land rights and sustainability.
No matter how religious communities live or what their mission is, care for people who are vulnerable, suffering, or poor is a significant aspect of being women and men rooted in the gospel and the social teachings of the church. Some communities may place more of an emphasis on a particular aspect of social justice—for example, setting up a network of homeless shelters and soup kitchens or ministering with people enslaved in human trafficking.
I encourage you to get to know religious communities and see how each is specifically committed to human rights in ways that come out of their particular mission. Ask a sister, brother, or priest how their life and ministry have reflected those very first words of the Second Vatican Council’s pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”
Take time to ask yourself that same question. You may find that the ways you are attracted to serve and live the gospel resonate well with religious life!
Full disclosure here: I’m a vegetarian myself, and not because I don’t like bacon; it’s because I read a compelling argument in a book years ago by Anglican bishop John V. Taylor entitled Enough Is Enough. Though out of print today, it convinced me that the raising of beef cattle at the current staggering quantities is an unjust use of land and resources in a limited world. Also, reading about contemporary pig- and chicken-farming practices made me rethink, from an ecological standpoint, what the things we eat and the way we eat them mean to the water supply and the overall quality of life for nearby humans and animals. In the end, it was information from the Center for Science in the Public Interest forced me to recognize that a meat-burdened diet was no good for me—never mind the planet or my fellow creatures.
This accumulated knowledge comes down to a matter of justice, which is a Catholic concern. If we overtax our natural resources at the expense of our poor neighbors, requiring them to grow feed for our animals when that activity deprives them of the land to grow crops to sustain themselves, and if this same obsession is needlessly cruel to animals and is actually detrimental to our own health, then we are doing something immoral.
What does the Bible have to say? The original arrangement, according to Genesis, follows a vegetarian code. God says in Genesis 1:29-30: “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food; and to all the animals of the land, all the birds of the air, and all the living creatures that crawl on the ground, I give all the green plants for food.” That is pretty specific, as the planetary diet goes. Creatures are to eat nonsentient life forms. If it’s aware, it ought not to be consumed.
But the dietary code changes, if you follow the story line. By Genesis 9, after Noah survives the flood and rescues the animal kingdom from extinction, God acknowledges that the world is different. Fear of humanity and its dominance is now decreed for all animals. “Every creature that is alive shall be yours to eat: I give them all to you as I did the green plants.” Only flesh with its lifeblood still in it is remained under the ban (Genesis 9:3-4).
In an age where our preference for meat threatens the welfare of our less fortunate sisters and brothers, it is debatable whether our daily burger is a morally acceptable indulgence.
Editor’s note: Roman Catholic teaching on animals is part of the church’s overall doctrine on “respect for the integrity of creation,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says (see nos. 2415-2418). Animals are God’s creatures and so “by their mere existence they bless him and give him glory.” Like all creation, including inanimate nature, animals are “destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity.”
And like all of creation, God cares for animals, and so human beings should as well. Human treatment of animals cannot be separated from moral considerations; it involves responsibilities as well as rights. Human dominion over nature must also include stewardship. So, the Catechism says, “It is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure. Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives.”
But there are limits: “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.” The bottom line: You may use, but don’t abuse.
• All-creatures.org: Working for a Peaceful World for Humans, Animals, and the Environment
Church social teaching emphasizes respect for the dignity of every person. For this reason Catholics are obliged to consider the common good in their decision-making. I don’t make decisions based solely on what’s best for me, but what’s best for the human family. “The common good is the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1906). If that sounds like a huge responsibility, then you’re hearing it right.
Advancing the common good in the modern world involves five principles: defending the sanctity of human life; strengthening families; providing for the disadvantaged; welcoming the immigrant; and protecting the environment. Sometimes these principles seem to collide: What do we do when what’s good for one threatens the interests of another?
The most serious moral imperative is always to protect the basic right to life, which makes direct assaults on life and human dignity unjustifiable under any conditions. These assaults include but are not exhausted by abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, genocide, torture, racism, imprudent resorting to war, targeting noncombatants, human cloning, and destruction of embryos in genetic testing.
Other Catholic goals less familiarly chanted include providing assistance to families raising children, especially by ensuring quality education, guaranteeing living wages, addressing hunger, encouraging debt relief, widening health care, ending discrimination, promoting religious freedom, pursuing peace, and caring for creation as a whole. If we really are a “human family,” then taking care of the family should be our highest concern.
• Deuteronomy 24:17-22; Jeremiah 22:1-5, 13-17; Zechariah 7:9-14; Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 4:16-21; 10:25-37; John 13:34-35; James 2:14-17
• Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), encyclical letter of Pope John Paul II, 1993
• “Thinking Ethically: A Framework for Moral Decision Making,” Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University
Sanctuary is a biblical tradition with a noble past; let’s hope the concept has a future. Rooted in the word sancta, it means "holy space." The original idea was to offer a place of asylum for people guilty of accidental homicide. Remember, ancient culture was governed by eye-for-an-eye justice and then some. When blood was shed in one family, it was expected the perpetrator’s family would soon be in mourning, too. Nomadic life was isolated and dangerous, and justice had to come swiftly to keep predators at bay.
When the Israelites stopped wandering and went urban, however, the new congested lifestyle made that sort of retribution problematic. Killing a fellow from the next tribe over was efficient when clans lived apart and moved on regularly. But you couldn’t kill your next-door neighbor’s son and not begin an escalating spiral of murders that would consume the town. Folks living in close proximity couldn’t abide that kind of communal conflict.
So six cities of asylum were established to correspond with up-and-running shrines in Israel. (This was before the time of the Temple in Jerusalem.) Now, if your ox gored a neighbor, you could run to the nearest shrine and stay there until the case could be heard and judged by the leadership. In this way, sanctuary provided a stopgap for instinctive violence until cooler heads prevailed.
In Catholic tradition, “the right of sanctuary is rooted in the reverence for places of worship and an abhorrence of any violation of sacred space,” writes theologian Richard McBrien in his Encyclopedia of Catholicism. That implies that our modern employment of sanctuary depends on an ancient understanding of sacred space. We have to believe there are places where God’s presence is uniquely manifest or honored. In congregations that view contemporary churches more as polite gathering rooms for the morally convinced, the sense of God-space the ancients had is lost. If a place isn’t “God-haunted” in a primal way, what’s to violate, and why not cross the line?
Catholicism maintains the notion of holy ground in churches, monasteries, retreat centers, even cemeteries. Once consecrated for sacred purposes, our holy places take on a character that sets them apart from the ordinary sphere of activity. For a church leader to offer sanctuary to an endangered community is to suggest there are still lines we can’t cross, places where God’s justice remains higher than our passion for legal solutions.
• Numbers 35:9-15; Deuteronomy 19:1-13
• A TIME magazine article on churches and the “new sanctuary movement”
• This Ground Is Holy: Church Sanctuary and Central American Refugees by Ignatius Bau (Paulist Press, 1985)
• Journey of Dreams by Marge Pellegrino (Frances Lincoln Books, 2009)
In the current political climate, every serious issue is a blood sport aimed at reelection. But it’s also true that Catholicism has now gone officially green. Pope Benedict XVI entitled his first address of 2010 If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation. That was a spin on Pope Paul VI’s signature phrase, “If you want peace, work for justice.” When you compare the two statements, you realize the pope has elevated stewardship of the planet to a work of justice!
That makes sense. Global warming, or climate change, or whatever you want to call it, has affected and will continue to harm the poor more than the rich; natural disasters and man-made ones generally do. While million-dollar homes are occasionally lost to floods and fires (think coastal California), the vast majority of the ones affected by the earth’s volatile forces are those who can’t easily restore what’s lost (witness Haiti, crushed first by an earthquake and then by cholera, or the Gulf Coast, ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and then by a very preventable oil spill).
What the pope is saying is simple. If we treat creation as God’s gift and employ nature without greedily exploiting it, our stewardship will not only earn us our survival but also a global reality that’s sustainable in peace. If, however, we take what we can get from this planet and refuse to recognize the fragile ecosystem shared by soil, water, air, and life—including our own—then those on the short end of the benefit scale will rebel, and no one will have peace.
“The environment must be seen as God’s gift to all people, and the use we make of it entails a shared responsibility for all humanity, especially the poor and future generations,” the pope says. That widens our responsibility: not simply to our fellow inhabitants but to those who will inherit the earth from us. Will we offer them desertification, the pollution of rivers, the loss of biodiversity, deforestation, and other perils the pope lists?
The threat to our world is not simply an ecological but a moral crisis, says the pope. If we disregard the growing number of “environmental refugees,” we will mostly certainly reap the impact of their instability and displacement. We embrace a future of conflict if we ignore “the human right to life, food, health, and development.” For these reasons green remains a year-round color for Catholics.
• Genesis 1:28; 2:15; 3:17-19; Psalm 8:4-10; Proverbs 8:22-36; Isaiah 11:6-9; Romans 8:22-23; Colossians 1:15-17
• If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation, message of Pope Benedict XVI for the celebration of the World Day of Peace, January 1, 2010
I wish I had a dollar every time someone objected to the word sin! And guilt, too. Our objection to both words comes from the same source: our discomfort at the implication of blame. No one likes to be accused. We'd rather say noncommittally, "Mistakes were made" than to admit, "I was wrong"!
The beauty of our religious language is that it's unblinkingly honest. There's no spin with sin; no campaign launched to cover up the mess. When we talk "sin," we're saying: "My bad. I knew that house was on fire when I entered it!" So let's say we're sinners, firstly because it's true and also because telling the truth is an incredibly healthy choice to make. Our society is so geared to the airbrushed image we may begin to accept that hiding a blemish here or a gray hair there is normal.
But the airbrushed image is phony. Sooner or later the real person will tumble out from behind the artful deception. Religious language provides us the chance to be authentic, apart from the spandex and the posturing. When we admit we've done wrong, we take a big first step into freedom.
Where does that step take us? From personal responsibility we can move into some pretty wonderful territory. Owning our sinfulness gives us access to forgiveness and the joy known only to the children of God. By contrast, where does the denial of responsibility get us? From the vague nod that "mistakes were made" we can't move to forgiveness and healing. If we refuse the identity of the sinner, we're shrugging our shoulders, burying the injury under the rug. As we know from our experiences with physical healing, wounds that are not cleansed, treated, and brought into the open air tend to fester, become infected, and lead to more serious conditions.
So it is with the spiritual wounds human sinfulness causes. One lie creates the foundation of the next. Unaddressed pride leads to uncontrolled egotism. Sexual irresponsibility prompts a habit of exploiting others. Self-righteous anger justifies an inner world of aggression that paves the way to violence.
The traditional daily habit of examining your conscience and admitting fault is the best antidote to living in the land of self-justification. I'm a sinner! I'm also, thanks be to God, forgiven.
Psalm 51; Matthew 9:1-13; Mark 7:1-23; Luke 15:1-32; 18:9-14; 19:1-10; Romans 5:6-6:23; James 3:1-4:10
Listing the 14 works of mercy is easy; appreciating their breadth takes time. Let’s begin with the corporal works of mercy: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, and bury the dead. Where do these come from? Six derive from the Final Judgment teaching in the Gospel of Matthew: “What you do for the least of these, you do for me.” The seventh work is grounded in traditional Hebrew respect for the body.
Feeding the hungry goes beyond soup kitchens to the level of economic reform. Satisfying thirst includes the politics of water rights and the ecology of preserving seas and rivers. Clothing the naked involves respecting the dignity of the poor as well as surrendering your cast-off attire. Visiting the imprisoned recognizes many kinds of captivity: domestic violence, sexism, racism, educational impoverishment. Sheltering the homeless includes welcoming the marginalized and lobbying for affordable housing. Visiting the sick expands to creating access for the disabled and inviting the infirm elderly into the greater community. Burying the dead can include pardoning those who injured us long ago.
The spiritual works of mercy are next: admonish the sinner, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive all injuries, and pray for the living and the dead. These teachings are gathered from the New Testament and 2 Maccabees in Hebrew scripture. This eclectic list was compiled later than the first to balance the temporal (worldly) and spiritual obligations we owe each other. Saint Augustine of Hippo recorded both lists in 421 C.E.; perhaps he was promoting what was already within Christian tradition.
While Jesus obliges all Christians to practice corporal works of mercy, some of the spiritual works are not binding until we’re spiritually mature enough to undertake them. We can all comfort the sad and must forgive trespasses and pray “unceasingly” for the needs of others, living and deceased. Bearing wrongs patiently takes practice, but we can begin at once to achieve some. But correcting sinners, teaching the ignorant, and counseling the hesitant are best left to those more advanced in Christian virtue and knowledge. Mercy has been called the meeting ground of love and justice. In works of mercy, compassion ascends to the level of service.
• The works of mercy in the Catechism of the Catholic Church
• Works of Mercy by Fritz Eichenberg, edited by Robert Ellsberg (Orbis Books, 2004)
• The Works of Mercy: The Heart of Catholicism, 2nd ed., by James F. Keenan, S.J. (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008)