Dear Rev. Know it all
A good friend of mine at work is a very faith-filled Catholic with a healthy desire to better understand why God allows disease. Her toddler son was recently diagnosed with a rare disorder which could seriously affect him cognitively. It's a genetic disorder that no one was aware of even existing in the family. She has surrendered the problem over to God, and realizes that this is an opportunity to grow closer and more dependent on God, yet questions why disease exists at all and whether or not God actually 'gives' someone a disease.
Ms. Ari Bell
You have asked THE question. First of all, let me tell you from the start that God does not give anyone a disease. If the Catholic Church believed that God caused disease we would have to close all those Catholic hospitals and stop trying to cure the sick. Lourdes, as well as other healing shrines would have to be shuttered as being the work of the devil. We Catholics believe in healing, both supernatural and natural. If God caused disease, curing the sick in any way would be resisting His perfect will. We believe that death and sickness entered the world because of the sin of Adam and Eve.
This simple answer doesn’t help at all, does it! It just brings up two more questions. First of all, why do I suffer for the sin of two ancient people, if they existed at all? Second, if God is all powerful and all loving, couldn’t He just wave His almighty hand and make life better? These are two really good points. It’s easy to say that God doesn’t will sickness and suffering, but if He is all powerful, then He at least allows bad things to happen. If we are correct about God, then it is fair to say that nothing in all the universe happens, except with His permission. So, isn’t it fair to say that He is to blame for everything from the Holocaust down to the common cold? Why not blame Adam and Eve or some other poor cave men for the current mess, or for my personal suffering?
Lots of great religious thinkers have come up with lots of creative answers to the question of “if God is so good, why is it that my life, and that of so many others whom I love, is, at times, so lousy?” Let’s call it the “Good God/Lousy Life” problem. (Or GGLL, for short.)
Jean Calvin 1509-1564, of France and Switzerland, the lawyer who founded Reformed Protestantism and inadvertently the United States, said that your life was lousy because you deserve it. God created two groups of people, the elect, chosen to show His mercy and the damned, chosen to show His justice.
And you, poor, blighted sucker, are probably among the damned, as are most human beings, so it’s only going to get worse and don’t think it’s unfair, because after all, God is God and He can do whatever He darn well pleases and He decided to make you a miserable sinner, just like Adam and Eve and if you think it’s bad now you’re going to Hell so what you’re current suffering is a picnic by comparison and who are you to criticize God anyway, you sniveling little worm. Amen.
Then there’s Rabbi Harold Kushner (1935 — ), his son died at the age of 14 of progeria, a rare hereditary disease. His answer is that God...is not perfect. (See page 148 of his best selling book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”) In other words, God is not all powerful and He can’t make everything all right, no matter how hard He tries, and believe me He’s really trying. Rabbi Kushner seems to answer the question by making us feel sorry for God who’s doing His level best at a job He’s not really cut out for.
Then there’s Carl Sagan 1934-1996 American agnostic and astronomer. Let us pretend that he stands for the great number of those who believe, practically speaking, that there is no God as most people understand God to be. In a 1996 interview with NPR's Fresh Air, Sagan said, "I find that you learn absolutely nothing about someone's belief if you ask them 'Do you believe in God?' and they say yes or no. You have to specify which of the countless kinds of God you have in mind." This is very much to the point. God is defined as that reality, greater than which nothing exists. As far as Carl knew, and he may be of a different opinion now that he is dead, the universe with its “billions and billions of galaxies spinning endlessly....” was in fact that greatest reality which existed. It is, therefore God, and the Universe does not give a good gosh darn whether you and yours are living happily ever after.
The Catholic Church has a different answer from Carl, Calvin and Kushner. First of all, we Catholics agree that God can do whatever He pleases and the beauty and order of the Universe are what He pleased. Creation itself is an out flowing and mirror of God’s perfection, imperfect, though it is. God is not arbitrary, as Calvin would have us believe. Physical, natural and moral law flow from God’s very nature. In the words of Einstein, a rather smart fellow, “God does not play dice with the Universe!” (Actually Einstein said that “He (God) does not throw dice.”) God does not contradict His own nature.
God’s sovereignty doesn’t mean that He will cast you down to the deepest hell because, well, He just felt like it. Calvin might do you such a thing, but God doesn’t. And different from Dr. Sagan’s opinion, God is not impassive and uncaring. Carl Sagan may have been. I don’t know, but the first Pope, St. Peter advised us “to cast all our anxieties on Him, for He cares for you.” (1Peter 5:7)
How can He be all-caring, all-powerful, all-knowing and I’m still a mess? My answer, which I hope is the Catholic answer, would be a question: Have you looked at a crucifix lately? If you go into a Catholic Church, at least one where the pastor is paying attention, there is a crucifix. There is a modern, though beautiful church in Skokie, Illinois. It shines with beautiful stained glass windows, stained glass, mind you, not painted. The light filters through the western, stained glass wall at sunset like a vision. In front of that western wall is a huge crucifix, perhaps thirty feet tall. If you sat for an afternoon looking at that wonderful cross, you would gradually see the cross almost disappear in an explosion of light. It would take an afternoon, but you would have your answer.
I have heard nouveau, pseudo, deep as a puddle, progressives criticize the old custom of the crucifix on the altar. I remember an old German who was made pastor of a progressive parish. He put a large Crucifix up in the rectory dining room. Two of the ministresses of care were horrified by the change. “How dare he put that symbol of violence and repression up in our dining room!?! It’s repulsive!” It had a very salutary effect. The old pastor lost a little weight and the two ministresses stopped bothering him at mealtimes.
You’ve probably been asked, “Why does the Catholic Church have crucifixes and not just a simple cross? After all, Jesus rose from the dead!” You forget that when He rose He still had the nail marks in His hands and the wound in His side. He carried the Cross with Him even in the Resurrection. If you look closely at the Gospel of John, when Jesus talks about the hour of His glory, He is talking about the crucifixion, not the Resurrection, though you can’t have one without the other.
We want life to be easy. God wants life to be beautiful. We want God to do things for us. God wants to make us His children, sharing His nature. And what is His nature? Love. Real Love. Sacrificial Love, not just sentiment. Jesus said, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) We think of perfection as flawlessness. A perfect person is beautiful, brilliant, rich and so on. Remember the command is not be perfect. It is be perfect “AS” your heavenly Father is perfect. “AS” is one of the most important words in the Bible. “Peace I give you, not “AS” the world gives peace.” “Love one another “AS” I have loved you,” not “AS” seen on TV.” Love is easy if you define it the way a TV producer does, raging hormones and no problem that can’t be solved in half an hour. Love one another “AS” I have loved you involves nails, a cross and a crown of thorns. God is love, and love is the goal, but remember that love is defined by the cross.
I had a friend years ago, a real mensch. He was smart, handsome, from a good family, well educated and well to do, a promising career a gorgeous, loving wife two children and they actually went to church. A charmed life. He called me one day in a state of confusion. All I could do was listen. He and his wife had been informed that their soon to be born child had Down’s Syndrome. She would be as some say “mentally retarded.” The perfect life was over. He didn’t know what to do. The doctors urged him and his wife to end the pregnancy. After all, it would be more merciful to the “fetus.” Because they were Catholics, they decided to allow the baby to live. Shortly before the birth he called and said he did not know how they would be able to go on. About three years later he called me and said that he hadn’t known that there could be so much love as his littlest daughter had given him and taught him. What had been his greatest fear had become his greatest blessing. The perfection of God is more than His omnipotence or perfect knowledge. It is His unlimited love.
That little girl was tiny and weak. She wasn’t the greatest thinker ever born, but when she loves she is the very reflection of the nature of God, and when we love, really love, love sacrificially, so are we. She is perfect, not AS the world would have her be. The world would have killed her, but God gave her to my friend as an opportunity for true love. All of us get sick and all of us die. It is the inheritance that we receive from our first parents. In the first garden, they were offered a gift of love, sacrificial love, and all they had to do was sacrifice the fruit of a tree. They could not trust God even that far. Our inheritance is not just their failure, it is the question they were asked by God and that God still asks of every human being, “Will you trust Me?” Jesus was asked the same question in a different garden. Gethsemane by name. “Will you trust Me,” asked His heavenly Father. He answered, “Father, not as I will, but as You will.” He took what had been stolen from that other tree and placed it back on the Cross, the tree of life and so by His complete trust he gave love back to the world.
So, disease exists for the same reason that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil existed in the garden of Eden, for the same reason that the cross stood on Calvary’s hill. It is the reason for imperfection in the midst of our yearning for perfection. In the end, love will win. The tears that glisten on a mother’s cheek will not disappear “they shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,” (1Cor.15:52) They will shine like gold and diamonds in an infinity of love.
Tell your friend that I will be praying for her and the child she loves so much.