Tom Hoopes is Vice President of College Relations and writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. He has written for the Register for more than 20 years and was its executive editor for 10. His writing has appeared in First Things’ First Thoughts, National Review Online, Crisis, Our Sunday Visitor, Inside Catholic and Columbia. He has served as press secretary for the Chairman of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee. He and his wife, April, were editorial co-directors of Faith & Family magazine for 5 years. They have nine children.
Haiti’s shocking poverty was already enough to make people wonder at what seemed a radical unfairness at the center of the universe.
Now, after the devastating earthquake Hatians are pulling bodies from their destroyed shacks and lining the streets with them so passersby can lift the sheets to see if they knew them.
Does God hate Haiti?
The answer is “Of course not,” but man oh man it can sure look that way. Here are three brief answers to the problem of suffering. As the Register has pointed out during disasters past, none is adequate, but together they point to hope.
First: This world is not all there is.
The massive destruction of a hurricane or earthquake can look random and meaningless. Worse, it can look like a cosmic slap aimed at the very people who least deserve to be slapped.
If this world is all there is, then the Haiti earthquake is worse than a tragedy — it’s a metaphysical atrocity. Only if this world is not all that there is does this start to make sense.
Of course, cultures throughout history have all come to the conclusion that this world is not all there is. But the Catholic faith uniquely understands the place of suffering in the human experience — and the divine experience.
When God asks us to suffer, he isn’t asking us to do something he won’t do himself.
Each of our churches has a crucifix in the center — depicting the corpse of our founder — and stations of the cross along the side, depicting the stages of his destruction. The church’s beginning is graphically summed up in iconography by the image of his blood being collected in a chalice. The church’s first centuries were marked by the routine torture and death of its members, from lay to hierarchy. So was the last, from Nazi Germany to Communist Eastern Europe, throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and even in Latin America.
How is this not macabre? Because all of these images of death have been transformed by the resurrection into powerful symbols of eternal life.
Suffering isn’t a startling break from the status quo of the Church and the world. Suffering is the status quo of the Church and the world. The suffering aren’t the furthest from God. They’re the closest to him.
Said Pope Benedict XVI, “Christ took the lowest place in the world — the Cross — and by this radical humility he redeemed us and constantly comes to our aid.”
Second: God brings good out of suffering even for the living.
That first principle can lead to a mistake that makes the real world the next world, not this one. It can also seem to make the earth a torture gauntlet God runs us through.
But entry into heaven isn’t automatic — and life in this world has infinite value all on its own.
“If God the Father almighty, the Creator of the ordered and good world, cares for all his creatures, why does evil exist?” asks the Catechism. “[N]o quick answer will suffice. Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question.”
By Christian faith as a whole, the Catechism says it means:
“the goodness of creation, the drama of sin and the patient love of God who comes to meet man by his covenants, the redemptive Incarnation of his Son, his gift of the Spirit, his gathering of the Church, the power of the sacraments and his call to a blessed life to which free creatures are invited to consent in advance, but from which, by a terrible mystery, they can also turn away in advance. There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil. “
In short, suffering is a major player the story of sin and redemption, of our habitual turning away from God and his attempts to win us back.
Human beings are proud, prone to think of themselves as gods, prone to lose perspective on the purpose of their lives, prone to think that God needs us more than we need him, prone to see ourselves as the authors of the story of the world, and prone to ignore the needs of those around us.
Suffering destroys each of those idols.
Says St. Agusutine: God “would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself.”
One important good that emerges …
Third: Christians are called to help the suffering.
“The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer.”
That’s how Pope Benedict XVI put it in his 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi (In Hope We Are Saved).
This was also the message of the important second section of Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love).
“There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbor is indispensable,” he wrote. Christians uniquely offer “the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern.”
The suffering discover what love is when we serve them. And so do we.
St. Jerome, the scholar famous for translating the Bible and addressing important doctrinal issues, put his books aside in 404 when refugees flooded his region.
“I cannot help them all, but I grieve and weep with them, and am completely absorbed in the duties that charity imposes on me,” he wrote. “Today we must translate the precepts of the Scriptures into deeds. Instead of speaking saintly words, we must act them.”
Suffering finds its final meaning here. It is the occasion for love.
Ways to help Haiti: