Are Italy's Earthquakes Divine Retribution?

Comments from a respected Dominican theologian that they could be punishment for legalizing same-sex unions spark debate — and strong censure from the Vatican.

Norcia's statue of St. Benedict in front of the town's basilica that was flattened in an earthquake on Oct. 30, leaving just its facade standing.
Norcia's statue of St. Benedict in front of the town's basilica that was flattened in an earthquake on Oct. 30, leaving just its facade standing. (photo:

A dispute has arisen in Italy following a comment made on Radio Maria by Father Giovanni Cavalcoli, a respected and accomplished Dominican theologian, who said the devastating earthquakes that have struck central Italy this year are God’s punishment for the country legalizing homosexual unions in July.

“Let’s call it divine punishment,” Father Cavalcoli said, according to Italian media (his precise remarks are more moderate when put in context, see below).

Last Sunday, a massive 6.6-magnitude earthquake destroyed the basilica of St. Benedict in Norcia, the birthplace of the 6th century saint, along with seriously damaging other churches and historical sites. It was the 3rd major temblor in the region after the Aug. 24 earthquake which led to almost 300 people losing their lives. 

Father Cavalcoli’s comment led to his suspension from the Catholic station, and also elicited an unprecedented condemnation from the Vatican in the person of Archbishop Angelo Becciu, sostituto (deputy) to the Secretary of State and someone close to Pope Francis.

The prelate said the Dominican theologian’s words are not in accord with the Gospel, “are offensive to believers and scandalous to those who do not believe.” His words, the archbishop added, “date back to the pre-Christian period and do not correspond to the theology of the Church because they are contrary to the vision of God offered to us by Christ.”

“Christ,” he added, “has revealed the face of God’s love, not a capricious and vengeful God. This is a pagan, non-Christian vision”. He also went so far as to say that such comments “offend” the Virgin Mary who is seen as “the mother of mercy who bends over a weeping child and wipes their tears, especially in terrible moments like those of the earthquake."

The Italian daily La Repubblica observed that such statements as Father Cavalcoli’s were tolerated under Benedict XVI, but “not so with Francis.”

The Dominican, however, did not issue a mea culpa, insisting: "I reaffirm everything: earthquakes are provoked by the sins of men, such as civil unions”, and urged a reading of the Catechism. He added: "I've been a doctor of theology for thirty years, I worked in the Vatican with Saint John Paul II and I repeat that sins like homosexuality deserve divine retribution which can be manifested in earthquakes."

Recalling also Sodom and Gomorrah, Father Cavalcoli stressed that such statements that “homosexuality is against nature” and that homosexuals are sinners “do not go against the principles of Christian ethics.”

Radio Maria distanced itself from his comment, saying it is his own personal opinion and “absolutely does not reflect” those of the station. In response, Father Cavalcoli said they, too, should also read the Catechism.

The Dominican’s comments are by no means isolated and his sentiment is one shared by many here since the series of major earthquakes began, each of which was clearly felt in Rome — especially the latest on Oct. 30. That they might signify something, and that God is possibly speaking to us through them, is not an uncommon topic of conversation here.

Given the current state of the world and the Church, this is perhaps unsurprising. Also, as one Rome source close to the Vatican pointed out: “Doesn’t the Gospel record that there was a violent earthquake at the moment of Our Blessed Lord’s death?,” referring to Matthew 27:51 — And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split.

“The High Priest Caiaphas probably didn’t have a press office,” he added wryly, “but if he did, it would have been busy saying that the earthquake had nothing to do with the execution of Jesus of Nazareth.”


A loss of symbolism reflecting reality

In an op-ed published today, Church historian Robert de Mattei explained why he also thinks Archbishop Becciu is thoroughly mistaken in his viewpoint.

Writing in Corrispondenza Romana, Professor De Mattei said that in the past, man was “able to read the messages of God” in such events, “expressed in the language of the symbol”. It is “not a conventional representation, but it is the deepest expression of things.”

But he explained that modern rationalism, from Descartes to Hegel, from Marx to neo-scientism, “wished to rationalize nature by replacing the truth of the symbol with a purely quantitative interpretation of nature.” Today’s postmodern culture has therefore created “a new system of symbols” which, “unlike the old ones, do not return one to the reality of things, but rather warp it as in a game of mirrors.” So instead, De Mattei said, we have modern communications, from tweets to talk-shows, that “aim to create emotion and arouse feelings, refusing to grasp the profound reasons for things.”

He pointed out, for example, that the destruction of the basilica and cathedral in Norcia, evokes a loss of central Italy's artistic heritage, but the media “can't imagine it signifying a collapse of faith or of the fundamental values of Christian civilization.” The earthquake then, “despite being used in common parlance to indicate cultural and social upheaval, can never defer to divine intervention, because God can only be presented as merciful, never as just.”

Those who do link it to divine intervention, he said, immediately find themselves slandered in the media, as happened to Father Cavalcoli. “If there is a scandal there, it is caused by the position of the Vatican prelate who displays ignorance of Catholic theology and the teachings of the popes,” De Mattei said, and cited the following words from Benedict XVI, spoken at a general audience in May 2011, on the subject of God’s punishment exacted on Sodom and Gomorrah:

“The Lord was prepared to forgive, he wanted to forgive but the cities were locked into a totalizing and paralyzing evil, without even a few innocents from whom to start in order to turn evil into good. This the very path to salvation that Abraham too was asking for: being saved does not mean merely escaping punishment but being delivered from the evil that dwells within us. It is not punishment that must be eliminated but sin, the rejection of God and of love which already bears the punishment in itself. The Prophet Jeremiah was to say to the rebellious people: “Your wickedness will chasten you, and your apostasy will reprove you. Know and see that it is evil and bitter for you to forsake the Lord your God” (Jer 2:19).”

De Mattei recalled that between August and September 2016 the first civil unions took place in Italy after Prime Minister Matteo Renzi signed it into law on July 23. “This law is a moral earthquake because it breaks down the natural walls of divine law,” the historian said. “How can one imagine that this wretched law won’t have consequences?”

“Today,” he said, “man rebels against God and nature rebels against man. Or rather, man rebels against the natural law, which has its basis in God, and the disorder of nature explodes.”

The new law, he added, “does not destroy houses, but the institution of the family, producing moral and social devastation no less serious than that of a physical earthquake. Who can deny us the right to think that the disorder of nature is allowed by God as a result of the denial of the natural order implemented by the ruling classes of the West?”

De Mattei also applied the symbolism of ruined churches (they bore the brunt of the destruction in the most recent quake) with the current state of the Catholic Church. He had earlier noted how the basilica of St. Benedict, built on the site of the saint's birthplace, "remains only a flimsy facade", and mentioned how American media, such as CNN, "stressed the symbolic nature of the event."

“They [the destroyed churches] are the expression of an ecclesiastical world in ruins, that draws upon itself other ruins,” he said, adding that he believes the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia and the recent commemoration of the Reformation in Sweden “have certainly not helped to restore order to this shattered world.”

“The Pope repeats that we should not build walls but tear them down,” he noted. “Well the walls are crumbling, but with them, the Catholic faith and morals are collapsing. Christian civilization is collapsing, which, in Norcia, the birthplace of St. Benedict, has as its symbolic cradle.”

But he added that the statue of St. Benedict still stands in the center of the square, around which monks, nuns and lay people gathered to recite the Rosary. “This is also a symbolic message that speaks to us of the only possible reconstruction: that which is done on one’s knees, praying,” he said.

And along with prayer, he added, must come “action, the fight, the public witness to our faith in the Church and in Christian civilization that will rise from the rubble. Our Lady of Fatima promised this.

“But before the triumph of the Immaculate Heart,” he concluded, “the Blessed Virgin also envisaged punishment for unrepentant mankind. We must have the courage to remember that.”


Aftershocks continue

Meanwhile, aftershocks are continuing in Norcia one week after the massive 6.6-magnitude earthquake.

Yesterday, the subprior of the Monks of Norcia, Father Benedict Nivakoff, issued a statement saying their monastic life had “entered an entirely new phase, one we never expected but in which we see, unmistakably, God’s hand.”

The monks, who had already moved to a makeshift monastery outside the town after the August earthquake, have redoubled their commitment as Benedictines living at the birthplace of their Order’s founder. They believe the Lord is asking them rebuild the monastery “so that we might become saints for our time” and make the place “a source of light, hope and truth for monks and nuns throughout the world, as well as for all those who long for God.”

Despite the upheaval, Father Benedict reported that “God has brought calm to our monks’ hearts in this new mission” and that a brother “received the tonsure and choir cape of postulancy at Vespers the same evening of the massive quake” despite offering him the chance to go home. “That is the way with this earthquake,” Father Nivakoff said. “It binds the monks to the very ground that shakes.”

He noted the monks have received many messages of support and prominent visitors, including the President of Italy. “A forced evacuation has meant the whole town is now empty,” Father Nivakoff said, adding that “we pray and watch from the mountainside, thinking of the long three years St. Benedict spent in the cave before God decided to call him out to become a light to the world. Fiat. Fiat.”

My translation of Father Cavalcoli's remarks in context:

A caller asks: "…when a people or legislators of a certain people make laws contrary to God, as unfortunately has happened in Italy a few months ago – I refer to the laws on civil unions and all that would result from this — what are the consequences? And to get to the point of my question: can natural disasters like the earthquake be a consequence of a people, of a legislator, who makes such contrary laws? Could the earthquake of these days have a root ....?

Father Cavalcoli: "...As for the issue of earthquakes, what can we say? Even here I can answer with confidence as a dogmatician. One thing is sure: that cataclysms, nature, the disorders of nature, all the actions of nature that endanger human life, of which there are many, floods, etc., have an explanation of a theological nature... From the theological point of view these disasters are a consequence of original sin, therefore they can truly be considered as a punishment for original sin - even if one does not like the word, I say it all the same as it is a biblical word, there is no problem. Of course you have to understand well what is meant by "punishment."

Oh, and then the last question you ask, could it be a divine punishment for acts committed in our society today? This is a very delicate discourse, one can have some opinions, but one cannot be certain ... unless one has divine illumination. I tell you this, one of my very personal opinions. It struck me very deeply this enormous loss of the destruction of the church, I’m thinking of Norcia, St. Benedict. I repeat, I was very struck by it. I do not want to draw conclusions that would almost risk superstition, but I confess that I was very struck in this sense: that is: Who was Benedict? Benedict is the patron saint of Europe, is the father of the European Christian civilization.

Today, now, the best scholars — not only Catholics, but also laypeople — are verifying a very serious crisis in Europe. Even the other day I listened to a lecture by Professor Gotti Tedeschi, who is a great economist but at the same time a philosopher and a theologian. He looked at the situation and showed the link between the European economic crisis and Europe’s spiritual crisis… It was very interesting. Among other things, he also mentioned how – and this is a very interesting thesis – he, an internationally renowned economist, said that the crisis of the family, the decline in the birthrate, is also linked to the process of “impoverishment” towards which we we're leading to dissolution, the fact that industries go abroad ... it’s happening that the great dream of European power is collapsing ... and in other very large areas of the world such as China, Latin America, in Africa, there isn’t this drop in birthrate, there are many families, in Islamic countries it's the same, and there is in place major economic development.

So for us Europeans, who prided ourselves in this “beautiful” idea, this Malthusian idea, of Malthus, that the reduction of births would bring wealth, the reverse is happening. So coming to the point: divine punishment. Eeeh ... you see a little, in short ... sure you get the impression that these offenses have a bearing on the divine law. Think of the dignity of the family, the dignity of marriage, the dignity of sexual unions — there’s a limit, right? It is really thought that we are facing — let's call it divine punishment. Certainly it’s a very strong reminder of providence, but not much in the sense, let’s not say in the punitive sense, but in the sense of returning to the conscience, to rediscover those that are the principles of the natural law."