Pope Francis, in the extraordinary prayer service broadcast live from an empty St. Peter’s Square on March 27, prayed:
“Lord, you are calling to us, calling us to faith. … It is not the time of your judgment, but of our judgment: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not.”
On the other hand, some theologians and ordinary people have noted that many passages in Scripture speak of calamities, including pestilence (deadly infectious disease), as God’s judgment on human sin.
God warns his people, for instance, that if they rebel against him, “I will send pestilence among you, and you shall be delivered into the hand of the enemy” (Leviticus 26:25). Even in the New Testament, the Book of Revelation depicts a rider on a pale horse who was “given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth” (Revelation 6:8).
These perspectives are not as contradictory as they may seem. The key to interpreting rightly the biblical passages on divine chastisement is to read them in light of a distinction that has become traditional in Catholic theology: the distinction between God’s positive will and his permissive will.
God is infinitely good — “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5) — and therefore he cannot directly will evil. Rather, he permits evil because in his infinite wisdom he is able to bring a greater good out of it.
Thus, where Scripture speaks of God “sending” a calamity, it does not mean that God directly causes it. Rather, out of his great love for us, he allows human beings to experience the consequences of our choices. When society deliberately turns away from God, choosing to worship idols of its own making, as our own global culture has done, it removes itself from God’s blessing and protection and therefore exposes itself to various kinds of evil.
God takes our freedom seriously — far more seriously than we do. And his judgment on sin is to allow us to experience the wages of our sin. But that judgment is with a remedial purpose. God’s desire is always that his children turn back to him and be healed and restored. “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live” (Ezekiel 18:32).
Scripture also makes clear that we are not to judge the culpability of any individual. Because human beings are so interconnected, the innocent often suffer along with the guilty.
Jesus explained this in regard to two disasters of his own time: a political massacre in which some Galilean Jews were killed and a construction accident:
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those 18 on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).
A large-scale disaster is therefore not a warrant to condemn others. It is a call to examine our own lives and get right with God, aware that none of us knows how much time we have left on earth.
Clearly, the virus that causes COVID-19 is evil. It is bringing sickness, death, havoc and destruction — all contrary to God’s plan for the fullness of life for the human beings he created in his image. Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Moreover, the evil one is seeking to exploit this disease to bring further evils: fear and panic, selfishness and greed, tension and division in families, acrimony and blame among government leaders.
So we ought to pray — indeed, to pray and fast fervently, with great confidence in God — for an end to the virus.
One of the mercies of God is that the pandemic took off during Lent. The first reading at Mass on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, gives us a clue about how to pray. The reading is from the prophet Joel, who prophesied at a time when Judah was experiencing a natural disaster, a plague of locusts that had destroyed all the crops and was threatening to bring mass starvation (not unlike this year’s devastating locust plague in East Africa).
In the face of this calamity, God calls out to his people:
Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he. ....
Blow the trumpet in Zion!
Proclaim a fast;
call an assembly;
Gather the people,
notify the congregation. ...
Between the porch and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep,
And say, “Spare, O LORD, your people,
and make not your heritage a reproach,
with the nations ruling over them!
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’”
The prophet then succinctly records God’s merciful response:
Then the LORD was stirred to concern for his land
and took pity on his people (2:12-18).
The Lord restored an abundant food supply, but he did even more than that: He promised an extraordinary outpouring of his Holy Spirit, not only on his own people but on the whole world, bringing salvation and the knowledge of God (Joel 2:28-32).
So today, we are summoned to pray, fast and repent, for our own sake and the sake of the world. The prayer of Daniel during another national calamity provides a great model of such humble, contrite intercessory prayer (Daniel 9).
Here are a few specific ways Catholics might examine our consciences, especially during this Holy Week as we enter into the mystery of Christ’s passion.
We’ve been robbed of the ability to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist. Have we sometimes taken the Eucharist for granted? Have we been lax and lukewarm in our practice of the faith, squeezing in Mass (if at all) around all our other priorities, instead of making the Lord the first priority of our lives?
Just as a time of abstinence for a married couple can deepen their love by spurring them to express their affection in other ways, so this involuntary Eucharistic fast can be an opportunity to renew our intimacy with the Lord, especially through prayer and the reading of Scripture, so that, when we are finally able to receive Holy Communion again, we may partake with greater fervor than ever before.
Half the human race is under some form of lockdown, as if suddenly consigned to an involuntary retreat. Have we sometimes failed to honor the Lord by keeping the Lord’s Day? Have we treated Sundays just like any other day, as a time to go shopping, get work done and pursue our own agenda, instead of taking time to deepen our relationship with Jesus and relax with family and friends? In the Old Testament, God decreed that Judah would go into exile for a time corresponding to all the sabbaths they had broken, “until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths” (2 Chronicles 36:21). So now, perhaps our frenetic society is retrieving its lost sabbaths.
Millions of people are being constrained to spend more time in close quarters with family members than ever before. Have we sometimes taken for granted our spouse, children, siblings or parents? Have we placed them far down on our list of priorities? Have we sometimes dealt with our own sense of helplessness, fear or frustration by taking it out on them?
This week is an opportune time to ask forgiveness not only of God, but also of those closest to us, and to express our love for them. Parents especially can model this for their children.
Sports events and other forms of entertainment have ground to a halt. Have we made an idol of sports or entertainment?
The economy is tanking. Have we made an idol of money and possessions? Have we been trying to worship both God and mammon?
If Christians humble themselves before the Lord in prayer, fasting and repentance, then, and only then, will we be able to credibly call the whole world to repentance and faith in Christ. In this time of crisis, as people come face-to-face with human limitations and the reality of death, we may be given an unprecedented opportunity to bear witness to Christ.
As in the time of Joel, God’s plan is for more than simply an end to the calamity: He desires to bring all nations to the saving knowledge of his Son, who is victorious over sin, sickness, Satan and death.
Mary Healy, S.T.D., is professor of Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.