The puzzle of evil

The room was quieter than I anticipated. The machines did their beeping and humming in a softer register, as if reverent before the suffering of the shadows beneath the sheets. Each patient was enclosed in a smaller room, separated by sliding glass doors of the type found in homes with patios. A nurse pointed to one of the side rooms and I entered.

Maria was on her back, her head locked in place by a metal frame, her skull immobilized by screws. Maria had broken her spine in a car accident. Her husband Leon and she had been traveling north, with Maria lying in the back seat because of muscle spasms, when they drove into a snow squall. He lost control of the wheel and they skidded into the ditch, flipping the car. He had been wearing a seat belt and escaped serious injury, but not so for Maria.

When I first heard of the incident, I thought of Maria’s background and shook my head. On the way to the hospital, I recalled her sharing stories of her upbringing. She was born in Hungary and was in her teens during the Soviet occupation. In the face of Communist persecution, her Catholic family managed to escape, leaving Maria with harrowing memories of dread and fright. And now this. OK, Lord, enough already. To use a football analogy to describe my reaction to Maria’s suffering, I threw the penalty flag against God for piling on.

Maria’s tragic injury, occurring years ago, came to mind recently when I picked up a book and began reading during Lent. A reprint by Sophia Institute Press, it is entitled “Why Does God Permit Evil?” and its author was Dom Bruno Webb, a Benedictine monk in England who, as indicated on the back cover, wrote the book during “the darkest days of World War II.”

The book is relatively brief, 153 pages, and easy to understand, though its content--a reflection on God’s role with respect to suffering and evil--will continue to challenge even the most faithful reader.

The book taught me many things. It prompted me to take up the Catechism of the Catholic Church to measure and evaluate Dom Bruno’s insights. For the fuller story, more than can be contained in an opinion piece, one should read the book and then take a peak at paragraphs 385 to 421 and 2850 to 2854 of the catechism.

As a teaser, I’ll just focus on one aspect of suffering that is perhaps the greatest puzzle. It made sense to me that doing bad things could lead to one’s own suffering. But why do good people, such as Maria, experience agony from a cause that is physical, not moral in nature, such as a snow squall and slippery pavement?

The answer from faith is found in the title of Dom Bruno’s first chapter--“Sin causes all evil.” Relying on the work of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, he explained, and the catechism affirms, that from the vantage of Catholic teaching, all evil, including physical suffering, originates from sin. Natural disasters and harms are to be traced back to the rebellion of angels. Angels, according to Catholic theology, were assigned the responsibility for carrying out God’s plan in ordering nature, and the fallen angels did not relinquish this power and still abuse it.

As Bruno writes, the natural world involves “a reign of violence and savagery that is an enigma to many who forget that the fall of the angels is a tremendous reality, but which is well understood if it be the reflection in the material and sentient sphere of that spirit savagery and violence of apostate angels who have set themselves in a state of intense hatred against God and all that He has created, and who, being unable to hurt God Himself, seek to satisfy their hatred of Him by marring the beauty of His creation to the utmost of their power.”

Which brings us to the million dollar question: Why doesn’t God strip the devils of their angelic power to exercise, and abuse, their will over nature? For the same reason, Dom Bruno and the Church offer, that God does not strip human beings of their free will. Bruno writes: “It would be contrary to divine wisdom to create free will and to prevent its execution, and against divine goodness to disrespect the dignity of free will, pretending it to be other than it is.” The catechism observes in paragraph 387 that free will is the means “that God gives to created persons so that they are capable of loving him and loving one another.”

Instead of attacking free will, and thus crippling the capacity to love, God goes another route by assuring that wherever sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.

As always, a discussion like this ends up sounding too pat, too neat. It is only when those gripped by the reality of evil and suffering witness to something greater that the topic loses its tidiness and takes on the character of truth. As I stood by Maria’s bedside, wondering what more to say beyond mumbled expressions of sorrow, she asked me something that I will never forget. “Will you say a prayer, Dan?” she began. Contrary to my expectations, she continued: “Say a prayer for a friend of mine who this past week had a fire in her house and lost her possessions.”

There, in that request, made in such dire circumstances, did I learn what really should be known about suffering and about God.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy & Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.