Coronavirus pandemic: God’s punishment or meaningless bad luck?
March 17, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — In a remarkable address, Prof. Roberto de Mattei points out the consistency with which the vast majority of bishops have declined to call for supernatural responses to the coronavirus, preferring rather the natural responses that our society exclusively recognizes:
The bishops today not only are not speaking about divine scourges, but they are not even inviting the faithful to pray that God will liberate them from the epidemic. There is a coherence in this. Whoever prays, in fact, asks God to intervene in his life, and thus in the things of the world, in order to be protected from evil and to obtain spiritual and material goods. But why should God listen to our prayers if he is disinterested in the universe created by Him?
De Mattei notes that a certain prominent bishop in Italy had “forcefully reject[ed] the idea that the Coronavirus epidemic or any other collective disaster can be a punishment for humanity. The virus, the bishop believes, is only the effect of nature.” But this is incoherent:
History in reality is a creature of God, like nature, like all that exists, because nothing of what exists can exist apart from God. All that happens in history is foreseen, regulated and ordered by God for all eternity. ... God is the author of nature with its forces and its laws, and he has the power to arrange the mechanism of the forces and laws of nature in such a way as to produce a phenomenon according to the needs of his justice or his mercy. God, who is the first cause above all of all that exists, always makes use of secondary causes in order to effect his plans. Whoever has a supernatural spirit does not stop at the superficial level of things but seeks to understand the hidden design of God that is at work beneath the apparently blind force of nature.
This “hidden design” includes God’s chastisement of human beings for sins, which pertains to all of us, since we are all implicated in the fall of Adam, and no man who has the exercise of reason and free will can claim to be without personal sin (cf. 1 Jn 1:8). The Bible, the Church Fathers and Doctors, and the whole patrimony of Christian theology confess with one voice: God’s Providence is in charge of everything that happens; the physical evils of sickness and death are caused by the moral evil of sin, and are sent as retributive, purgative, and medicinal punishments.
Some would counter with the Gospel of John, where the Lord says a certain man’s blindness was not caused by his sins or his parents’ sins (cf. Jn. 9:2). Yet the same Lord tells us in Luke 13:
There were present, at that very time, some that told him of the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answering, said to them: Think you that these Galileans were sinners above all the men of Galilee, because they suffered such things? No, I say to you: but unless you shall do penance, you shall all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower fell in Siloe and slew them: think you that they also were debtors above all the men that dwelt in Jerusalem? No, I say to you: but except you do penance, you shall all likewise perish.
Jesus reminds us that punishment justly falls on all of us, and that we must do penance for our sins and the sins of others. The evils of this world are an invitation to reject moral evil; purify our hearts; and return to Him to whom we must, in any case, render an account at the end of our days.
It is only in the Enlightenment (17th–18th centuries) that self-styled philosophers reject, simultaneously, the doctrine of original sin, the doctrine of divine Providence, and the value of penance. Ernst Cassirer noted that the Enlightenment thinkers, despite their great diversity of opinions, all agreed to throw out original sin. For the rationalists, all men are born with a “neutral” human nature, open to either good or evil; men become good or evil based on their upbringing and social influences. If bad things happen, it’s due to chance or personal vice. God, if His existence is acknowledged at all, is merely a clockmaker who builds the cosmic machine and sets it going. It then continues on its own, without His involvement. The picture of the universe we’ve been given by modern science is one in which God plays no intimate role. To those who labor under such an impoverished metaphysics, talk of God willing a tsunami or an earthquake, a plague or a famine, would seem not at all different from Homer talking of petulant Greek gods interfering in the Trojan war. Self-consciously “modern” theology, in turn, has often taken its cue from rationalism: it does not regard the human race as shipwrecked or drowning, as deserving of death and punishment, nor does it see God as intimately present to all things, especially to the creatures made in His image, calling them to redemptive suffering and eternal beatitude.
How radically different is the Christian and Catholic perspective vividly seen in the medieval prayer that the superior general of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, Most Rev. Andrzej Komorowski, FSSP, asked the priests of the Fraternity to pray at the end of every public Mass until further notice:
V. Deal not with us, Lord, according to our sins.
R. And take not vengeance on us because of our misdeeds.
V. Help us, O God, our Deliverer.
R. And for Thy name’s sake, O Lord, free us.
V. Remember not, O Lord, our sins of old.
R. Hasten to us with Thy compassion, for we are become exceeding poor.
V. St. Sebastian, pray for us.
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
V. O Lord, hear my prayer.
R. And let my cry come unto thee.
V. The Lord be with you.
R. And with thy spirit.
Let us pray. Vouchsafe to hear us, O God, our only salvation! And through the intercession of the glorious and blessed Mary, Mother of God and ever Virgin, of Thy blessed martyr, Sebastian and of all the saints, deliver Thy people from the terrors of Thy wrath, and restore their confidence by the outpouring of Thy compassion.
Be moved to pity, O Lord, at our earnest entreaties, and heal the illnesses of body and soul; so that experiencing Thy forgiveness we may ever rejoice in Thy blessing.
We beseech thee, O Lord, grant us a hearing as we devoutly raise our petitions to Thee, and graciously turn away the epidemic of plague which afflicts us; so that mortal hearts may recognize that these scourges proceed from Thine indignation and cease only when Thou art moved to mercy. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, who liveth and reigned with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.
Looking at these truly robust and Catholic prayers from the Age of Faith, we have to ask: why did such prayers get the axe after Vatican II? (This one is from the old Rituale Romanum, which did, in fact, get the axe...although, thankfully, it is coming back into use in more and more places.) Either the Church was right for all those centuries to pray this way — lex orandi, lex credendi — or she was wrong to do so. If she was right, then we today must repent of the destruction visited upon our own liturgical heritage and take up our “law of prayer” again in humility and trust. If she was wrong, however, why are we still Catholic? It would be more intellectually honest to become a secular humanist, or, for that matter, a nihilist.
This is really the fundamental question that the liturgical reform raises over and over again — once one becomes aware of the stark differences between old and new.
What were Catholics of olden times thinking during periods of sickness and trial? Here is what the great Mother Mectilde de Bar (1614–1698) wrote to a sick lay sister on Pentecost Tuesday, May 23, 1695, as recorded by another nun:
We must remain in the situation in which God places us, bless Him always, and always consent, right, left, on all sides; this is what we have to do. My poor Sister, the good God sends us back again [to health] in order to do penance; but we must do it in His way and not in ours… The great secret to always being content is to adapt to God’s way, to His mode, and in everything that happens — good or bad, without making a distinction — to see always the will of God in God Himself, and God Himself in His will. Never view anything as being outside of God, not even a little prick of your finger, or any small grief which in the morning you expect to happen during the day. See everything in God, and stop neither at what is human nor at secondary causes; instead be attached to God’s pleasure and to His will, so as to conform to it. Let us not waste time, the end draws nigh.
The current epidemic has exposed how ubiquitous an error in our times is the denial that God is in charge of every last detail of the universe and that He wills or permits all things for the punishment and reformation of sinners and for the merit of the just. Accepting the sovereignty of God as Mother Mectilde counsels is fundamental for the spiritual life; otherwise, we are truly “at sea,” without living faith in God’s care for us and His power to save us and to perfect us through suffering. Even the Lord Jesus trod this path at the Father’s behest: “It was fitting that He, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation [Christ] perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2:10).