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WELCOME! Do you find contemporary life a challenge? Are you a confused Catholic, or even just someone seeking to understand faith? Since 2003, CrossCurrents has appeared 40 times each year. My aim: to provoke thought and enrich faith by interpreting current events in the light of Catholic tradition. I hope you find these columns both entertaining and clarifying. Your feedback and comments are welcome! Find information about my pastoral consulting at http://www.crosscurrents.us/ NOTE: TO READ OR WRITE COMMENTS, CLICK ON THE TITLE OF A POST.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

#422: Rank Disorder

The events in Ferguson, Missouri invite us to reflect on our nation’s unfinished business--and the principles we need to get that business done.


Wouldn’t it be awful to live in one of those countries where arrest and jail are a constant threat, where the crime rate is far above the average of developed democratic nations, where infant and maternal mortality are scandalously high, where life expectancy and literacy lag behind the leading nations of the world, where the gap between rich and poor disrupts the economy and even triggers violence in the streets? 

And wouldn’t it be even worse if that country’s citizens did not realize their plight?  If they blindly accepted their condition as “normal,” or even inevitable?  If they did not demand or even expect any improvement? 

Well, my dear reader, as awful as this sounds, it actually might describe your own country--if you live in the United States.  But most Americans ignore their country’s true condition most of the time--until something explodes. 

A year ago this month, a college classmate was visiting Boston, and over lunch she recounted her recent travels with her husband to various parts of the United States.  Three or four times her story was punctuated by an episode of petty crime: and attempted mugging at an ATM, a snatched purse or picked pocket, a stolen credit card.  These events clearly marred their travel memories.

As we returned to the car, she commented, “I hope you won’t be offended if I say this.  But sometimes I feel like the U.S. is becoming a third world country.”

My reply caught her by surprise.  “I’m not offended at all,” I said.  “In fact, I think you’re quite right, except that ‘becoming’ is too kind.  In my view, the U.S. has been like a third world country for many years now.”

If this seems farfetched or shocking to you, be a bit patient while I explain.

When people say “first world,” they are generally thinking of western nations in Europe and North America, plus economically advanced countries like Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, South Korea, and Chile.

The term “third world” labels countries that are mostly poorer and less developed, especially in the southern hemisphere: Africa, Latin America, the Middle East.  The difference is not simply geographic, it is economic and cultural.  But whatever reasons people have for attaching these labels, they have the effect of lumping certain countries together in people’s minds.  So Japan seems to belong with England, and Bangladesh seems to belong with Haiti.  Thus these terms create strange bedfellows.

But the strangest combinations of all come when one looks at the facts of American Life in a global perspective.  It does not take much research to realize that we often keep unexpected company.

As summer winds down, many “first world” workers are completing vacation time that they receive as a job benefit guaranteed by law.  Such vacation time varies from several weeks per year in France to several days per year in China and Japan.  But American workers stand alone, for the U.S. is the only first world nation that guarantees no legal vacation.  The result: many poorer Americans get no vacation at all.

But the U.S. does rank ahead of other nations in a number of negative categories.

We have the highest incarceration rate in the world (760 imprisoned per 100,000 population) and more people in jail than any other country (2,310,984 by the end of 2007).  That is ¼ all the prisoners in the world.  Yes, you read that right: 25% of the entire planet. We also have the most private firearms and the largest external debt.

In many other areas we are not alone--but we are in very surprising company.  (I relied on data from the CIA World Factbooks for 2010 and 2013, the UN, and Global Finance Magazine).

Among the world’s most dangerous cities, for example, Washington, DC--our nation’s capital!--ranks #5 in the world, a little better than Mogadishu but worse than Rio.

In overall healthcare, the U.S. ranks #38, behind Costa Rica and just ahead of Slovenia.

In infant mortality, the U.S. comes in at #50, just behind the Faroe Islands and just ahead of Croatia.

Our rank for maternal mortality is even worse: the U.S. is #136 in the world, between Iran and Hungary.

In overall life expectancy, the U.S. ranks #53, just ahead of Bahrain but worse than Taiwan.

Then there are economic disparities, which have emerged as major discontents behind the current troubles in Ferguson, Missouri.

In income inequality, for example, the U.S. ranks #41, better than the Philippines but worse than Uruguay.  In income distribution, we rank #80, behind Nicaragua and just ahead of Morocco.  In income shared by the top 10% of the population, the U.S. comes in #64, between Iran and Liberia.

Notice that in none of these quality-of-life measures does the United States come even close to the top 10.  And we never rank near our “peer” nations in Europe or Asia.  The same is true for our rankings in literacy and education.  In fact, our neighbors in all these rankings are the very countries people generally think of as “third world.”

It is no great surprise to me, then, that American society is prone to volatile outbreaks like the one in Ferguson.  We have the richest and most powerful nation on earth, and we like to say we have the freest one.  But the hard data reveals another truth: ordinary people in many other countries live better than ordinary Americans.  No wonder we are not a contented people.  Our low rankings breed trouble--call it rank disorder.

All this depressing data begs two questions: why does the U.S. lag behind its peers?  And what can be done about it? Or are we resigned to our “third world” status as normal or even inevitable?

I believe much of our problem lies in the wide public acceptance--indeed, it is virtually a civic consensus—of a woefully, perhaps even criminally, inadequate concept of human rights.  If so, the U.S. urgently needs a broader vision of human rights as well as a commitment to secure them for all our citizens.  Only this will promote a better life.

I have long believed that the human rights vision embraced by modern Catholic Social Teaching offers much brighter prospects for a happier, more peaceful social order than the vision that prevails in the U.S.  As I have written elsewhere:

It was my wife who reminded me that seeing faith as an antidote to hate, fear, and division was what got me into church work first place, nearly 40 years ago. In today’s Church (divided by the cultural wars and rent by scandal) that may seem a laughable choice, but the fact is I was not alone. The civil rights movement was largely faith-based, and its greatest leader was a preacher. The peace movement had important Catholic actors like Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and the Berrigans. Community organizers in Chicago, Boston, and elsewhere discovered that, while many secular activists disappeared when their cause ended, church congregations provided a more stable support base for long-term social missions.

A simple comparison shows how different the Catholic vision is.  The simple fact is that Catholic Social Teaching lists many human rights at current U.S. law does not even recognize.

The American list of human rights is largely found in the U.S. constitution and subsequent amendments and Supreme Court decisions.  The list consists mainly of legal and civil rights: free speech, voting rights, the right to avoid self incrimination, the right to a fair trial, etc.  Mostly these entail rights we enjoyed because the government cannot infringe on them.

But the human rights list of Catholic Social Teaching goes much further to include economic and social rights we will not enjoy simply because the government keeps out of our way.

These include: the right to food and shelter; the right to education; the right to employment at a fair wage with reasonable benefits; the right to decent housing; the right to healthcare.

Framing this list is several principles that should guide specific social policies.  The first of these is a focus on the poor and vulnerable: “The basic moral test for our society is how we treat the most vulnerable in our midst.” This includes a priority concern for the marginalized, persons with disabilities, the elderly, the terminally ill, victims of injustice and prescient, and particularly the poor.

The second principle is the importance of a humane economy: “the economy should serve people, not the other way around.” It has been more than 30 years since John–Paul II taught that in any conflict between “labor” (people) and “capital” (money), people must come first.

(One may reasonably ask how many of Ferguson’s young people believe that describes the U.S. economy.)

The third principle is “solidarity”--the attitude that recognizes one human family and sees those in needs as our neighbors, to be supported and cared for.

Just suppose, for the sake of argument, that in the coming year’s American leaders were to champion Catholic Social Teaching’s longer list of human rights - - not because the list is “Catholic,” but because those rights are right.  Suppose the U.S. puts more focus on the vulnerable and marginalized.  Suppose people get a living wage and some vacation.  Suppose our leaders promote a more humane economy, and suppose our leaders--political, civic, religious, and cultural--inspire a spirit of solidarity among all Americans.

If all that happens, I have no doubt the U.S. would rise through the ranks of the world’s nations and achieve the place of honor we think we deserve.  The result?  No more rank disorders.  Instead, a more just and justly proud and peaceful land.
  © Bernard   F. Swain PhD 2013

Monday, August 4, 2014

#421: Would Jesus Send Them Back?

As tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors flood across our southern border, Americans face a growing moral challenge.  And this challenge touches on both our national character and on  Catholic identity itself. 


When Massachusetts Governor Duval Patrick offered temporary shelter to 1000 immigrant youths, he unleashed a firestorm of protest in supposedly “liberal” Massachusetts.  Officials of the towns where Patrick proposed sending children for shelter said that their communities should not be burdened with the responsibility, explaining “we need to take care of our own.”

When Patrick compared the current crisis to the case in World War II, when a ship carrying Jewish families was refused entry to the United States (and those families mostly ended up in NAZI death camps), people howled that the comparison was inappropriate.  Letters to the editor argued that we should “send them back where they belong.” And on Saturday, July 26, thousands cheered a “Stop the Invasion” rally at the Massachusetts State House, chanting “Send them home!  Send them home!”

For many, it seems, these children are simply “illegals,” case closed.  As one rally speaker explained:

Our government sees no difference between law-abiding, freedom-loving, taxpaying citizens and lawbreaking aliens.

All this makes me fear that, as the ghost of nativism rears its ugly head, our national character might be recoiling from generations of social progress.

The fact is that hospitality to migrants in trouble is a longstanding tradition in this country.  I recall my third grade teacher announcing the arrival of Hungarian children in her hometown.  Refugees from the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, they came to the U.S., often unaccompanied, because it was not safe to stay home.

To an 8 year old like me, this announcement contained three life lessons.  First, the world beyond our borders was sometimes dangerous.  Second, our nation is seen to be--and was--a place of safe haven for “refugees” (which was a new word to me!).  Third, Americans by nature sacrifice for those who need our help.

Four decades later, my church work repeated these lessons, when some of my client parishes sponsored summer programs (offering housing, host families, recreation, and health care) for “Chernobyl Children.” These minors were fleeing the unsafe milk, crops, and spaces contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear explosion.  Despite presenting itself as a temporary relief program, “Chernobyl Children” naturally encouraged these young Russian guests to think of America as a desirable permanent home.

Catholic social teaching clearly calls for this kind of “open arms” embrace for refugees.  In fact, our tradition holds that people have a human right to migrate if their current location makes them threatened, endangered, oppressed, or destitute.

This certainly applies to at least some of the minors now flooding into the U.S..  And Catholic leaders are championing their cause. John Allen reports that Pope Francis himself sent a clear message to last week’s crisis summit in Mexico City:

Such a humanitarian emergency demands as the first urgent measure that these minors be protected and duly taken in. [They] cross the border under extreme conditions, in pursuit of a hope that in most cases turns out to be vain. (http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/world/2014/08/02/immigration-takes-its-place-pro-life-issue-for-catholic-church-leaders/LwwqcL3WlOhyWqMdiWtgqL/story.html)

The pope’s message echoes the consistent position of U.S. bishops, especially those from the areas most affected by border crossings.

Bishop Eusebio L Elizondo of Seattle heads the U.S. Bishops Migration Committee.  In a July 17 letter to members of Congress, he spoke against Republican efforts to roll back the legal protections for migrating children, saying “this vulnerable group is fleeing violence from organized criminal networks.”

This claim was verified by Richard Jones of Catholic Relief Services, who said:

We have seen the homicide rates grow, forced displacement increase and Mexican and Colombian drug cartels battle over who controls the moves through Central America…In El Salvador and Honduras, there are more gang members than police.

David Fiske, president of Marygrove College (a Catholic school in Detroit), issued a statement calling the situation a “classic” refugee crisis typical of “war-torn regions in which unprotected civilians will take extreme measures to reach a safe haven.”

That safe haven is, of course, the United States--yet millions of Americans (including, I fear, American Catholics) reject this historical badge of humanitarian honor in favor of “you don’t belong here” and “send them back.”

How striking is the difference between this attitude and the way Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez spoke of such migrants at a July 20 Mass held to focus attention on the crisis:

We celebrate the immigrant spirit that gives life to our great country and our great city.  As we all know, this land was built by the blood and sacrifice and the vision of missionaries and immigrants from every race of language and every nation.  Today we give thanks for all those men and women who left the places where they were born--to bring their faith and values, their talents and gifts--to create a new life and the new world here in America.  We thank God also for the spirit of our new immigrants--those  joining us every day to be our neighbors and friends and family members.

In addition to praising the migrant spirit itself, Gomez used the occasion to spell out the link between immigration policy--especially the treatment of refugees--and Catholic identity itself:

Pope Francis is right, and in the face of this emergency, our first duty must be to protect these children.  My brothers and sisters, what we are doing for these children as a church--it’s not about politics.  We all know that.  It’s about who we are as Catholics… We don’t do it because we are “social workers” or “nice people.” We do it because we are being faithful to our identity and duty as Catholics.  We do it because Jesus calls us to do it.

As a Catholic, I’m proud of my tradition’s strong and clear message that protecting migrants’ human rights reflects true gospel values.  As an American, I am troubled and even ashamed that so many citizens cannot see beyond the red tape of customs regulations and our newfangled and arbitrary immigration quotas.

Once we acknowledge that migrants in need are exercising their human rights, any talk of them as “illegals” becomes nit-picking.  It is like jailing a poor man for fishing to feed his family, just because he could not afford a fishing license.  The law is there to serve people, and for our common good.  Laws that violate a human right are unjust.  And, as Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote, unjust laws are not really laws at all--they are a form of violence.

For me, this begs two questions.

First, why are so many Americans afraid to embrace our longstanding tradition of humanitarian hospitality?  After all, any talk of who “belongs here” is just ignorant.  If “belongs here” means “was always here,” then nobody belongs here.  Even Native Americans migrated here from Asia, and that was long before Europeans and Africans migrated here, and that was long before Asians and South Americans migrated here.  Originally, all our ancestors “belonged” somewhere else--not here.

But millions of Americans continue to ignore this, or deny this, or just shut their eyes.  They prefer to believe that they have a “right” to be here while others do not--and they hide behind the law to avoid the truth.  What are they afraid of?

Second, I wonder about American Catholics.  Does ours faith impact our attitude?  Do U.S. Catholics know the Church’s position on migration and refugees?  Do we know what our traditional beliefs mean?  Do we know our own Catholic identity? 

Or are there millions of Catholics who, if they were asked “What would Jesus do?” would answer: “Jesus would send them home!”?

Pope Francis has called this response the “globalization of indifference,” and my worry is that too many Catholics believe such indifference is compatible with our faith.  I hope I am wrong.

  © Bernard   F. Swain PhD 2013

Friday, July 18, 2014

#420: Can Francis Rehabilitate the Church?

In the 16 months since Francis became pope, his potential for global impact is emerging—and with it, the prospects for Catholicism to recover its good name and influence.


Shortly after the election of Francis, my cousin John—a non-catholic—predicted that his papacy would bring “epochal” changes not only to Catholicism and Christianity, and to the world at large.  Less than 17 months later, I’m nearly persuaded that he was right.

Last month I attended a workshop at Boston College on the theme “Pope Francis and Vatican II.” Many speakers confirmed my own view (see CrossCurrents #393) that Francis has rescued the legacy of Vatican Council II from those who would prefer to believe that the Council made no difference.

The workshop followed hard on the heels of Pope Francis’ historic “prayer summit” with the presidents of Israel and the Palestinian people.  For me, the combined effect has been to ignite my hopes for the Church’s impact in our modern, globalized culture.  For me, the prayer summit crystallized a turning point that has no precedent in my 42 years of pastoral work.

To explain I must flash back to a discussion with my grown children from the fall of 2002.  As the sex abuse scandal exploded in Boston, they challenged me to persuade them to stay connected to the Church.  I admitted to all their grave misgivings, but argued nonetheless that the Church could be essential to their future lives.

After nearly an hour, my daughter Melissa brought the matter to a head.

“OK, Dad,” she said.  “You’re right.  Over the next few years we will be settling into our career paths, maybe will be getting married, settling down, having kids, raising a family.  We may need support for the next part of our spiritual journeys, and we may seek that support in a faith community.”

She paused. Then: “But Dad, tell me this: why the hell would we pick THIS church for our kids?”

I was speechless--and my friends know that is a rare state for me! I literally had no answer at all. 

In fact, I spent the next five years constructing an answer.  Eventually I settled on an answer in the form of a sharp slogan (subsequently stolen by the U.S. Navy).  One might “pick” the Church, I began to argue, because of its potential as “A Global Force for Good.”

My own opinion is that, for the U.S. Navy, this is false advertising--if only because the U.S. military by definition is a national force no matter where it is deployed.  But it is fair to ask: is this tag any more accurate for the Roman Catholic Church? 

I’m beginning to think that the “Francis effect” we’ve witnessed since the election of Pope Francis is precisely about his efforts (and effectiveness) in making “A Global Force for Good” a realistic description of the Church.

Every modern pope has commanded extensive public attention, but no pope since John XXIII (1958-1963) has evoked such affection from millions of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.  At first, it was easy to suppose his popularity stemmed from his self-effacing manner, and many wondered if his papacy might prove to be more style than substance.

But by now we know otherwise, for two reasons.  First, at the level of global leadership, style sometimes is substance, at least inasmuch as symbolic gestures can have substantive effects.  Second, his actions are already making real differences.

Last month’s prayer summit actually combined style and substance.  It followed his visit to the Holy Land, where the media competed to provide the best coverage of the most photo opportunities. 
We saw Francis at the Wailing Wall.  We saw Francis at the Jordan River, and Yad Vashem, and at a security checkpoint marked by Arabic graffiti.  He met with both Netanyahu and Abbas.

But his trip had practical aims as well. He was there to express concern about the persecution of Palestinian Christians, and about the protection of Christian shrines at many sites.  His official purpose was actually a meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew, the Christian Orthodox leader.

Thus Francis was able to promote three causes at once.  He reached out for greater unity among Christians, he called for the rejection of persecution of Middle Eastern Christians, and he called for dialogue rather than violence in the face of conflict.

The prayer summit, on Pentecost Sunday, gave new evidence that Francis is shrewd enough to combine symbolic gestures with substantive actions.  In particular, the summit revealed Francis’ gift for understanding how his office can function in the 21st century.

By insisting that the summit was a spiritual, not political event, Francis neutralized any suspicion that he was engaging in naive idealism in the face of difficult challenges.  The pope’s role, in other words, is not policymaking.

But it is peacemaking, in the broader sense.

First, the summit brought together three heads of state (even though the Vatican is a tiny city state, and the Palestinians remain stateless).

Second, it also brought together three religious traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  There was no communal prayer (each leader read texts from his own scriptures).  But, while they did not pray together, they did come together to pray. 

Thus, in arranging this event, Francis was acting out his previous call for a world-wide culture of encounter. 
The peacemaking aim of the summit was symbolized by planting an olive tree, by friendly hugs, and by Francis himself calling this “the beginning of a new journey.”

 In his remarks, Francis gave that journey a clear focus:

Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare… Only the tenacious say yes to encounter and no to conflict; yes to negotiations and no to hostilities; yes to respect for agreements and no to acts of provocation…  History teaches that our strength alone does not suffice.  That is why we are here, because we know and we believe that we need the help of God.

John Allen has suggested that Francis is leading the Vatican “back to diplomatic relevance,” and even suggest a new level of public expectation aimed at the papacy:

After Sunday it is hard to imagine any global conflict in which the question will not be eventually arise, “when is the pope going to step in?”

And Patriarch Bartholomew went so far as to call Francis “the world’s greatest ambassador of peace.”

Cynics may still suspect that Francis is strong on empty gestures but weak on concrete actions.  But since the summit, he has acted on several fronts.

He pronounced that the Mafia have, by their own crimes, excommunicated themselves from Catholic Church.  He has met individually with victims of priest sexual abuse, promising to hold accountable not only the priests who committed abuse but also the bishops who protected them.  He has initiated the reform of the Vatican Bank, and made it accountable to Vatican administrators.  He even called for a “pause for peace” during the World Cup’s final match, which received widespread Internet support.


Of course, time was when the papacy wielded power across all Christendom, so that even monarchs required his blessing for major policy decisions.  But by 1871, when the Italian Civil War dismantled the Papal States, the papacy’s power had dwindled to honorary status, and for the last century popes have influenced events by their moral authority rather than their political clout. Often, that meant popes could be conveniently ignored by public officials.

John Allen therefore may be overly optimistic about the pope’s leverage (and this month's clash between Israel and Hamas can discourage even the most hopeful observers), but Francis is clearly becoming hard to ignore, even compared to John-Paul II.   
First, he has arguably become the best-liked person on earth.  Whereas John-Paul II was admired for his intelligence and charisma, Francis is beloved for his simplicity. In an age when social media shapes so much public consciousness, Francis enjoys a visibility and a positive PR image that no other public figure can rival.

At the same time, he matches his simplicity with a shrewdness that has positioned the papacy for a unique role in contemporary public affairs: (1) As head of the world’s largest organization (period!), he represents 1.3 billion people living on every continent and nearly every country—nearly 20% of the world’s population. (2) He is also a head of state, but his state is so small its political power is negligible. He can thus play neutral broker in a way no ordinary politician can. (3) His statements make it clear that he seeks to reach out to and create working partnerships for peace with anyone of good will, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, any other faith, and even people of no faith. (4) He is a native of the Third World, and both represents and speaks for the poor.  (5) His mission is clearly not only to lead the Church, but to be present in the world. 

What Francis has accomplished in 16 months is nearly without precedent: he has made his papacy the world’s leading voice for peace, for economic equality, and for fraternity among all people.  In effect, he is the closest thing we have (and have had in generations) to the spiritual leader of the whole world.

This does not make the Catholic Church a “Global Force for Good” overnight—but it does create the possibility. If enough bishops, priests, religious, ordinary Catholics, and other people of goodwill support this man, and if his mission succeeds, the day could soon come, when young adults will know why they want to pick this Church for their kids. 

  © Bernard   F. Swain PhD 2013

Saturday, May 24, 2014

#419: Who Killed the Kennedys?

I shouted out, “Who Killed the Kennedys?” When after all, it was you and me.”—Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil


Last week’s announcement of plans to auction Jacqueline Kennedy’s letters to Irish priest Father Joseph Leonard (expected to fetch upwards of $4 million, before the auction was cancelled and replaced by negotiations with the Kennedy family) reveals an outlook on Catholic faith that begs comment, first because the outlook is quite common, and second because it is quite wrong. 

The reportage in the Boston Globe included not only letters recently discovered in a drawer at All Hallows College in Dublin, but also letters already on file at the JFK library in Boston.  Among the letters are Mrs. Kennedy’s reflections on her personal beliefs, values, and concerns.  Especially newsworthy, of course, were Kennedy’s thoughts on the assassination of her husband, President John Kennedy.  Some of her thoughts are startlingly personal and poignant:

I am so bitter against God...I think God must have taken Jack to show the world how lost we would be without him…But that is a strange way of thinking to me – and God will have a bit of explaining to do to me if I ever see him.

This passage caught my attention as an example of the way many Catholics typically think when faced with a catastrophic event.  Naturally, they feel bitterness, and often that feeling targets God.  But more importantly, the question “Why did God do this to us?” is all too common.  Likewise, the question on many lips after 9/11 was: “Where was God?” Whether it is the massive evil of the Holocaust, the personal disaster of a random accident, or the traumatic public assassination of the President, people typically want to hold God accountable for what has happened. 

In this, Mrs. Kennedy was in good company, and her reaction, like the similar reactions of millions of others, is certainly understandable. 

But however natural, these reactions reveal a profound misunderstanding of Christian faith.  And what strikes me is that such a misunderstanding is not the result of some personal deficiency. Jacqueline Kennedy was a decidedly intelligent, well-informed person, as are many others who react just as she did.  Rather, it seems that people misunderstand their faith because they were taught to misunderstand it. 

I know I spent years misunderstanding.  I was taught that God is omniscient and omnipotent, that he knows everything and can do anything.  I was taught that all things come from God.  It was natural to assume that this meant that bad things also come from God.  So I, like many others, was prone to ask “Why did God do that?” in response to any disaster. 

I recall the scene in John Ford’s 1941 classic How Green Was My Valley, where an older couple stands at the base of the stairs, their heads bowed, mourning the loss of a son in a mining accident.  Suddenly a baby’s cry descends the stairs as the son’s widow gives birth.  The grandfather mournfully recites “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.” Furious with grief, shaking her finger at him, the grandmother retorts: “Go tell that to that girl up there!”

That woman clearly did not buy the notion that God does evil and then cancels it out by doing some balancing good.  And she was right.  But it took years to for me to figure out why.

Perhaps the best source of clarity on this is Saint Thomas Aquinas, who offered a straightforward explanation of what he called “Divine Permission.”

Aquinas began by identifying our dilemma.  Yes, we believe God created everything.  Yes, we believe He is the author of all things.  But we also believe that God is all good, and perfectly loving.  So it seems God could do nothing evil.  Yet evil things clearly happen.  How is this possible, unless God makes them happen?  And how can God do evil if he is all good?

These questions probe our understanding of God’s will.  God clearly wills the good things that happen.  Does he also will the bad things?  If yes, how can he be all good?  If no, how can they happen at all?

The Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan argued that Aquinas’ solution was like expanding a two lane highway to three lanes.  Yes, there are things which happen because God wills them to happen.  And yes, there are things which do not happen because God wills them not to happen.  But there’s also a third lane: things that happen because God wills to allow them to happen.  In short, some events happen, not because God wills them, but because he permits them.  This is the theory of divine permission.

This of course begs the question: why would God even permit evil?

The short answer is: freedom.  God wills to embrace us with his love, and have us love him in return.  But love must be freely given, and so humans can love God only if their lives are not predetermined--and only if they live in a world where events are not predetermined.

Love requires freedom, and freedom is possible only in a world where choice—and chance—are possible. Thus by inviting us to love, God must risk our refusal to love. If he refused to permit that refusal, if he prevented all evil, he would also prevent our freedom and therefore make it impossible for us to love.

This idea that God loves our freedom to love Him above all else is both gratifying and terrifying.  It is gratifying because it means God’s gracious love makes it possible for us to love him as well as each other.  It is terrifying because our freedom to love leaves us free to hate as well.  As Bishop Desmond Tutu said after 9/11, Christian faith includes the terrifying belief but God will allow us to choose hell rather than force us into heaven!

So the idea of divine permission creates a new horizon for our view of the events in our lives.  We can thank God for willing the good things that happen.  But we cannot blame God for the evil that happens.

This fact of our faith is both counter-intuitive and liberating.  It is counter-intuitive because we have been so used to thinking of God as the author of every single thing that happens.  It is counterintuitive because we naturally want to blame God for catastrophe, and feel as Ms. Kennedy did, bitter or angry toward God.  So to accept this belief in a good God who permits evil can be a tough challenge in the face of our own strong emotions. 

We may well get angry anyway, since God has permitted the evil even if he has not caused it.  We may ask “Why does God allow this?” And though the answer—“because our own freedom requires it”--is clear, that does not make it easy to accept.

But this fact is also liberating, because it frees us from the sort of torturous logic that so many Catholics employed to explain away evil events.  Just as Mrs. Kennedy tried to convince herself that God engineered her husband’s death for some good purpose, many Catholics construct fantastic rationalizations for the catastrophes that befall them.  Besides the fact that such rationalizations distort our image of God, they also have the effect of denying evil in the world.

It is one thing to believe, as Christians do, that God can use our suffering for good purposes.  It is another thing to believe that the cause of our suffering is good.  For if all suffering has a good cause, then there is no evil in the world.

It is easy to understand that, in moments of terrible shock, trauma, and grief, people are impelled to deny evil simply because they cannot tolerate the truth.  But in the long run, it does neither us nor our faith any good to pretend everything happens for the best in every situation.  There is evil in the world.  And that evil, at least in its human form, is the direct result of God’s decision to make humans free.  In fact that evil, and the suffering it causes, is the price for our freedom.

This poses a profound spiritual challenge: if God is the kind of loving father who prizes our freedom so much he will allow us to suffer its consequences, can we embrace the same attitude? 

This is no mere abstraction. We face this in our lives. How many parents will allow their children to fail and suffer in the name of their own freedom?  How many of us accept the consequences of our mistakes as the price of our freedom?  How many of us embrace an existence rooted in the freedom to love or not love?  How many of us would, at least on some occasions, prefer a life in a world where freedom was curtailed and we could escape its consequences?

In short, the Christian world view is of an existence that results from God’s special version of “tough love.”  God has created us for love, and so we must be free, and so our world must be a place of freedom, and so we must live with its consequences.

This is of course, the lesson of the story of the Garden of Eden.  We can imagine a human race that had never exercised its freedom for evil.  We can imagine a human race that always did the right thing.  We can imagine a human race that never has to suffer the consequences of wrongdoing.  But that is not the human race we all inherit.  Instead, we find ourselves part of the human family in which a long history of wrongdoing and bad choices have left us a world in which our freedom is sometimes to be feared even more than it is to be cherished.

The bottom line is: the Rolling Stones were right.  God did not “take” Jack Kennedy.  One of us (or some of us) did, as members of a human race that too often fails to love.  And the reason was not to teach some cosmic lesson that was in the mind of God.  The reason was some hateful motive by people who could not rise above their baser instincts and use their freedom for good instead of evil.

We must be tough to accept this kind of life.  And we must believe in a tough God whose love for us is a harsh and dreadful thing.

  © Bernard  F. Swain PhD 2014