On the Newtown Massacre

The senseless massacre of innocents at Newtown provokes not only cries of mourning but the age-old exercise in theodicy theodicy — the theological attempt to reconcile belief in a just and loving God with the evidential evil, whether manifested in often-incomprehensible acts of human violence (as witnessed in Newtown) or “acts of nature” with an even greater capacity for destruction.

Whether it be earthquakes in the Middle East, tsunamis in Japan, tornadoes in the American Midwest, hurricanes in New Orleans, New York and New Jersey . . . or the occasional mass shooting or bus bombing or drone-attack or terrorist incident, the same questions reassert themselves from the surviving members of the victims: why?

Looking back at prior reflections, I discovered a post from 2003, after the BAM earthquake in Iran (puzzling my way through an “act of nature” that resulted in a death toll amounting to 26,271 people and injuring an additional 30,000).

At the time I cited the Catechism, which remains a concise compilation of Catholic teaching on the question of evil:

[309] If God the Father almighty, the Creator of the ordered and good world, cares for all his creatures, why does evil exist? To this question, as pressing as it is unavoidable and as painful as it is mysterious, no quick answer will suffice. Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question: the goodness of creation, the drama of sin and the patient love of God who comes to meet man by his covenants, the redemptive Incarnation of his Son, his gift of the Spirit, his gathering of the Church, the power of the sacraments and his call to a blessed life to which free creatures are invited to consent in advance, but from which, by a terrible mystery, they can also turn away in advance. There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil.

310 But why did God not create a world so perfect that no evil could exist in it? With infinite power God could always create something better. 174 But with infinite wisdom and goodness God freely willed to create a world “in a state of journeying” towards its ultimate perfection. In God’s plan this process of becoming involves the appearance of certain beings and the disappearance of others, the existence of the more perfect alongside the less perfect, both constructive and destructive forces of nature. With physical good there exists also physical evil as long as creation has not reached perfection.

[311] Angels and men, as intelligent and free creatures, have to journey toward their ultimate destinies by their free choice and preferential love. They can therefore go astray. Indeed, they have sinned. Thus has moral evil, incommensurably more harmful than physical evil, entered the world. God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil. 176 He permits it, however, because he respects the freedom of his creatures and, mysteriously, knows how to derive good from it:

For almighty God. . ., because he is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself.

[312] In time we can discover that God in his almighty providence can bring a good from the consequences of an evil, even a moral evil, caused by his creatures: “It was not you”, said Joseph to his brothers, “who sent me here, but God. . . You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive.” From the greatest moral evil ever committed – the rejection and murder of God’s only Son, caused by the sins of all men – God, by his grace that “abounded all the more”, brought the greatest of goods: the glorification of Christ and our redemption. But for all that, evil never becomes a good. […]

[314] We firmly believe that God is master of the world and of its history. But the ways of his providence are often unknown to us. Only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God “face to face”, will we fully know the ways by which – even through the dramas of evil and sin – God has guided his creation to that definitive sabbath rest for which he created heaven and earth.

It’s hard to believe that post was written nine years ago. If it is a sign of progress in Christian faith “as a whole” that that passage acquires greater and personal meaning, then I confess I have not progressed very far.

What can you say to a mother whose son goes missing on his walk home from school, only to receive the news that the police have recovered his dismembered body?

What can you say to a mother trapped in rising floodwaters, whose toddlers were ripped from her arms by the current and swept away?

What can you say when a killer walks into a classroom of an elementary school and systematically leaves a pile of bodies on the floor?

The talk that this was in some way “God’s plan” or, in other evangelical circles, “God’s judgement” is offensive to the ear. To say that God is at once “master of the world”, omniscient and omnipotent, and to say that he in some manner limits himself and permits this to happen . . .

It is just that: incomprehensible.

And as a parent, the impact of reading the news is so much greater, the realization that it could have been your child; the urge to reach out and console, fighting for words when no words can be said.

Of all the posts out there, nothing rings as true to me right now as Matt Spotts, SJ: “Damn this.”

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