The Catechism and the Stench of Burning Children

The Catechism and the Stench of Burning Children February 2, 2012

I have been reading the Catechism again for class, and I came upon another series of paragraphs that I found weak in their explanations.  I was reading about theodicy, or as the Catechism puts it, “the scandal of evil.”  I knew going in that these are very hard questions, and I could not expect the Catechism to have definitive answers.  Indeed, a definitive answer may have to wait until the Last Judgement when all things are made known.  Nevertheless, I found the explanations given unsatisfactory.

One reason is that part of my assignment was to relate what we were reading to the ministry of deacons.  This ministry inevitably includes being present for tragedies; arguably this is the most important work that deacons (indeed the whole Church) can do.   In the past decade my parish has had its share of tragedies.  The  most painful were  a young father killed in an industrial accident and a young girl with a raging infection that killed her in less than two days.  In my work on the death penalty I have met many people whose loved ones were brutally murdered; I have also met men whose lives were destroyed by mendacious and corrupt police and prosecutors. So the question of what to say in those cases looms large.

So what answers, or hints of answers does the Catechism provide?  As my instructor pointed out, it is a theological document, not a pastoral one.  Nevertheless, I hoped to glean some ideas on which to base a pastoral response.  To the problem of “physical evil”—that is, of events in the natural world such as accidents, earthquakes, etc.—it says:

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.” (CCC 310)

True enough, it seems, though I think this would provide no comfort to a grieving family.   On the subject of “moral evil”—evil that results directly from the actions of people choosing evil over good—it says:

God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil.  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. (CCC 311)

There is some truth to this.  I think of my colleague Walter Everett, a Methodist minister whose son was brutally murdered by a junkie looking for money for a fix.  Good did emerge from this:  Walter found the courage to forgive his son’s murderer, and out of that reconciliation helped the young man reclaim his life.    But this answer seems to me inadequate in the face of larger tragedies, particularly genocide.  Irving Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi who has reflected for many years on the meaning of the Holocaust, offered the following principle for theologians studying the problem of evil:

“No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.”  (Quote found here.)

While searching for the exact text of this quote, I found it in a more pointed, poignant version:

“Imagine yourself talking to a Jew who is choking on the stench of burning children in the camps.  What might you say about God to such a person?  Would it ring true or would it sound hollow?”  Aaron Milavec, Salvation is From the Jews.

The Catechism, I fear, provided nothing that I could say in this situation.

I brought this question up in class and it sparked a very profound discussion for which I am deeply grateful:  thanks guys!  One classmate shared the story of a terrible tragedy that had hit his family the year before and how people responded.    To the concrete problem of what to say as a deacon when dealing with tragedies the near uniform response was:  say nothing.  In all probability, if you try to say something, it will be the wrong thing.  Simply be there in love and service.  Do what needs to be done to keep life going.  One classmate even suggested that this was the answer to the profounder question of moral evil:  St. Maximilian Kolbe had the stench of burning children in his nostrils, and he chose to respond with charity in the face of evil.  It does not explain great evil, and it does not make up for it, but it is a witness to the light in the darkness.

Reflecting on this discussion afterwards, I realized that here was the beginnings of the kind of deeper explanation I had been looking for.  The answer lies not in what God will do after the evil has occurred:  at some point there is no good that can emerge that will explain or obviate evil on the scale of the Holocaust (or the Armenian genocide, or the killing fields of Cambodia….)  Rather, the answer lies in what God does while the evil is taking place.  God suffers with all those who suffer evil in this world.  He has compassion, borne out of the passion of his Son.  God chose to create a world in which great evil can occur, but He has taken responsibility for it.  He does not walk away; rather he embraces that suffering and shares it with those who are afflicted.

This is not an explanation of the problem of evil, but it is a response.  And from a pastoral perspective, it describes what a deacon is to say:  nothing except insofar as being present and manifesting God’s love requires words.

Browse Our Archives