Suffering and The Philippines

I found this video from Rome Reports and the very moving speech of Cardinal Tagle, touched me deeply today. Cardinal Tagle is someone who I think is a real superstar.

Of course it is an age old question, and the Pope's treatment of the quandary is very honest and moving in this short clip. He and Cardinal Tagle are clearly moved to tears, and the Pope's immediate reaction is compassion and to comfort his friend. To show solidarity and to love. Could there be a more Christian response to tragedy?

Isn't this what we have seen in the days since the terrible, unstoppable nightmare that unfolded on the islands? A huge outpouring of solidarity from the world, compassion for our brothers and sisters, empathy, and shared grief?

Such events present us with opportunities to renew the bonds we share as a world-wide family and remind us what it means to be human. What is really important. They also create heroes, stories of incredible triumph over adversity, tremendous bravery, and poignant love.

When there is a tragedy like a bombing, I have always found it easier to understand, because of the human element. Even then, many would say "why did God allow this to happen?". It seems obvious to me, to conclude that the answer is about free will. We have free will and if God intervened when some of us choose to do something dangerous or violent, it would compromise that fundamental freedom. The meaning and purpose of life would necessarily change, and our ability to freely love God would be lost.

What we are talking about with regard to the Philippines however is human suffering and a natural disaster. If we are to address the issue, it is important that we understand it and address it logically. The problem of suffering can be framed in the following form:

A. There is suffering in the world.

B. There is an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good God.

C. There is no morally sufficient reason for an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good God to allow suffering in the world.

The fundamental assertion is that goodness being an attribute of God, natural disasters, such as that in the Philippines, contradict this goodness. But such a judgement is much harder to uphold in many specific instances. For example, consider this story:

A race of avuncular extra terrestrials exist, whose sole knowledge of human life on earth comes from video footage of medical treatments taking place within a large city hospital. Imagine how the doctors who run the hospital must look to such beings. The extra terrestrials sees patients being given drugs that make them sick and wretched. They see patients having their limbs amputated or their internal organs cut out, and hear the groans of those recovering from such surgery in the intensive care unit. They watch patients dying in the hospital, some as medical teams are operating on them or acting on them in other ways, and they observe the grief of their families and friends. The litany of miseries could continue ad nauseam. The extra terrestrials seeing all this will be filled with horror and with moral indignation at the doctors who plainly allow the suffering when they are not in fact actively causing it. They might be scornful at the notion that the doctors who treat the patients are truly benevolent and judge that the human race is simply sadistic. To respond that many human beings treated successfully in these hospitals go on to live long lives outside these apparently evil institutions might be dismissed with incredulity. The Martians do not see the larger picture and so misunderstand and misjudge what they are seeing. By analogy, one can argue that one of the problems in deciding the truth or falsity of proposition C above is that we do not have God’s perspective. As a consequence, it is at least difficult and may well be impossible for us to judge whether God does or does not have a morally sufficient reason for allowing suffering. 

Another perspective on this which I have already alluded to is to ask why suffering is to be lamented and avoided? What is actually bad about suffering? Is it simply because suffering hurts and pain is a bad thing? Surely this is very superficial attempt to understand the problem. After all, we submit ourselves willing to avoidable pain: childbirth, chemotherapy, training to be an athlete, are all examples. So perhaps suffering isn't all bad. Perhaps it has a purpose in and of itself which we cannot begin to understand at this stage of our development. Even if this is the case, we do have clues in revelation. The Book of Job undoubtedly being the paradigm book in Judeo-Christian tradition, for examining the problem.

Perhaps Pope Francis gave us at least part of the answer earlier this week when he tweeted this:

As John Burke (@jfb_smoggy) pointed out on Twitter, Pope Francis seems to be reminding us that suffering is essential if we are to become like Christ. As Thomas a Kempis puts it in his work The Imitation of Christ:
He died for you on the Cross, that you also may bear your cross, and desire to die on the cross with Him. For if you die with Him, you will also live with Him. (Rom 6:8) And if you share His sufferings, you will also share His glory.
See how in the Cross all things consist, and in dying on it all things depend. There is no other way to life and to true inner peace, than the way of the Cross and of daily self-denial. Go where you will, seek what you will; you will find no higher way above or safer way below than the road of the Holy Cross. Arrange and order all things to your own ideas and wishes, yet you will still find suffering to endure, whether you will or not; so you will always find the Cross. For you will either endure bodily pain, or suffer anguish of mind and spirit.
At times, God will withdraw from you; at times you will be troubled by your neighbor, and, what is more, you will often be a burden to yourself. Neither can any remedy or comfort bring you relief, but you must bear it as long as God wills. For God desires that you learn to bear trials without comfort, that you may yield yourself wholly to Him, and grow more humble through tribulation. No man feels so deeply in his heart the Passion of Christ as he who has to suffer in like manner. The Cross always stands ready, and everywhere awaits you. You cannot escape it, wherever you flee; for wherever you go, you bear yourself, and always find yourself. Look up or down, without you or within, and everywhere you will find the Cross. And everywhere you must have patience, if you wish to attain inner peace, and win an eternal crown.
If you bear the cross willingly, it will bear you and lead you to your desired goal, where pain shall be no more; but it will not be in this life. If you bear the cross unwillingly, you make it a burden, and load yourself more heavily; but you must needs bear it. If you cast away one cross, you will certainly find another, and perhaps a heavier.
The upshot of this would appear to be that suffering is a reality we have to deal with. It is part of life. The theology of Vatican II focuses Christian attention today on the meaninglessness of human suffering viewed apart from the healing death and Resurrection of Jesus (G.S. 21, 22). Christians are called to alleviate suffering actively, especially as it results from unjust social and political structures, and, wherever possible, to eradicate its causes (A.A. 8, 13; A.G. 5, 12). A Christian understanding of human suffering is also aided by an increased awareness of the inseparable interplay between body and spirit, between spiritual, mental and emotional deprivation, and bodily illness.

As the holy father says, the real meaning of suffering in the world is indeed a mystery. But the proper understanding of a mystery is something that we can begin to grasp, even if we cannot understand it in all its complexity. We have no alternative but to accept the factual reality of suffering in this plane of existence, and this acceptance seems to naturally dove tail with the Christian ethic with regard to it, the Biblical teaching of compassion and corporal works of mercy, and a crucified God, who does not take suffering away from humanity, but rather unites Himself with it.


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