Homily for St.-Albert-the-Great Day

By happy God-incidence, on the anniversary of the death of St. Thomas Aquinas’ teacher, we read at Mass from the book of Wisdom. About how the beauty of creation demonstrates the even-greater, unseen beauty of the Creator.

Albert the Great Septicentennial StampTwo quick points on this:

1. Many skeptics and atheists argue that the world does not show forth the hidden glory of the Creator, because the world abounds with evil. We concede: Yes, this world, though fundamentally beautiful, does indeed abound with evil. We answer: Evil entered God’s good creation because of the moral failure of angels and mankind.

To which the clever atheist replies: ‘Hold on. We cannot chalk all the evil in the world up to moral faults. What about: Earthquakes, floods, volcanoes? Lions eat gazelles. Alligators eat defenseless deer fawns trying to get a drink of water. What kind of beautiful, kind God would make a world in which foxes eat cute, little peacock chicks?’

I think we have all heard these kinds of rhetorical questions. This kind of attack on God’s existence tries to paint our faith as naïve sentimentalism.

But who exactly falls into naïve sentimentalism here? After all, only we human beings reckon even this physical evil of nature as categorically evil.

I’m not saying that the gazelle wouldn’t prefer to survive, rather than serve as dinner for the lion; I’m not saying the gazelle sings an interior hymn to God, praising Him for the chance to serve in the food chain, at the very moment when the lion’s fangs crush his neck.

No, I’m not saying that. But: the gazelle does not question the whole business as a matter of good vs. evil. The gazelle does not fit his demise into the grand scheme of things.

So to say that physical evil proves that God does not exist, or that He’s mean—that actually requires unscientific sentimentality. A genuine scientist would acknowledge that my personal aesthetics regarding the climate or the food chain cannot stand in judgment over anything. A fawn dying in an alligator’s mouth seems sad to me, to be sure. But I can’t judge the order of nature based on such feelings.

Venice Patriarch aqua alta hip waders
Speaking of floods, poor Patriarch of Venice had to don his hip-waders because of unusually alta aqua alta this fall. Let’s pray for the dear Venetians. (Saint Mark’s bones are safe.)

2. Which brings us to the second little point. What we have considered so far shows another major flaw in the typical atheist attack on our faith in the good, beautiful God.

Now, the size of the universe, and this planet’s relative position in it: these physical facts have no bearing on what we Christians believe. But we insist that our earth is the spiritual center of the material universe.

After all, this is where the action is. God created the whole universe for our sake. We sandwich-eating, book-reading mammals on the third rock from this star. The Creator of the vast cosmos Personally became one of us, here. Which makes earth the center of the universe.

The typical atheist dismisses such a statement as naïve and sentimental. And points out that: Because there are so many galaxies out there, we little dudes and dudettes are obviously insignificant in the grand sweep of heavenly movements. The enemies of our faith even go so far as to insist that courage requires recognizing the basic meaninglessness of our obscure ant-like existence in this huge, pitiless universe.

But, again: Who’s being unscientific? From whose point-of-view does such a debate even arise? Who thinks at all about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our existence? Do the airless planets around the stars at the far end of the Milky Way ponder these things? Hardly. And even if they did, we have to admit that we have absolutely no way of knowing anything about what they think.

In other words, for good or ill, a genuinely scientific assessment of our situation has to place us human begins at the center of the universe. Because we human beings are the only center of the universe that we can ever know. That’s the way it is, from the moment we first open our eyes.

Praised be our Lord Jesus Christ! He has revealed to us that our heavenly Father sees us the same way.

Good Morning to the Admirable Atheist

Grunewald the Small Crucifixion

Faith gives us the certainty that God would not permit an evil if He did not cause a good to come from that very evil, by ways that we shall fully know only in eternal life. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 324)

From the grudging respect department. Some people say: How can I believe in God, when I see so much evil?

Two things to respect here:

1. Having the honesty to see evil and call it evil. Doing so is actually an act of faith in the goodness of God. Because to call evil evil requires measuring it against good. If you don’t measure evil against good, evil isn’t evil. It’s just “stuff.”

For instance, Pontius Pilate would not have described the crucifixion of the perfectly innocent divine Lamb as “evil.” The Roman historian Tacitus wrote in AD 64: “Christus, from whom name of the sect has its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius.” Calling evil evil is good. Calling evil by a bureaucratic euphemism is evil.

2. The one who says, “I won’t believe, because I see so much evil,” also deserves credit for this: Taking us believers at our word when we say we believe in God Almighty.

You cannot compromise with the word omnipotent. God is omnipotent. There is nothing at all, except what He wills. He wills good. He wills to permit evil.

If God isn’t omnipotent, He’s not God. We tend to imagine God as a kind of nice pet who soothes our feelings. We want Him to follow the rules of niceness that we follow. Except that He obviously doesn’t.

So we concede the admirable nobility of mind that moves someone to say: I won’t believe, because I see so much evil.

We respond:

Amen. We don’t believe in Mr. Nice Happy Pet God, either. We fearlessly gaze at the evil you see, and we give it its proper name. We don’t believe in Mr. Everything is Lovely Everything is Great God.

But you have not grasped Who we believe in. You think we believe in a god who engages in some kind of on-going competition with Satan, as if the two were on the same plane.

No. We believe in the one and only true, omnipotent God: Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of the eternal Father. Jesus Christ crucified and risen. There is no God but He.

From His point-of-view, and from His point-of-view alone: it all makes sense. He knows all the good that comes even from the gravest evil. He knows the all-conquering power of divine love. On the cross, we see that He knows it.

We do not claim to know it. We only claim to believe in Him.

Two Kinds of Evil

“While everyone was asleep, his enemy came.” (Matthew 13:25)

devil sewing taresDoes God sleep? Sometimes God appears to sleep, and the Enemy sows weeds.

One of the questions our contemporaries ask us: How can you believe? When bad things happen all the time, and God does nothing? How can you believe in such a silent, absent, sleeping God?

The Enemy has sown weeds up and down the face of the earth. Smog chokes the air. No jobs for people with Masters degrees. More refugees living in squalid camps right now than at any time in recorded history. More conflict, less understanding. Immigrant children unwelcome. Unborn children unwelcome. Gridlock here, bombs exploding there. Hope on the wane.

And all the while, God sleeps—as the Scriptures themselves, in a parable told by the Son of God, relate!

Do we have a sleeping God Who doesn’t care? Who lets good people get cancer, because He can’t be bothered?

Continue reading “Two Kinds of Evil”

“The Perfection of the Universe” Explanation

Why, on the sixth day, did God make scorpions and other nasty creatures that can kill us?

This question can be found in St. Thomas’ Summa (I q72 obj6):

Certain animals are poisonous, and injurious to man. But there ought to have been nothing injurious to man before man sinned. Therefore such animals ought not to have been made by God at all, since He is the Author of good; or at least not until man had sinned.

To defend the authority of Holy Scripture, St. Thomas does the wise thing and quotes St. Augustine:

In the words of Augustine: “If an unskilled person enters the workshop of an artificer, he sees in it many appliances of which he does not understand the use, and which, if he is a foolish fellow, he considers unnecessary. Moreover, should he carelessly fall into the fire, or wound himself with a sharp-edged tool, he is under the impression that many of the things there are hurtful; whereas the craftsman, knowing their use, laughs at his folly. And thus some people presume to find fault with many things in this world, through not seeing the reasons for their existence. For though not required for the furnishing of our house, these things are necessary for the perfection of the universe.” And, since man before he sinned would have used the things of this world conformably to the order designed, poisonous animals would not have injured him.

We could also say, I guess, that such creatures serve a necessary purpose in the food chain. An ecologist would probably offer evidence to support such a proposal. But the food-chain response would not satisfy the metaphysical and theological inquirer, who would respond to such an answer with: Well, then, why did He make the food chain work in such a way that it requires animals that can kill us?

So we must enter the realm of “the superior art of the divine craftsman” to explain some things. Why do some people die unjust and suffer eternal condemnation? Because for God to punish them contributes to the overall perfection of the universe.

A perfection that we cannot now understand.

Now, must a sober, inquiring, scientific mind dismiss such a response as facile and anti-intellectual?

Yes, if a better answer to the question at hand can be found. Why do people face the danger of death when they contract certain diseases? Because their deaths contribute to the perfection of the universe? No. They face the danger of death because particular germs and infections threaten their bodily systems. We serve the perfection of the universe by trying to figure out how to combat these germs and infections. Under such circumstances, we need anatomical and biological facts to serve the cause of effective medicine, not justifications for divine Providence.


No, a reasonable person must have recourse to the mysterious-perfection-of-the-universe response, when the question truly does touch on the superior craftsmanship of the divine author of reality. If we do not have the humility to acknowledge that our minds cannot comprehend the absolute good–if we don’t accept the fact that God accomplishes good ends with events that seem terrible to us–then we risk the folly of the unskilled person who hurts himself and others with powerful tools that only the Master really knows how to use.


The Rape Issue and the Raped

Someday we will wonder: How did rape become Sensational Campaign Issue #1 in 2012?

I for one imagine that this fact causes some pain to anyone who has to confront bad memories whenever she hears the word—i.e., a person who has been raped.

Dear sister, I don’t like the strange, shamelessly self-serving hue and cry any more than you do. Nor do I offer apologias for any maladroit Senate candidates.

But I would like to point out one fact about the cause. I mean the cause for rape becoming shallow-public-policy-debate fodder.

Why would rape be the subject of a question at a senate-candidate debate in Indiana, or any other state, in the first place?

Because of abortion. Because of surgical and chemical abortion. Because there are people who kill unborn children with sharp instruments and/or poisons.

Would that it were not so. Would that everyone looked squarely at the scientific facts. Would that everyone involved in abortion paused for a moment to reflect on the fundamental principles of medical ethics.

If they had done this, we wouldn’t be here. The pain of rape would not be a political football, pounced on by every 300-pound lineman in sight.

But, Father! Wait! If no one practiced surgical or chemical abortions, then, if I had gotten pregnant when I was raped, I would have had a baby.

That is true.

…I am no politician. But I think I may safely observe that a televised political debate does not provide the wisest forum for making points about how God tolerates evil in order to bring good out of it. Even St. Thomas Aquinas’ subtle eloquence got strained to the breaking point when he dealt with that subject.

So let’s just leave it with the simple facts. People who know rape first-hand could be spared the weird, bone-crunching pain of Jay Leno and the President discussing it on The Tonight Show, if only everyone who had anything to do with abortion looked at the evidence for fifteen minutes and then spent thirty minutes sitting quietly to think about it.

And yes, if you were pregnant then, your baby would be kicking around on earth somewhere now, maybe at a Halloween party.

Shaken and Bestirred

“Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do…For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct.” (Matthew 16:21,27)

I guess there are two kinds of Sunday Masses: run-of-the-mill Sunday Masses and Masses on the Sunday after an earthquake. At the run-of-the-mill Sunday Masses, distractions can get in the way. We don’t always open our minds to the Word of God like we should.

The same thing can happen at Mass after an earthquake. But coming to church after facing the possibility of sudden death and destruction can sharpen our attention somewhat.

Things like earthquakes can leave us wondering about the Providence of God. Thanks be to God, we did not suffer any serious damage this week. No injury, no loss of life. But we know well that sudden and apparently senseless death can come. Innocent people die in accidents every day. Others suffer unjustly. Why? Isn’t God in charge?

Maybe a televangelist, out there somewhere, has declared that the people of the mid-Atlantic must be sinners—since the Lord sent us an earthquake—but not really bad sinners—since the earthquake was only 5.9 on the Richter scale.

God is God, after all. He can send earthquakes, hurricanes, and plagues on whomever He wants to send them for whatever reason He has for sending them. But it does not require too much investigation on our part for us to discover that, if the Lord meted out His justice upon sinners strictly in the form of earthquakes, then there would not be a city left standing on the face of the earth. Washington, D.C., would not be standing, but neither would Rocky Mount, or Martinsville, or any other town.

The Word of God helps us to focus the matter. In the end, the Son of Man will come in glory with His angels, and He will repay us justly for our deeds.

Continue reading “Shaken and Bestirred”

Credo in Deum Omnipotentem

John A. Wilson District Building
John A. Wilson District Building

Perhaps you recall: The transformation of the capering Prince Hal into the formidable King Henry V is the new “defining motif” of this humble weblog. (Scroll down if you click the link.)

falstaffThis same tranformation, however, broke the spirit of Prince Hal’s fellow-caperer, Sir John Falstaff. After the King broke off their friendship, Fallstaff’s dissolute life finally caught up with him, and he died.

In Henry V, when Falstaff’s friend Bardolph hears that the jolly knight is dead, he declares:

Would I were with him, wheresome’er he is, either in
heaven or in hell!
(Act II, Scene 3)

As the statement of a Christian, this sentence makes no sense. In hell, it is impossible to enjoy each other’s company. But as the lament of a friend, it is heartbreakingly beautiful.

John Wilson was a member of the D.C. City Council when I was in high-school. When I was in college, he became the chairman.

Continue reading Credo in Deum Omnipotentem