You Govern All Things...: Suffering in a World Guided by God

Author: Christoph Cardinal Schönborn

You Govern All Things...: Suffering in a World Guided by God

Christoph Cardinal Schönborn

5th Catechesis by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn on Sunday, February 12th, 2006, St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Translated by Prof. John F. Crosby.


The poet and author Reinhold Schneider spent the winter of 1957-58 in Vienna. It was his last winter, though he was just 55. He kept a diary for the four or five months that he spent in Vienna. He was already seriously ill and plagued by deep melancholy; he died at Easter, 1958. Again and again he wrote about the terrors, the incomprehensible cruelties of nature, of the "process of eating and being eaten" (Winter in Wien, Freiburg, 1958, p. 184), and also about the senseless and terrible human world full of suffering and war and unfathomable evil.

Had this sick and depressed poet, who had given encouragement to so many people in the Nazi era, lost his faith? Did he revert to the tragic world view that had characterized his thought before his conversion to the Catholic faith? His reflections on and his consternation (verging on despair) at the horrors of this world put into question his faith in a good creator, in His meaningful plan, in His benevolent providence. Let me quote three passages from his diaries.

1. On the occasion of visiting the Museum of Natural History Reinhold Schneider notes: "If you once go through the Museum of Natural History, you will see that God is just as close as He is distant. In the presence of this inestimably large world of forms, this terrible abundance of inventions, it is impossible to deny Him. I am thinking of the absurd architecture of the dinosaur, a cathedral of meaninglessness, of the will to live, though it cannot live; of the evil apparitions of Japanese crabs, of long-legged mating insects as if from hell; of the octopus with its eight tentacles. As I recall, the visitors to the Aquarium in Hamburg were once entertained by watching an octopus encounter a giant lobster. The event was surprising: the octopus wrapped itself around the claws of the lobster, crushed them, and sucked the life out of the shell. The sea star breaks open mussels, plunges its intestine inside and drinks them out like an egg. I say nothing here of the sharks that throw themselves onto walruses from the side, or of the defenselessness of see otters and dolphins, and nothing of the struggle of the giant jelly fish with whales, or of the frog which, standing like a human being, is sucked out by the leech wrapped around him" (Winter in Wien, 129-130).

2. Why do parasites with their unimaginably cruel activity exist in a good creation? Is it only our imagination that makes us shudder, or is nature perhaps really without pity, without sympathy, "rotating hells," as Schneider says (p. 171)? Let us hear him again. "You have to pray, even if you cannot. I can certainly pray for others, for priests, scientists, statesmen, the people, creatures, the earth; for the sick first of all, it goes without saying, and for the dead, which is the silent confirmation of a mysterious connection. I have a deep need to do this; it gives me support and calls me to church in the morning; but for myself I cannot pray. The face of the Father has been obscured for me. It is the terrible mask of the one who smashes, who treads the winepress; I cannot really say ‘Father'... Let us just read some chapter on parasites (in the works of Natzmer or von Bertalanffy or von Frisch, a unique case of one who really looks with the eyes of love on lice, bugs, and fleas). Let us just remember the everyday story, often told, of the parasites living in the bowels of certain birds. The eggs of these parasites contained in the bird feces get into snails, in which they grow and move into the feelers of the snails; in the swollen feelers they display attractive colors and movements that draw the birds to pull off the feelers. Thus the parasites return to the birds. And once again the snails grow their feelers and once again they are pulled off. The snails produce the agents that destroy them and the birds. But without providing a home for myriads of these destroyers and without being used by them, none of the higher organisms could live; thus without them even the spirit could not assert itself. What then are love and beauty?" (Pp. 119-120)

Such examples can be multiplied ad libitum. Who has not heard of the female praying mantis, who eats alive the male in the act of copulation? Where is the "intelligent design" here? Where is a good and loving creator who can say of His creation that it is good?

3. And finally what should we think about the never-ending chain of human suffering? Schneider notes in his diary all that he read in one day paging through the newspapers about the senseless and random suffering of innocent children. "The age expresses itself most clearly in its absurdities. I cannot omit collecting some of them. In Holland a four-year-old girl was treated with a radioactive substance; the tip of the needle broke off and remained unnoticed in her body. She got sick with a highly contagious disease, which drove the good Haanschoten family from their little home in Putten; even the garden was infected and the adjacent walkway to a grammar school. In Vienna an eight-year-old girl broke a tooth and died of trauma in the doctor's office. In Oakland, California, a court acquitted the parents of two children who suffered incurable paralysis and spinal deformation after being inoculated with the Salk serum. Not far from Bari four children died after health officials required them to be inoculated against diphtheria with a substance that had not previously been used; fifteen other inoculated children had to be hospitalized. In the hospital of the University of Munich a nurse had the misfortune of injecting gasoline instead of the appropriate narcotic into a young girl, who subsequently died. And this is all the result of just one day of paging through the newspapers." (pp. 126-127).

I could go on and on presenting things of this kind to you. In the many letters that I have received in the last months I was often asked this question: How do you find any rational plan of creation in a world full of absurd random events? Let me quote from two typical letters. A professor of genetics and developmental biology recently wrote me: "If you have ever visited a home for incurable children and have seen, for example, a hydrocephalic child with a balloon-like enlargement of the cranium, just vegetating, or children whose eye sockets have no eyes, you will have difficulties with the hypothesis of 'Intelligent Design.'"

A professor for medical computer science wrote me last fall: "The issue of evolution did not command my attention until I began, some three years ago, to learn about medical computer science and was drawn fairly deep into research on the human genome. Nowadays you can see the entire genome on any personal computer. Though I used to think that 'creation is well ordered and that all disorder is just a deviation (whether with or without guilt) from this good order,' I have in the meantime been given an entirely opposite impression of absolutely unplanned steps in a process: creation now appears as an accumulation of unplanned steps and we see merely those 'products' that have survived (and display a certain functionality). Some people interpret these as designed. It is as if someone after winning the lottery were to call his win the result of a designed process. Would we find that convincing? You can of course always object that it looks unplanned only because we do not understand the plan behind it. I wish I could accept this argument. Your Eminence, you should take a look yourself at the genome. You will see how chaotic everything is in it. It resembles a city that has been frequently rebuilt by adding new things to the areas that have been wrecked. Real and false copies are introduced in appropriate and inappropriate places. No technician would ever plan such a mess. What we find in the genome seems to be the very opposite of planning. As a Christian I was astonished to learn this; I had expected things to be the other way around. In the final analysis it seems to me to come to this: God has used evolution to create all these things. But there you have the real problem: how can God, who is merciful, allow all the trial and error and the thousands that die in the process? How can He use such things as a means for His intelligent creative activity? This contradicts the usual image that we have of God (as transmitted by the Church). ... It is high time to look closely at the world that God has made and to find out what He has really intended to do. I don't think anyone as yet knows what He has intended."


Enough questions. Are there any answers? Let us say right from the beginning: we must not give any overly hasty answer to the questions of evil, suffering, of the origin of these and of their relation to God's goodness and to the goodness of His creation and providence. On this the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#309) says:

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.
St. Augustine wrestled intensely with this question: "I inquired into the origin of evil but found no solution" (Confessions, VII, 7). After long searching and after making various detours and false starts he found the One who alone has conquered evil, sin, and death (cf. 385).

Centuries of Christian experience show one thing very clearly: the deeper we are taken into the infinite mystery of God and the more lively our communion with Christ the Redeemer and the more intimate our familiarity with the Holy Spirit, then the more clearly does the question about the evil in the world emerge. The more the sense of God wanes, the more our understanding of evil is obscured. It becomes a senseless scandal from which one can only flee whether in despair or in denial. A person like Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky's novel flees into revolt. In light of the suffering of children, Ivan reasons, the world and history must be absurd. He wants to return his "ticket of admission." He says that a God cannot exist who lets people suffer so senselessly. Dostoevsky himself struggles with the question whether there is any answer to the atheistic arguments that are based on the suffering of the innocent. He says that an answer cannot be given on the level of arguments but can be found only by changing one's point of view entirely. In the figure of Fr. Zosima he portrays the answer to Ivan's atheism of protest. Arguments do not in the end convince us that the evils in the world are not just meaningless absurdity. It has always been people who have lived the believable answer. A Mother Teresa was such a "living answer" to the challenge of suffering and of evil in the world.

And yet we have to make arguments. Reason wants to understand the truth about evil in the world. The answer of the great Christian intellectual tradition is so deep and so well thought-through that it is urgently important for us to be better acquainted with it. The most important points are recapitulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 309-311. I will now try to give you some idea of them.

The Best of All Worlds?

Let us begin with one of the most common objections to the Creator and His plan, His guidance, and His providence: "Why did God not create a world so perfect that it could contain nothing evil?" (Catechism, 310)

I notice again and again how widespread a certain deep-rooted misunderstanding is: if God has created this world, He can only have created it as perfect. Any defect that is noticed seems to speak against an "intelligent creator" and His intelligent plan. The chaos in the genetic code is an example of this. One likes to say that no reasonable engineer would construct a machine in this way. A classic example of this argumentation is the human eye. Naive believer in creation that I am, I would say that it is an incomprehensible wonder which makes us marvel at the Creator. Not at all, say the experts in evolution: no oculist would construct the lens, the reflection, etc. as we find it in the present human eye. Before I go in to the underlying misunderstanding let me offer one retort. It may be that the human eye could be put together better. But it is thanks to this construction that we can become oculists, engineers, and the like, indeed that we can all experience the marvel of seeing (unless the defect of blindness hinders us). And further: in spite of all our splendid technical prowess, no one is capable of constructing a functioning, living human eye.

But let us come to the heart of the matter: must God, when He creates, create a perfect world free of any defect? Do we face this alterative: either there is a perfect creation or else there is a world that is the product of sheer chance? When God creates does He have to create a world that is already completely finished, a world in which everything possesses from the beginning its perfect form, its unchangeable state of actuality?

But what if creation involves a beginning that is followed by a process of becoming and that finally reaches an endpoint? In this case the Creator who "in the beginning made" the world has set it in motion along a path on which it is still moving towards a goal that is not yet reached. In such a world there would have to be constant becoming, which would also involve a constant passing away. For nothing material that comes to be and develops is able to last; it always passes away. It necessarily follows that in a world of becoming there is perishing, destruction, and death. The Catechism puts it like this: "With infinite power God could always create something better. 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 (310)."

Let us look first at "physical evil," which in the discussion about creation and evolution is a more prominent issue than the issue of moral evil, which exists only in the realm of created freedom (human beings and angels). I will deal with moral evil in the next catechesis. Can we harmonize the words of Genesis, "God saw that it was very good," with the fact of "eating and being eaten" throughout the world of living beings? Let us try to approach this question in three steps?

a. "All that is, is good."

We will not be able to move forward here without achieving a certain "fundamental metaphysical insight." This metaphysical principle says: "All that is, is good for the reason that it is." Being is good. All that is has being before it has other attributes and characteristics. Natural science always deals with attributes such as size, quantity, quality, origin, place, time. But here we are asking about that which underlies all attributes and characteristics, about the fact that all that is has being. This is something good! But now we have to say it with greater precision: God has given being to everything. But this does not mean that everything that is must therefore be the "best possible." God could create a better world (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 25, a. 6, ad 1). He could do this if He wanted to. Would He have to do this if He could? We are liable to be somewhat scandalized here: why did He not create a better, more just, more loving world if He can? Is He perhaps just too weak to make a better, more purposeful world? Has the world slipped out of His grasp? Does He have sufficient energy and power? Or is it just the case that everything runs its random course, without meaning or purpose? Without a Creator?

b. "All that is, is good but limited."

Here is a comparison that will help us. As Michelangelo finished working on his statue of Moses, he is said to have thrown his chisel at it and cried out: "speak!" No work of art, not even the most perfect one, can exhaustively express all that the artist envisions. The work will always be only a limited expression as a result of the material setting that sets a certain limit to all ideas and also as a result of the fact that a work is always only a reflection of what the artists envisions in his creative intuition.

This comparison should help us to understand that all creatures, good as they are, are limited. None of them can entirely express the creator. Even if the world were much better and much more perfect, it would still not even approach the glory of God. It remains a reflection of the greatness of the Creator. It can never perfectly reflect Him, and this not only because all creatures are limited, but also because they are in a state of becoming and have a beginning, a phase of development, and an end.

The reason why the endless debate about "intelligent design" seems to be going in a circle, is that whenever "design" or a "designer" is mentioned nowadays, people spontaneously think of the "divine engineer," a kind of omnipotent technician who, being necessarily perfect, should produce only absolutely perfect machines. Here is the deepest source of so many misunderstandings, even from the side of the "intelligent design" movement in the U.S.A. God is not a watchmaker, not a builder of machines; He is the creator of natures. The world is not clockwork, not a giant machine, not even a mega-computer; it is, as Jacques Maritain put it, "a republic of natures" (Raison et raisons, Paris, 1947, 62).

If we are to speak meaningfully of the "design" of the Creator, we have to recover the concept of nature that has been largely lost and has been replaced by a technical and mechanistic understanding of living beings

To say that God creates "natures," "a republic of natures," is to say that in His creation there is above all growth and becoming with all its groping, attempting, failing, breaking through, with all its synergy and struggle, its incomprehensible waste and unexpected and unintended results, fortunate and unfortunate.

But there is something that is unmistakably proper to the natures, namely their own power of acting that has been implanted in them by the Creator and that enables them to grow and to act on their own so that they can reach their end without being coerced from without but by way of acting from the impulse of their own nature. Every being in nature seems to know what it has to do. St. Thomas says that "nature" is an "inner principle" on the basis of which each thing does what corresponds to its nature. He traces this inner principle back to the ars divina, the art of the Creator, who has "implanted" in creatures their self-development and self-organization. (Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, In physicorum, lib. 2, lec. 14, n. 8)

But let us return to the question of waste in nature. The geneticist whom I quoted at the beginning wrote me: "A spruce tree produces tons of seeds in the course of its life, which often lasts for more than a century. In the end only one seed will take root after a gust of wind has blown over the old tree and cleared the ground for a new growth. Until then the tree has produced with its seeds feed for birds or boars or insects." This scientist added that this "principle of overproduction" and all the destruction that goes with it "does not speak well for God's activity in the world." But why not? For an engineer it contradicts the principle of technical instrumental rationality. But does it contradict the vitality and creativity of life? This boundless waste certainly has something to do with providing for survival, but it is also a sign of living being, which for all its imperfection and transitoriness is yet a reflection of the inexhaustible life of the Creator.

c. "He saw that it was good"including evil?

Of course the decisive question is still open: "whence comes evil?" as Augustine put it. Though we can hopefully understand that creation is good though imperfect, still we have to ask why there is so much senseless destruction and cruelty.

Recent events have made us realize again how violent and destructive "nature" can be. Earthquakes like the one that occurred off the coast of Indonesia on December 26, 2004 can cause tremendous destruction in a very short time. I read in a scientific report that it was a 9 on the Richter scale and had the power of 23,000 atom bombs.

But powerful as this movement of the continental plates was, the planet earth, our home in the universe, hardly took notice of it. The rotation of the earth was slowed down by only 2 millionths of a second. Terrible as the consequences were of the tsunami that was set off by the underwater earthquake, this kind of earthquake activity follows from something that is indispensable for life on our planet. Without the mobility of the plates that form the crust of the earth there would be no life on earth. Experts say that this mobility is one of the conditions for the earth acquiring a stable average temperature, without which there could have been no evolution of life (cf. Peter Ward and Donald Brownless, Rare Earth, New York, 2000). The earth is the only planet in the solar system that has this flexible geological structure. It is the only place where higher forms of life were able to develop.

So we arrive at a paradox: what causes the earthquakes and again and again leads to many deaths is at the same time one of the conditions for us existing on earth along with all the complex forms of life.

What does this say to us? Marco Bersanelli, an Italian scientist, says this:

A ripple in the ocean, or an imperceptible breath on the skin of our planet, is enough to ravage our existence. Such phenomena show the fragility and refinement of the world that we take for granted every day. The normality of the universe is not at all a calm sea teeming with life; rather, it is a boundless desert of still spaces, or the unleashing of irresistible forces. The explosion of a nearby supernova could cause our total extinction in an instant, but these same stellar explosions in a distant past released the carbon, oxygen, and other elements essential for us and for every organism. Terrestrial life exists in an exquisitely delicate niche, prodigiously carved out, exploiting the products of the entire history of the cosmos.

After the tsunami it was repeatedly said: how can a good Creator let such a thing happen? Unfortunately I never heard anyone say: how can we thank the Creator for giving us the magnificent beaches of Phuket? They came about through the same history of the earth to which the tsunami belongs. We live on a wonderful planet, but everything on it is endangered and our life on it is entrusted to us "until further notice."

What holds on a large scale holds as well on the smallest scale. The professor for medical computer science whom I quoted above introduced me to his fascinating work. The thoughtful researcher can only be puzzled by the unimaginably complex events in the genome that determine life in all its forms. Why this susceptibility to mistakes? Why do misshapen forms result from harmful mutations? Professor Wolfgang Schreiner, mentioned above, says that one can speak of a "successful design," since for those who survive it is successful. But it is not "careful design," as one can see from the many possible sources of mistakes, and it is not "compassionate design." He says in conclusion: "We would expect 'intelligent design' to be everything," that is, to be successful, careful, and compassionate.


Let me try to point out two ways of answering these questions.

1. Evil is great, terrible, and not to be explained away. But the good is nevertheless always greater and more powerful. That is a conviction with absolute certainty. Evil in all its forms is always a lack of good, a deficiency; though it can be great and terrible, it is in the end never greater than the good which it distorts or robs. We can see this at the smallest level: genetic defects can produce terrible malformations. But these are always the exceptions. The amazing thing is that this so tremendously complex structure of the genome functions at all, and for the most part very well and right on target.

2. And yet: one handicapped child, even if it is just one among a thousand healthy ones, is an unrepeatable being with its own destiny and with that of its parents and siblings. "Why does God allow this?" Let us take care to avoid glib answers. In response to the question of why, the only response is that of solidarity. I could have been this handicapped child. It has the same humanity and the same dignity that I have. It is a living call to me: do unto me as you would want it done unto you if you were in my place. How much love has come into the world by this way of pain!

Finally there is the question of Reinhold Schneider that weighs on us, the question why evil strikes so meaninglessly. "Design" cannot be discerned here, we find instead the destruction of meaning and design. The Bible knows that "the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now" (Rom. 8:22). It is wounded and marked by evil. It is not just "subjected to futility" (Rom. 8:20). It is as if "the evil power" had gained control. But there is also this promise: "creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom. 8:21). This "eager longing of all creation" is directed to the "revealing of the sons of God" (Rom. 8:19).

In the next catechesis we will deal with man as the "crown of creation" and with the radical critique that has been made of this faith. And in the catechesis after that we will deal with Christ the Redeemer, in whom the sufferings of creation will find an end and in whom the new creation will have its beginning and its goal.

(© Christoph Cardinal Schönborn )