Divine Retribution

cathedral-st-benedict-norcia-earthquakeI noticed the news item of a Dominican priest, Father Giovanni Cavalcoli, who has come under fire, including Vatican criticism, for linking Italian earthquakes with divine punishment for moral lapses such the legalization of same-sex unions.

Edward Pentin at NCReg has a translation on his blog. Father Cavalcoli’s remarks are a response to a specific question asked of him by a radio listener. There they seem nuanced, long-winded even:

As for the issue of earthquakes, what can we say? Even here I can answer with confidence as a (theologian). One thing is sure: that cataclysms, nature, the disorders of nature, all the actions of nature that endanger human life, of which there are many, floods, etc., have an explanation of a theological nature… From the theological point of view these disasters are a consequence of original sin, therefore they can truly be considered as a punishment for original sin – even if one does not like the word, I say it all the same as it is a biblical word, there is no problem. Of course you have to understand well what is meant by “punishment.”

appleThis is an intriguing response. Natural cataclysms predate the emergence of human beings, Adam and Eve, and the accounts of Genesis. Long before our sun was formed and its planets took shape in orbit, cataclysms rocked the universe. I think of black holes absorbing stars and the emergence of supernovae. It would be impossible for nearby intelligent life to survive if caught up in such things. Maybe there’s a theological point about the uniqueness of humankind, and that we seem to be safely ensconced away from events like that.

On the other hand, life on our planet has long suffered under events that would kill today’s humans by the billions: the freezing over of the entire planet, the massive eruptions of volcanoes, and impacts from comets and asteroids, like this famous one.

What is the difference between divine retribution and a natural calamity? What is the theological point of countless billions of plants and animals freezing out, suffocating, getting incinerated, or drowning? Are these life forms doomed because of human fault? Father Cavalcoli continued:

Oh, and then the last question you ask, could it be a divine punishment for acts committed in our society today? This is a very delicate discourse, one can have some opinions, but one cannot be certain … unless one has divine illumination.

I suspect that many believers confuse personal opinion with illumination from God. I’ve had the experience–as have many of you–of a Christian who has engaged in detraction, assault, theft, or the destruction of another’s property. All acts objectively sinful–violations of the Ten Commandments even. But justified as necessary. Sound familiar? The ends justify the means. Does God work that way? Is God immune from moral uncertainty?

Sometimes we even cheer at the confluence of evil and misfortune, like the attribution of a tornado wiping out a KKK meeting hall–the same branch persecuting one of Katharine Drexel’s mixed-race schools.

Father Cavalcoli shared an “opinion” next:

I tell you this, one of my very personal opinions. It struck me very deeply this enormous loss of the destruction of the church, I’m thinking of Norcia, St. Benedict. I repeat, I was very struck by it. I do not want to draw conclusions that would almost risk superstition, but I confess that I was very struck in this sense: that is: Who was Benedict? Benedict is the patron saint of Europe, is the father of the European Christian civilization.

Today, now, the best scholars — not only Catholics, but also laypeople — are verifying a very serious crisis in Europe.

And from here the narrative veered into European demographics.

Confirmed Catholic believers, the people who listen to speakers on Catholic radio, are not necessarily superstitious. But some are. Not all religious people have the skills to discern personal opinion and divine illumination. And many who might, have little recourse to regular spiritual direction, either by choice or opportunity.

archbishop burkeOne of Mr Pentin’s bloggers offered the tart comment that if the earthquake leveled the basilica it could well be interpreted as divine disfavor with the traditional Latin Mass or with Cardinal Burke’s opposition to Pope Francis. I suppose one could begin investigating the staff of the destroyed church for some hidden sins. Or conclude that with our new pope, God is smiling on the sons of Ignatius while turning out the Benedictines.

Father Cavalcoli was relived of his radio gig by station management. He also attracted attention from a top bureaucrat under the Vatican Secretary of State, as reported by Mr Pentin:

(Archbishop Angelo Becciu) said the Dominican theologian’s words are not in accord with the Gospel, “are offensive to believers and scandalous to those who do not believe.” His words, the archbishop added, “date back to the pre-Christian period and do not correspond to the theology of the Church because they are contrary to the vision of God offered to us by Christ.”

“Christ,” he added, “has revealed the face of God’s love, not a capricious and vengeful God. This is a pagan, non-Christian vision.”

The Dominican priest doubled down on his original nuanced comment:

I reaffirm everything: earthquakes are provoked by the sins of men, such as civil union.

I’ve been a doctor of theology for thirty years, I worked in the Vatican with Saint John Paul II and I repeat that sins like homosexuality deserve divine retribution which can be manifested in earthquakes.

messina-earthquake-1908Earthquakes seem a rather blunt tool for punishment. A quake that killed only LGBTQ people, the 1%, traditional Mass Catholics, Chicago Cub detractors: maybe then …

However, one thinks about natural crises manufactured by human activity. Prolonged drought in Southwest Asia has spawned unrest, violence, and migration. One might say that Europe is beset partly for political interference of recent decades and partly because of industrialization. Oklahoma gets quakes, too. Is God displeased with mainstream Americans, or is our indulgence for fossil fuels reaping geological consequences? Are we just too greedy? Too set in our energy ways? Are these a result of original sin? They strike me as logical consequences for unwise human actions. Only in a cartoon can a character take a saw to a branch she or he sits upon and watch the rest of the tree fall over when the limb is severed.

Others cited in this blog item mentioned Old Testament prophets and their warnings. But I was struck by a more incisive interpretation:

The slaves of the householder came to him and said, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?’

He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’

His slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.” (Matthew 13:27-30, NAB)

Earthquakes cause great misery. They invite actions of mercy. Less blame. Natural disasters strike at the innocent and the guilty alike. An earthquake caused by a fracking enterprise in Oklahoma is less likely to kill a child of a petroleum executive. But the chance is not zero. Environmentalists might cheer the “justice” of a coincidence like that. But such rooting remains an act of superstition, whether it is backed by religion or not.

What is the message of an earthquake? Just offering my opinion here …

famineIt has nothing to do with gays, Mass in Latin, demographic implosion, or a curse of a sports team. It has everything to do with opportunity. People are given opportunities to relieve suffering. To house the homeless. To bind wounds and attend to injuries. To rebuild or restore buildings like churches. To embrace those who are afraid, in grief, or worried about loved ones, livelihood, or those who are missing. To get close to human suffering and be moved as God is moved. To act as Christ would act, to love as he would love. And to show mercy.

Image credit for the basilica at top is from the Associated Press I believe, but I haven’t been able to find a source as the photo has been used in many news outlets without attribution. Others are from Wikipedia.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to Divine Retribution

  1. Melody says:

    I am thinking of Luke 13:4, “… those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them–do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Basically Jesus seems to be saying that “stuff happens.” I like your idea that we should “.. act as Christ would act, to love as he would love. And to show mercy.”

  2. Devin Rice says:

    God allows a lot of horrible stuff to happen for his own inscrutable reasons. Sometimes, it is for punishment for specific sins. And he does punish the innocents with the guilty as well. See the Babylonian Exile. But short of divine revelation, it is a fool’s errand and try to figure why natural disasters happen the way they do.

    Speaking of divine punishment, those reelection results…..

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