Evil in the Church

Bad news just keeps coming — hard and fast. Many very recent events in the Church have faithful Catholics bewildered, discouraged, and even angered. These are natural reactions to the problem of evil. While righteous anger has its place in the spiritual life, it can quickly become disproportionate, and must be moderated by the virtue of meekness. As for the other two: discouragement and bewilderment have no place in our spiritual life.

We must react, not naturally, but supernaturally to evil.

I recall one of my philosophy professors pointing out with great emphasis that Saint Thomas lists only two objections to the existence of God in the Summa Theologiae. In other questions in that great work we find five, seven, nine, or as many as sixteen objections to the thesis the author is defending (see “Whether the human intellect can attain to the vision of God in His essence?” for the longest list of objections1).But to the truth of God’s existence, he can only muster up two objections. These are the problem of evil, and the explanation for things from secondary causality only.

Of course, he routs these two objections capably.

It is the first one that interests me now:

Objection 1. It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word “God” means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.

And here is his reply, drawn from Saint Augustine’s Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Charity:

Reply to Objection 1. As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): “Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.” This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.

This is a great truth, and one that merits frequent reflection.

It may sound like a pious platitude to say that God can work good out of evil when something truly terrible happens. It would certainly not be tactful to quote Saint Augustine on this point while someone is agonizing over a thumb he has just stuck with a hammer, when words of sympathy and helpful first-aid treatments are more appropriate. But the great truth remains unchanged and unchallenged: God not only can, but does work good out of evil. Suffering — of the moral or physical sort — is part of His Providence. Evil can even be a useful instrument in His hands for the good of His Saints. If we don’t believe that, we don’t trust Saint Paul and the Holy Ghost who inspired him:

And we know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to his purpose, are called to be saints. (Rom. 8:28)

Saint Augustine says that these “all things” include even our sins. Therefore, included in them are also all the evils in the Church, caused whether by human weakness, frailty, or malice.

We may not embrace the evils, but we must embrace the suffering they cause us as a source of merit and growth in union with God. There is not one great saint who did not have his holy desires contradicted, smeared, and attacked by naysayers — who were quite often clergy or religious. These sufferings, however horrible and however unjust their causes, are part of God’s providential designs for the glorification of His elect.

This does not make evil good, but it shows God’s goodness. If only we appreciated that goodness and lived accordingly, fully confident that the Trinity dwells in us and will not abandon us. Then, we too would be saints.

  1. Readers may “object” that St. Thomas did not write this question, since it’s from the “Supplement.” True enough. Elsewhere, Saint Thomas himself gave fourteen objections.