For some high-ranking prelates, God never punishes. To say that the scourge of the current epidemic could be divine punishment would be, for them, a pagan thing.
That is what the current successor of Saint Charles Borromeo in the archdiocese of Milan, Archbishop Mario Delpini, said in a recent interview.
The reporter asked him: “Should we beg God [for relief] because, as some preachers say, He is the one Who sends the scourge of the virus?”
The archbishop’s answer was surprising: “These are theories about God that I don’t know where they come from and don’t share. Prayer is not meant to ask God to remove a punishment that He has sent; we do not have an angry God who must be calmed. To me, this seems a very pagan image.”1
Antonio Cardinal Marto, bishop of Leiria-Fatima, Portugal, spoke in the same vein. Asked if he agreed with clergy and cardinals who claimed that the coronavirus was a punishment from God, he replied, in stark contrast to the message of Fatima: “This is not Christian. Only those who do not have the true image of God-Love and Mercy revealed in Christ, in their mind or heart, say this through ignorance, sectarian fanaticism, or madness.”2
Another prelate, Blase Cardinal Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, also seems to disregard prayer during a pandemic. He commented on the wish of some of the faithful that in-person Masses be allowed: “Religion is not magic where we just say prayers and think things are going to change. God gave us a brain and the gift of intelligence, and we have to use it at this moment.”3
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M.Cap., Preacher to the Papal Household since 1980, in a sermon on Good Friday evening in a near-empty St. Peter’s Basilica, also denied that the current pandemic could be a punishment from God: “God is our ally, not the ally of the virus! … If these scourges were punishments of God, it would be inexplicable why they strike good and bad alike, and why, usually, the poor have the greatest consequences. Are they more sinners than others?”4
Are There No Reasons for a Punishment?
Modern society’s staggering apostasy from the truth of the Gospel prompts many to ask themselves if God is not trying to send a message to humanity through the coronavirus. Could He be saying: “Such as I love, I rebuke and chastise. Be zealous, therefore, and do penance. Behold, I stand at the gate and knock”?5
Could God be showing His supreme displeasure with today’s reigning amorality, libertinism, loss of faith, and sin?
If we consider just procured abortion, for example, could the pandemic be a divine chastisement for the blood of millions of innocent victims that rises to Heaven clamoring for justice? “They have poured out the blood of the Saints as water, round about Jerusalem. And there was none to bury them. Avenge, O Lord, the blood of Thy saints, which has been shed upon the earth.”6
The statements of the above-mentioned ecclesiastics stem from a false notion of divine mercy and justice and are in contradiction with Catholic doctrine and tradition. That is why it seems timely to recall some doctrinal points and answer some objections.
“If the Coronavirus Pandemic Can Be Explained Scientifically It Cannot Be Divine Intervention”
This is the usual objection to God’s intervention. If science can explain the nature and consequences of the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), there is no need to bring divine intervention into the picture. But while positive science can explain the mechanics of natural disasters, it does not explain their transcendent meaning.
To exclude any divine intent in events is to deny that “all things, inasmuch as they participate in existence, must likewise be subject to divine providence.”7 Otherwise, either the Creator made things without an end and purpose, and therefore He is not wise, or He is unable to intervene in His own Creation and thus is not omnipotent. But this would be tantamount to denying His existence, for the sheer possibility of an imperfect God contradicts the very notion of God. Either He is an absolutely perfect Being, or the very concept of God makes no sense.
Nothing in Creation Escapes God’s Government
Indeed, not only did God create all beings through a sovereign act of His Divine Will, but He sustains them in existence, and directs them toward the end for which He created them, namely, His extrinsic glory. In other words, all of Creation is under Divine government and is subject to God’s wise designs. As Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches:
God [is] the ruler of things as He is their cause because the same gives existence as gives perfection, and this belongs to the government. Now God is the cause not indeed only of some particular kind of being, but of the whole universal being. Wherefore, as there can be nothing which is not created by God, so there can be nothing that is not subject to His government.… Now the end of the Divine government is the Divine goodness. Wherefore, as there can be nothing that is not ordered to the Divine goodness as its end, so it is impossible for anything to escape from the Divine government.8
Saint Thomas further explains that while this Divine government is direct and immediate from the standpoint of design, this does not mean that God cannot use secondary means for the ultimate execution of His plans. Consequently, He can use the angels or even men to intervene in history. He can use natural forces and the physical laws that are derived from the nature of beings as He created them and their relationships with each other.9
However, just because God normally uses these secondary causes to execute His plans, this does not mean that He is not directing, in a superior fashion, all things to their true purpose, which is His glory. God commonly acts in history without suspending the laws of nature but by steering them to obtain specific results. For example, when the Prophet Elias prayed for rain in Israel, which was suffering from a terrible drought, God caused many clouds to come together and rain heavily.10 At other times He suspends the laws of nature, as when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea.11
Indeed, God’s absolute perfection demands that He act continuously in history. This is abundantly confirmed by Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Church Fathers and Doctors. Therefore, when analyzing the present catastrophe, God’s government in the world must be taken into consideration.
“God Is Goodness Itself, So He Never Chastises Men”
Since God is the absolutely perfect being, and the cause of all perfection, He must have in Himself all possible perfections.12 Thus, He is not only infinitely good and merciful but also infinitely just. As the Psalmist so aptly says: “Mercy and truth have met each other: justice and peace have kissed.”13
God reserves the final and definitive reward or punishment for the next life, as seen in the parable of the wheat and the chaff.14 But He also chastises on this Earth. This truth is formally found in Holy Writ. Some examples are the plagues of Egypt,15 the Flood,16 the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,17 and the destruction of Jerusalem.18
God Does Judge and Chastise Men, and Each Man Individually
Also, Saint Paul says that earthly authority “is God’s minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.”19 Clearly, no human authority could be a minister or agent of Divine justice if God Himself did not mete out earthly punishment.
According to the Apostle, man cannot escape Divine justice, be it in this life or the next: “Do you suppose, then … that you will escape the judgment of God? … By your stubbornness and impenitent heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself for the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God, Who will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life to those who seek glory, honor, and immortality through perseverance in good works, but wrath and fury to those who selfishly disobey the truth and obey wickedness.”20
God is merciful. But “His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him,” affirms Mary Most Holy in the Magnificat.21
“Since the Calamity Affected Both Good and Bad It Cannot Be Divine Chastisement—God Would Never Chastise the Good”
To properly address this objection, we must first recall some basic teachings of our Catholic Faith:
- God is the Lord of life: We owe our existence to God, and just as He freely gave us life, He is free to take it from us. There is no injustice when He does so, regardless of the stage of life, be it that of an infant, a child, an adult in the full vigor of manhood, or one who has reached venerable old age.
- Eternal, not earthly, life and happiness are our ultimate goal: Moreover, our earthly life and happiness are not ends in themselves. They are not the principal reason for our existence. They are the road, the means, for us to attain eternal life, our true goal. Thus, Saint Paul reminds us, “Our citizenship is in heaven.”22 God’s way of acting becomes incomprehensible when we lose sight of eternal life and heavenly happiness.
- God punishes collective sin, collectively: When sin becomes generalized, is greatly tolerated, or is committed by particularly representative individuals, it involves the whole family, city, region, nation, or even historical eras. This collective dimension makes sin particularly grave and offensive to God, and the result is that Divine chastisement is also collective. Both good and bad suffer. The first suffer to become more perfect. The second, as a chastisement for their faults.
Saint Augustine Explains Collective Chastisement
The great Saint Augustine, bishop of Hippo in northern Africa and Doctor of the Church, lived during the barbarian invasions that brought about the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Indeed, the Vandals were storming at the city gates as he died.
During this troubled period, Roman pagans blamed the Church for the collapse of Empire and civilization. If the Empire had not become Christian, they argued, Jove and the other gods of Rome would have saved it from destruction. Moreover, they added, the God of the Christians was no god at all since He had not spared the Christians from the barbarians.
Saint Augustine wrote The City of God to defend the Church and shore up the faith in hearts. In his masterwork, he explains the reason for collective chastisements. His reasoning can be summed up as follows:
1. Since nations as such do not pass to eternal life, they are rewarded or chastised in this life for the good or evil they practice. Good and bad alike feel the effects of both reward and chastisement.23
2. As for the good, the chastisement purifies their love of God. It may even take them from the tribulations of this life to the eternally happy life of Heaven. “Job’s case exemplifies that the human spirit may be proved, and that it may be manifested with what fortitude of pious trust, and with how unmercenary a love, it cleaves to God.”24
3. On the other hand, frequently the good are justly chastised for selfishness, a lack of courage and apostolic zeal that prevents them from pointing out to the bad the evil of their ways: “Because they weakly relish the flattery and respect of men and fear the judgments of the people and the pain or death of the body; that is to say, their non-intervention is the result of selfishness, and not of love.”25
4. As for the bad, they are chastised by “Divine Providence, which is wont to reform the depraved manners of men by chastisement.”26
Such is also the teaching of Saint Thomas, who says: “Justice and mercy appear in the punishment of the just in this world, since by afflictions lesser faults are cleansed in them, and they are the more raised up from earthly affections to God. Likewise, Saint Gregory says: ‘The evils that press on us in this world force us to go to God.’”27
Our Lady at Fatima: A Prophetic and Maternal Warning
In 1917, the Blessed Mother appeared in Fatima to warn that if the world did not convert and do penance, it would be chastised: “When you see a night illumined by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father. … [Russia] will spread her errors throughout the world. … The good will be martyred … various nations will be annihilated.”28
“Remain Faithful Until Death, and I Will Give You the Crown of Life”
Regardless if the causes of the coronavirus pandemic are natural or man-made, we cannot exclude Divine Providence’s wise and unfathomable designs. Rather, for all the reasons laid out above, and particularly Our Lady’s message at Fatima, it seems to us that prudence demands we give serious consideration to the possibility that God is warning us of our faults and calling us to repentance.
God does not want the death of the sinner, but his conversion.29 However, if the world does not heed Our Lady’s call to conversion, we cannot be surprised if even worse tragedies afflict the world—the annihilation of whole nations, for example, as mentioned by her at Fatima.
Whatever the future may have in store for us, we should always remember that Our Lady also foretold at Fatima both humanity’s ultimate conversion and her victory in the end, “Finally, my Immaculate Heart will triumph!”
May the series of catastrophes that have befallen America and the world help us take to heart Our Lady’s maternal call to conversion: “Remain faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”30
- Salvatore Cernuzio, “Delpini: ‘Da Pagani Pensare a un Dio Che Manda Flagelli. A Milano Chiese Chiuse Mai,’” La Stampa, Mar. 16, 2020, https://www.lastampa.it/vatican-insider/it/2020/03/16/news/delpini-da-pagani-pensare-a-un-dio-che-manda-flagelli-a-milano-chiese-chiuse-mai-1.38600147. (Our emphasis.)
- João Francisco Gomes, “‘Ignorância, Fanatismo ou Loucura.’ Cardeal António Marto Critica Quem Diz que Pandemia É Castigo de Deus,” Observador, Apr. 15, 2020, https://observador.pt/2020/04/15/ignorancia-fanatismo-ou-loucura-cardeal-antonio-marto-critica-quem-diz-que-pandemia-e-castigo-de-deus/. (Only first emphasis is ours.)
- Bernie Tafoya, “Cardinal Cupich Prepares For A First-Of-Its-Kind Easter Amid Coronavirus,” WBBM780.radio.com, Apr. 9, 2020, https://wbbm780.radio.com/articles/cardinal-cupich-prepares-for-a-first-of-its-kind-easter.
- Vatican News, “Pope Celebrates Passion of the Lord, as Papal Preacher Reflects on Covid-19 Pandemic,” Vatican News, Apr. 10, 2020, https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2020-04/pope-francis-passion-of-the-lord-cantalamessa-sermon-coronavirus.html.
- Apoc. 3:19–20. All Scriptural citations are from the Douay-Rheims version unless otherwise noted.
- Adaptation of Psalm 78:3, 9–10, Tract of the Mass of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs, (Feast day December 28) old Latin Roman Missal.
- Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, q. 22, a. 2c.
- Ibid., I, q. 103, a. 5.
- See Ibid., a. 6.
- See 1 Kings 18:41–45.
- See Exod. 14:16.
- Thus, Saint Thomas says: “Since therefore God is the first effective cause of things, the perfections of all things must pre-exist in God in a more eminent way.” Op. Cit., I, q. 4, a. 2.
- Ps. 84:11.
- See Matt. 13:24–30.
- See Exod. 7–8.
- See Gen. 6–8.
- See Gen. 19.
- See Matt. 24:1–2.
- Rom. 13:4.
- Rom. 2:3–8. (The New American Bible, Revised Edition.)
- Luke 1:50. (NABRE.)
- Phil. 3:20. (NABRE.)
- See A. Rascol, s.v. “Providence, S. Augustin,” in Vacant-Magenot-Amann, Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1936), vol. 13, col. 963.
- Saint Augustine, The City of God, bk. 1, ch. 9.
- Ibid., ch. 1.
- Saint Thomas, Summa Theologica, I, q. 21, a. 4.
- Luiz Sérgio Solimeo, Fatima: A Message More Urgent Than Ever (Spring Grove, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, 2008), 49–50.
- “Do I find pleasure in the death of the wicked—oracle of the Lord GOD? Do I not rejoice when they turn from their evil way and live?” (Ezech. 18:23). (NABRE.)
- Rev. 2:10. (NABRE.)