The string of natural calamities and man-made tragedies afflicting the world and the United States, particularly Hurricane Katrina in late August, have stimulated many people to reflection. Some see these tragic events as God’s chastisement of a sinful mankind; others see them as yet one more merciful warning from Providence; others yet deny both options and give various reasons.
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 the world through these calamities. 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”?1
Could God be showing His supreme displeasure with the reigning amorality and libertinism, loss of faith and dissemination of sins that “cry out to heaven for vengeance” such as abortion and homosexuality?2
If we consider just abortion, for example, could these calamities 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.”3
An Archbishop’s Words
Commenting on 2005’s Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the retired Archbishop of New Orleans, Most Reverend Philip M. Hannan was very much of the opinion that these tragedies were Divine chastisements for sin:
“I’ve been speaking at local parishes, and here’s what I kept telling the people. I say, look, we are responsible not only for our individual actions to God, but in addition to that, we are also citizens of a nation and in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament, it says that a nation has a destiny and we are responsible whether we cause it or not for the course of morality in that nation. We are responsible as citizens for the sexual attitude, disregard of family rights, drug addiction, the killing of 45 million unborn babies, the scandalous behavior of some priests — so we have to understand that certainly the Lord has a right to chastisement.… We have reached a depth of immorality that we have never reached before. And the chastisement was Katrina as well as Rita.”4
That people who deny the existence of God would summarily write off Archbishop Hannan’s courageous assessment is understandable. However, we see some Catholics rush to join the opinion of such atheists — perhaps unwittingly — emphatically denying any spiritual significance to these disasters. How can these Catholics be so sure that these calamities are not “signs of the times?”5 That they are not chastisements? Or warnings from God?
A First Objection: If It Can Be Explained Scientifically It Cannot Be Divine Intervention
Among these Catholics are some who suggest that natural catastrophes can be explained scientifically and that there is no need, therefore, to bring Divine intervention into the picture to understand what happened. This argument is only partly correct.
God Uses the Natural Causes He Created to Intervene in History
Science can explain the mechanics of natural disasters, but not their transcendent meaning. For this, we must look to philosophy and theology.
Indeed, to suggest that the forces of nature act wholly on their own, to the exclusion of any Divine plan, is to deny that they are God’s creatures. It is to affirm either that the Creator made things without an end and purpose, or that He is unable to intervene in His own creation.
However, if God were to have made things without a purpose, He would not be wise; and if He were unable to control events and direct them toward the end He had in mind when He created them, He would not be almighty. This would be tantamount to denying His existence, for the sheer possibility of an imperfect God contradicts the very idea of God. Either He is an absolutely perfect being, or the very idea 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: His extrinsic glory. In other words, all of Creation is under Divine government and is subject to God’s wise designs. As Saint Thomas teaches:
“God [is] the ruler of things as He is their cause, because the same gives existence as gives perfection; and this belongs to 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 which 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.”6
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.7
However, just because God usually 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.8 Therefore, just because God does not suspend the laws of nature, as He did when opening the Red Sea for the Chosen People, that does not mean events are not obeying His designs.9
In fact, 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.10 Therefore, when analyzing the present catastrophes, God’s government in the world must be taken into consideration.
A Second Objection: God is Goodness Itself, So He Never Chastises Men
Other Catholics disagreeing with Archbishop Hannan’s assessment raise a second objection: “God is supremely good, in fact He is Goodness itself, therefore He never chastises men.”
Actually, since God is the absolute perfect being, and the cause of all perfection, He must have in Himself all possible perfections.11 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.”12
Therefore, while God reserves definitive reward or punishment for the next life, as seen in the parable of the wheat and the chaff,13 He also chastises on this earth. This truth is formally found in Revelation. Some examples are: the plagues of Egypt,14 the Flood,15 the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah16 and the destruction of Jerusalem.17
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.”18 Clearly, human authority could not 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: “And thinkest thou this, O man … that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? … But according to thy hardness and impenitent heart, thou treasurest up to thyself wrath, against the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God: Who will render to every man according to his works.”19
Finally, Mary’s prayer, the Magnificat, teaches that God’s mercy is manifested “to them that fear him.”20 It is because God judges and chastises that we should fear offending Him.
A Third Objection: Since the Calamity Affected Both Good and Bad It Cannot Be Divine Chastisement — God Would Never Chastise the Good
Other Catholics bring up a third reason why they would disagree with Archbishop Hannan: “These natural disasters, did not only affect evil men, they also brought untold suffering to good people. Thus, they cannot be a chastisement from God. Were God to punish the good, He would not be infinitely just.”
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 supreme 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.”21 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, 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.
2. As for the good, the chastisement purifies their love of God, and 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.”
3. On the other hand, very often the good are justly chastised for a certain selfishness, a lack of courage and apostolic fervor, 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.”
4. As for the bad, they are chastised by “Divine Providence, which is wont to reform the depraved manners of men by chastisement.”22
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.’”23
Our Lady at Fatima: A Prophetic and Maternal Warning
Prophets in the Old Testament continually warned the Chosen People of chastisements that would come on account of their apostasies. Hence, we read of the prophet Jeremias warning of the Babylonian captivity. In the New Testament, Our Lord warned that Jerusalem would be destroyed because it had rejected Him.24
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.”25
At her last apparition in Fatima on October 13, 1917, Our Lady performed the famous miracle of the sun, perhaps to give us an idea of the natural or man-made cataclysms that could strike mankind, if we do not convert. The miracle was witnessed by 70,000 people and was reported extensively in the Portuguese anti-clerical secular press of the time.26
Has the world converted and done penance during these 88 years since Our Lady made her request? Archbishop Hannan’s words suggest that it has not. He mentions a few of the evils that plague us, but many more can be added to the list. The world has fallen into an almost universal apostasy. Its immorality is unparalleled since the advent of Christianity. More than just an aggressive libertinism, this sad state of things represents a sin of the spirit whereby moral aberrations are esteemed and even protected by law. Massive public parades that glorify homosexual vice have become frequent in nearly all of the world’s major cities. In 2000, a world “homosexual pride” festival took place in Rome. And in August 2005, another 10-day one was to have taken place in Jerusalem, but the vigorous reaction from residents forced the organizers to postpone it for a year.
New Orleans: Tears of Maternal Sorrow and Warning
In this regard, it is certainly significant that the International Pilgrim Virgin Statue of Our Lady of Fatima, one of the four statues carved under the direction of Sister Lúcia, the main Fatima seer, shed tears in New Orleans in July 1972.27
One month after that miraculous weeping, the beautiful port city saw the beginning of Southern Decadence — days filled with the public display of naked flesh and homosexual lewdness28 — and with every passing year, New Orleans became increasingly a symbol for those who ignore Our Lady of Fatima’s message of conversion.
Could Our Lady have chosen New Orleans for this miraculous weeping because, in weeping over New Orleans, She was weeping over everything it would come to symbolize?
A Call to Conversion and Penance
This brings us back to the original question. How should we look at Hurricane Katrina and the string of tragedies that have befallen our nation and the world? As a chastisement? As a new warning from Divine Providence?
The answer is that regardless if the causes of tragedy 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 the Blessed Mother at Fatima.
Whatever the future may have in store for us, however, we should always remember that Our Lady also foretold at Fatima both mankind’s ultimate conversion and her final victory, “Finally, my Immaculate Heart will triumph!”
May the series of catastrophes that have befallen America and the world help us to take to heart Our Lady’s maternal call to conversion.
- Apoc. 3:19-20.
- “The catechetical tradition also recalls that there are ‘sins that cry to heaven’: the blood of Abel, (Gen. 4:10) the sin of the Sodomites, (Gen. 18:20; 19:13) the cry of the people oppressed in Egypt, (Ex. 3:7-10) the cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan, (Ex. 20:20-22) injustice to the wage earner (Deut. 24:14-15).” Catechism of the Catholic Church (Second Edition, n. 1867.
- Adaptation of Psalm 78:3, 9-10, Tract of the Mass of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs, (Feast day December 28) old Latin Roman Missal.
- When the Pharisees and Sadducees asked the Divine Master for “a sign from heaven,” He answered: “When it is evening, you say, it will be fair weather, for the sky is red. And in the morning: Today there will be a storm, for the sky is red and lowering. You know then how to discern the face of the sky: and can you not know the signs of the times?” — Matt. 16:1-3. (Our emphasis).
- St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.q. 103, a.5.
- “In government there are two things to be considered; the design of government, which is providence itself; and the execution of the design. As to the design of government, God governs all things immediately; whereas in its execution, He governs some things by means of others.” (Ibid., a. 6).
- Of course, God respects men’s free will and, in case of sin, reestablishes his offended glory by exercising His justice.
- God commonly acts in history without suspending the laws of nature but by steering them to obtain certain 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 (1 Kings 18:41-45). At other times He suspends the laws of nature, as when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea (Ex. 14:16).
- Summarizing the central thesis of St. Augustine’s famous work, The City of God, Fr. A. Rascol says that it is Divine Providence that orders favorable events and allows adversities, regulating the joys and afflictions of the just, and punishing some faults while saving others for the day of definitive judgment (Cf. A. Rascol, s.v. “Providence, S. Augustin,” in Vacant-Magenot-Amann, Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1936), Vol. 13, col. 963. On the role of Providence in Scripture, see Leslie J. Walker, s.v. “Divine Providence,” at www.newadvent.org/cathen/12510a.htm.
- 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.” (Summa Theologica, I, q.4, a2.
- Psalm 84:11. (Douay-Rheims.)
- Cf. Matt. 13:24-30.
- Cf. Exodus, Chapters 7-8.
- Cf. Genesis, Chapters 6-8.
- Cf. Genesis, Chapter 19.
- Cf. Matt. 24:1-2.
- Rom. 13:4.
- Rom. 3:6.
- Lk. 1:50.
- Phil. 3:20.
- Cf. Saint Augustine, The City of God, at www.newadvent.org/fathers/120101.htm, Book I, Chapters 1 and 9. The thesis that nations are rewarded or chastised in this earthly life is an underlying thesis found throughout The City of God, but particularly in Books IV and V.
- Summa Theologica, I, q.21, a.4.
- Cf. Lk., 19:41-44; Matt. 23:37.
- Cf. www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/message-fatima_en.html.
- Cf. John M. Haffert, Meet the Witnesses, (Washington, N.J.: Ave Maria Institute, 1961). Mr. Haffert provides his interviews with numerous eyewitnesses of this awesome miracle.
- We read on the web site of the International Pilgrim Virgin Statue of Our Lady of Fatima: “New Orleans, LA, July, 1972: During Her tour of the New Orleans diocese, the statue shed tears on numerous occasions.… That was the first time it was discovered that the moisture was human tears and also the first time photos began to circulate.” www.pilgrimvirginstatue.com. Cf. also Plinio Correa de Oliveira, “Tears, a Miraculous Warning,” Folha de S.Paulo, Aug. 6, 1972.
- This August, the homosexual event was officially cancelled because of hurricane Katrina although two unofficial parades were held in New Orleans and Lafayette. The festival’s immorality is evident from this description found on a New Orleans’ tourist web site:
“Leave your prudish friends and family at home
“Parades and non-stop parties aside, Southern Decadence may be most famous (or infamous) for the displays of naked flesh which characterize the event …. the atmosphere of Southern Decadence has stayed true to its name and public displays of sexuality are pretty much everywhere you look. Like I said, you might want to leave your more prudish friends and family at home…. August 31-September 5, 2005.” www.frenchquarter.com/events/
- “Is it my will that a sinner should die, saith the Lord God, and not that he should be converted from his ways, and live?” Ezek. 18:23.