Divine providence in punishment of general catastropes

Last Sunday I wrote about how St Augustine teaches that temporal goods and evils are enjoyed or suffered by both the good and the wicked, lest anyone think that these goods are the ultimate reward for goodness, or these present sufferings the ultimate punishment for wickedness. At the same time, a good man sometimes does receive an evident reward here in this life, while a wicked man receives and evident punishment, and that teaches that divine justice is at work, even though not yet completely manifest. This helps us to understand how divine providence works through the events of this life for the eternal salvation of those who love him. (cf. Rm 8:28)

Still, we are left with the question about the suffering of the innocent along with the guilty, especially in the midst of a common disaster like the fall of Rome, or today, the COVID pandemic. Here St. Augustine replies that actually the innocent are not quite so innocent and any truly devout soul humbly recognizes his own lack of innocence. He writes:

“First of all, they must humbly consider those very sins which have provoked God to fill the world with such terrible disasters; for although they be far from the excesses of, immoral, and ungodly men, yet they do not judge themselves so clean removed from all faults as to be too good to suffer for these even temporal ills. For every man, however laudably he lives, yet yields in some points to the lust of the flesh. Though he do not fall into gross enormity of wickedness, and abandoned viciousness, and abominable profanity, yet he slips into some sins, either rarely or so much the more frequently as the sins seem of less account.” (City of God, Bk I, 9)

Still, these slight sins might seem to be far out of proportion to gravity of the common disaster. St. Augustine continues with the much more serious matter:

“But not to mention this, where can we readily find a man who holds in fit and just estimation those persons on account of whose revolting pride, luxury, and avarice, and cursed iniquities and impiety, God now smites the earth as His predictions threatened? Where is the man who lives with them in the style in which it becomes us to live with them? For often we wickedly blind ourselves to the occasions of teaching and admonishing them, sometimes even of reprimanding and chiding them, either because we shrink from the labor or are ashamed to offend them, or because we fear to lose good friendships, lest this should stand in the way of our advancement, or injure us in some worldly matter, which either our covetous disposition desires to obtain, or our weakness shrinks from losing. So that, although the conduct of wicked men is distasteful to the good, and therefore they do not fall with them into that damnation which in the next life awaits such persons, yet, because they spare their damnable sins through fear, therefore, even though their own sins be slight and venial, they are justly scourged with the wicked in this world, though in eternity they quite escape punishment. Justly, when God afflicts them in common with the wicked, do they find this life bitter, through love of whose sweetness they declined to be bitter to these sinners. … They are punished together, not because they have spent an equally corrupt life, but because the good as well as the wicked, though not equally with them, loved this present life; while they ought to hold it cheap, that the wicked, being admonished and reformed by their example, might lay hold of life eternal.” (Ibid.)

There we have it: the good and the wicked are not so separate as we like to think. We are not purely focused on the good of the Kingdom of Heaven and eternal life, but we pursue many things in this life, seek many creature comforts in this life, prefer peace in this life, as so for the sake of peace and convenience we choose to compromise in small ways, we choose in so many ways ‘to go along to get along’.

Recently, in writing about social justice, I wrote about a litany of sins that have brought about the destruction of family life, the fundamental cell of right social order. Even if remarkably we have not participated directly in any of these sins, we have certainly at times tolerated them in others because we could scarcely endure the continual conflict of opposing them; even worse through our misplaced toleration, we have watched naively and passively as the whole culture descended into the sewer. Even worse, we have been content to watch this corruption enter into the Church. So, we rightly suffer the scourge, together with our whole corrupt society.

Yet, what St. Augustine is telling us is that we are not so much loving our neighbor as our own pleasure and convenience. If we truly loved our neighbor, we would be acting out of concern for their eternal salvation. Since our concern for their salvation has been lacking, we end up sharing in their temporal punishment, but even that is an instrument of God’s providence working for our good.

Last week and this week, I have addressed the matter in a general way and how the working of divine providence touches us individually in these events. Next it will be necessary to take a larger view of divine providence, guiding the course of history.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.