Divine providence working through temporal punishments

I have not yet finished my series on social justice, there remain many matters that need to be addressed, but the present pandemic calls for us to turn our attention to the question of God’s providence and divine punishment.

I recently read an otherwise excellent on-line article (https://www.crisismagazine.com/2020/are-we-being-punished) that insisted that we are not being punished by COVID, because God does not punish the innocent together with the guilty. The author instead argues that we are being judged. I am afraid the author, in trying to distinguish ‘punishment’ from ‘judgment’ made what is called a ‘distinction without a difference’. He also neglects the full teaching of Scripture and Tradition.

It will be necessary to set everything in the context of divine providence, but first a few words about divine punishment. The Tradition of the Church has distinguished ‘temporal punishment’ due to sin from ‘eternal punishment’ due to sin. That distinction is the basis both for the doctrine of purgatory and the practice of indulgences.

Very often we put God’s mercy and his justice in opposition. Nevertheless, divine punishment, at least temporal punishment, is an expression both of God’s justice and his mercy. He shows mercy to us when he punishes us in this life and spares us in the next. He shows mercy to us when by means of temporal punishment he calls us to repent and return to him. He shows mercy to us when by means of temporal punishment he gives us an opportunity to make satisfaction for our sins, in union with the Cross of Christ.

St. Augustine, in one of his finest works, The City of God, has given us the classic teaching on the distribution of divine punishment and why the innocent suffer together with the guilty. He wrote The City of God in the wake of an ‘apocalyptic’ event that took place in his own time, the sack of Rome in 410AD by the Visigoth King Alaric.

If we wanted some idea of the significance of this event in the history of the Roman Empire we could perhaps imagine an American Taliban somehow growing so powerful that it was able to sweep through Washington, DC the way that ISIS swept through Mosul, Iraq in 2014.

Now by the time that Alaric sacked Rome, Christianity had become the religion of the Empire and the old paganism had been severely restricted, but not banned altogether. The pagans took the occasion to blame the Christians for the sack of Rome. They claimed that the city fell because the Christians had dishonored the ancient gods, who were the protectors of the city. St. Augustine did not fail to call out the hypocrisy of those whose lives were spared in the name of Christ because they sought refuge in Christian churches – Alaric was actually rather more humane than we might expect a Taliban chieftain to be – and instead of giving thanks to Christ for saving their lives, blamed Christians for the fall of the city. (cf. City of God, Bk I, 1-7) Still, St. Augustine had to explain why innocent Christians were caught up and suffered in the fall of the city.

First, St. Augustine addresses the basic divine reason for the distribution of temporal goods and evils among both the just and the wicked. He writes:

“To the divine providence it has seemed good to prepare in the world to come for the righteous good things, which the unrighteous shall not enjoy; and for the wicked evil things, by which the good shall not be tormented. But as for the good things of this life, and its ills, God has willed that these should be common to both; that we might not too eagerly covet the things which wicked men are seen equally to enjoy, nor shrink with an unseemly fear from the ills which even good men often suffer.” (City of God, Bk I,8)

“The result of this distribution is different for the good and for the wicked. “For the good man is neither uplifted with the good things of time, nor broken by its ills; but the wicked man, because he is corrupted by this world’s happiness, feels himself punished by its unhappiness.” (Ibid.)

Further: “Often, even in the present distribution of temporal things, does God plainly evince His own interference. For if every sin were now visited with manifest punishment, nothing would seem to be reserved for the final judgment; on the other hand, if no sin received now a plainly divine punishment, it would be concluded that there is no divine providence at all. And so of the good things of this life: if God did not by a very visible liberality confer these on some of those persons who ask for them, we should say that these good things were not at His disposal; and if He gave them to all who sought them, we should suppose that such were the only rewards of His service; and such a service would make us not godly, but greedy rather, and covetous.” (Ibid.)

All this is, finally, serves the benefit of the good, the conversion of sinners, and the punishment of the wicked, in accord with the words of St. Paul: All things work for the good of those who love God. (Rm 8:28) Still, we must see more particularly why a disaster that seems to fall equally on good and wicked (like the fall of Rome or the COVID pandemic) is a divine ‘punishment’. (to be continued).

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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.