March 13, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: Why evil exists in the world

John F. Fink(Fifth in a series of columns)

Those who don’t believe in God sometimes point to all the evil that exists in the world as the basis for their disbelief.

If God is supposed to be all-good and all-powerful, they say, where was he during the Holocaust or the numerous natural calamities that take the lives of innocent people?

Put another way, if there is such an all-powerful and all-good God, why didn’t he create a world so perfect that no evil could exist in it?

But atheists might instead look to humanity for the cause of evil in the natural world. For millennia, the Church has taught that the original harmony that man had with the world was damaged by original sin.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that, because of original sin, “visible creation has become alien and hostile to man” (#400).

In any case, God mysteriously chose to carry out his plan for the world by making use of the cooperation of his fallible creatures. He gave us humans not only existence, but the dignity of acting on our own, in part, because he created us in his image. He had so much trust in us that he gave us free will. It is a gift he gave only to his highest creatures, to angels and humans.

By giving us free will, God has made it possible for us to go astray, and it was precisely by humans exercising a free choice that moral evil entered the world. This does not, however, make God responsible for moral evil. He permits it because he respects the freedom he gave to his creatures.

Anyone in authority should understand how free will works. Perhaps a father tells his son, “You’ve got to learn to help around the house. I’d like you to rake up the leaves in the yard when you come home from school.” When the father comes home from work, he finds his son playing with his friends. The father wanted his son to rake the leaves, but his son freely chose to do something else.

That is the way it works between God and humans: God wants us to do what is right, but he has given us the power to decide for ourselves. We can freely choose to do something good and we can also freely choose to do something bad.

Of course, God knew in advance that humans would sometimes use their freedom to do evil. But he wanted his higher creatures to be able to freely unite themselves to him and to each other. An entire world of creatures that worked like machines couldn’t freely give him praise. Why would he bother to create such a world? He didn’t.

There is also this: God somehow knows how to derive good out of evil. St. Augustine wrote that God, “because he is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself.”

For us Christians, the greatest moral evil ever committed was the execution of God’s Son, an evil that brought the greatest good: Christ’s glorification and our redemption. †

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