Monday, 4 April 2011

On illness, accidents, droughts and tsunamis: Fr Richard Leonard SJ's problematic new book

A correspondent reported that Fr Richard Leonard SJ's new book, Where the Hell is God? was being heavily promoted at Melbourne Cathedral on Sunday, so I thought I would expand out my earlier comments on the seemingly erroneous propositions contained in it. 

My hope is that the questions I raise about his arguments might make priests rethink promoting it, and prompt relevant bishops to consider taking a closer look at it with a view to taking appropriate action if necessary.

Fr Richard Leonard SJ has form...

My earlier comment on this book was that the topic of how to cope with evils in this world, including material evils such as accidents, illnesses and natural disasters was important and needed some new presentations.  But that this one seemed problematic, at least based on the author's summation of his book on the British Jesuit site.  So below a Fr Z style spruiking of that article.

But I also did a quick google on Fr Leonard, and he has form. Employed by the Australian Bishops Conference as Director of their Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting, and as an academic.  Read a few of his film reviews (available on the ACBC website) and you will see what I mean by form!  He is also a sometime academic, and is Superior of the North Sydney Jesuit community, where his 'creative' approach to the liturgy caught the eye of the Good Jesuit, Bad Jesuit  blog a while back (presumably what prompted his attack on anonymous conservative bloggers, so lauded by the acatholicas, at one of Broken Bay's e-conferences).

And then there are the reviews of the book on the North Sydney Catholics website.  One concludes:
"Leonard's book may frustrate Catholic and non-Catholic conservatives, but it will be a tonic for liberal Christians and seekers of all faiths..."

Frustrate is not quite the word I'd choose!  So herewith my comments.  Note that I haven't commented on everything in the article, it is very long (and there are some other 'interesting' comments on Scripture and Holy Week that just beg for a spruiking, but another time!).  My comments are in red.

Fr Richard Leonard writes: Where the hell is God?

"…My interest started from experience, from my grappling with a family tragedy which forced me to confront how I can hold on to my belief in a loving God in the face of suffering.

On 23 October 1988 my sister, Tracey, was involved in a freakish car accident: she dislocated the 5th cervical vertebra and fractured the 6th and 7th vertebrae. For the last 23 years she has been a quadriplegic….

Within twelve hours of my mother finding out about Tracey’s accident, she was standing in a hospital room in Darwin asking, ‘Where the hell is God?

In the months that followed I received some of the most appalling and frightening letters from some of the best Christians I knew. A few wrote, ‘Tracey must have done something to deeply offend God so she had to be punished here on earth.’ They actually believe that God is out to get us [Yes I’ve heard this kind of reaction too. And Fr Leonard is surely right to reject it. Consider the story of Job. Or Our Lord’s comments when asked who sinned, the blind man or his parents in John 9 for example? While it is certainly possible for accidents and illnesses to be punishments, but assuming that they must be is presumptuous and unhelpful. Still, the Catechism does actually note that 'illness is mysteriously linked to sin and evil...']

Others wrote, ‘Tracey’s suffering is sending up glorious building blocks to heaven for her mansion there when she dies.’ This is what is usually called ‘pie in the sky when you die theology’. I did not know that in heaven, in the many rooms of the Father’s house, there are first, business and economy class suites. [On the face of it this paragraph seems erroneous on several fronts. The sarcasm and simplistic misrepresentation of doctrine aside, it sounds here as if Fr Leonard is rejecting the idea of accumulation of merit in the next life (indeed, is he rejecting the idea of heaven altogether?). Yet Scripture repeatedly tells us that we will be rewarded according to our merits, and to lay up our treasure in heaven. And the Council of Trent defined that the justified person merits an increase in the heavenly glory by - that is, the degree of perfection of the beatific vision granted to each person varies as a result of – good works (D842).  And where is the idea of redemptive suffering (CCC 1505ff) in all this, of offering up our suffering on behalf of others, as Our Lord did? ]

There were scores of letters and cards which said, ‘Your family is really very blessed, because God only sends the biggest crosses to those who can bear them.’ I always found it strange that some people, who are not receiving that particular blessing, can see it so clearly in other people’s suffering. [Agreed – the statement may be true, but may not be exactly what one wants to hear at such a moment! I guess people may rather naively thought that a catholic priest might more readily be comforted by this than others…] But let us think about this line a little more. We hear it often. If it is true, then we should all be on our knees morning, noon and night with only one prayer: ‘I am a wimp. I am a wimp. I am a wimp, O God. Do not consider me strong.’ [Actually that is a perfectly legitimate prayer so far as it goes - think of 'deliver us not to evil' in the Lord's prayer and the agony in the Garden. We can certainly pray not to be put to the test, not to have to drink the cup! Still, aren’t we, as catholics, urged to pick up our cross and carry it? So shouldn’t a priest actually be urging us to pray for strength to bear what God sends us?]

Added to these responses were those of good people who were trying to be comforting, and so gave out the usual trio of replies in the face of bad news: ‘It’s all a mystery’; invoking Isaiah 55 with, ‘My ways are not your ways’; and ‘Only in heaven will find out God’s plan.’ There is a truth in each of these statements, but I thought that one of the points of the Incarnation is precisely that God wants to reveal his ways and thoughts, wants to be known, especially in the moments when we are sometimes given to the greatest despair. [The Incarnation ends all mystery?! Certainly God does reveal himself in Christ, but he surely doesn’t reveal every detail of his providential plan…] We do not believe and love an aloof being who revels in mystery and goes AWOL when the action turns tough in our lives. [True] The Incarnation surely shows us that God is committed to being a participant in the human adventure in all its complexity and pain. [True. But that surely doesn’t preclude some mystery in the process.]…

In offering anything on this topic we are squarely in the domain of speculative theology. Greater minds than mine over the centuries have applied themselves to these questions and have come to different conclusions about them…The Church knows, too, that it cannot be definitive about these matters, because on this side of the grave we just do not know where or how God fits with regard to the suffering of the world. [It is certainly true that there are large areas of this topic that are open to theological opinion. And this is of course the old much disputed territory between the Dominicans and Jesuits (aka Monists vs Thomists). But there are certain things the Church has defined that we do have to believe.  We can't be certain what is happening in individual situations.  But we can be certain about certain theological propositions.] Therefore I make no greater claim for my ideas than that they have helped me hold on to faith in a loving God as I walked through the ‘valley of tears’ and in the ‘shadow of death’.

God does not directly send pain, suffering and disease. God does not punish us, at least not in this life. [This is problematic. Dr Ott puts it thus: “God does not (per se) desire physical evil, for example, suffering, illness, death, that is not for the sake of the evil or an aim…However, God wills physical evil, natural evil as punitive evil, per accidens, that is as a means to a higher end of the physical order.”] I hold this confidently because in 1John 1:5 we are told that, ‘God is light, in him there is no darkness’ – so deadly and destructive things cannot be in the nature of and actions of God. [A very creative reinterpretation of Scripture!  And pretty hard to reconcile with the entire Old Testament and the notion that God didn’t just create the world, but continues to uphold it. And the overwhelming weight of theological opinion (at least until recent decades and a renewed enthusiasm for pelagianism) is that ‘God co-operates immediately in every act of his creatures.] Secondly, whatever we make of the varied images of God in the Old Testament, in Jesus God is revealed as being about life not death, construction not destruction, forgiveness not retribution, healing not pain.[The two are not incompatible, just different modes of action of the same God. As Christ makes clear on numerous occasions in the New Testament – he comes to heal that we might escape the punishments due to us.] There is a huge difference between God permitting evil and God perpetrating such acts on us. We need to stare down those who promote and support a theology that portrays God as a tyrant.[Punishing someone does not make the dispenser of justice a tyrant! Where illness and accidents are a punishment, they are meant to help us and others reform that we might earn eternal life.]

God does not send accidents to teach us things, though we can learn from them... [Again, this runs counter to the entire Old Testament. And much of the New!]… We do not need to blame God directly for causing our suffering in order for us to turn it around and harness it for good. The human search for meaning is a powerful instinct but I think spiritual sanity rests in seeing that in every moment of every day, God does what he did on Good Friday: not allowing evil, death and destruction to have the last word, but ennobling humanity with an extraordinary resilience and, through the power of amazing grace, enabling us to make the most of even the worst situations and let light and life have the last word. Easter Sunday is God’s response to Good Friday: life out of death.

God does not will earthquakes, floods, droughts or other natural disasters: can we stop praying for rain please? [This seems erroneous on the face of it – directly contradicted by the many collects assigned for use at Mass for such occasions.] If God is directly in charge of the climate, he seems to be a very poor meteorologist indeed. When people ask, ‘why did the earthquake and tsunami happen?’, I think it best if we just tell them the simple geophysical truth: ‘Because the earth shelf moved, setting off a big wave.’ Behind the meteorologist-in-the-sky idea is not the God and Father of Jesus Christ, but Zeus, and I think we have to be careful what we think petitionary prayer does. It cannot change our unchanging God (James 1), so it asks our unchanging God to change us to change the world. [Again, on the face of it this seems erroneous. It is true of course that we cannot change God. But the teaching of the Church is that there are some graces that are from our perspective contingent on us asking for them.]

God’s will is more in the big picture than in the small… [This is an area where there is legitimate room for debate. Kreeft and Tacelli’s book on Apologetics use the image of those who believe that life is like a novel and those who believe life is like a play. Either view is permissible, so long as one does actually accept God’s continuing role in creation and the providential ordering of the world...]

On the face of it, all this seems more than enough to give any orthodox catholic pause about promoting this book.


Felix said...

I think you're too kind. "God’s will is more in the big picture than in the small …" seems to me to involve a denial of Divine Providence.

BTW, the dispute between the Dominicans and Jesuits should be characterised as Thomists vs Molinists. (And as involving old-style Jesuits!)

BTW also, a few years ago I attended Mass at North Sydney on the feast of the Assumption. We didn't bother with the Creed. And the sermon was content free, with no discussion of Mary, Christ, or God.

Kate said...

You are probably right on the being too kind Felix.

My point was that there is a legitimate bandwidth for debate on divine Providence - but it is certainly true that the liberal-Jesuits push it pretty close to the acceptable limits or over.

In any case, I'm trying to be as fair as possible in the hope that my comments might reach a broader audience!

I'm totally unsurprised at your Mass experience - orthodoxy and orthopraxis surely go together!

On Thomists vs Molinarists, are you suggesting you don't have to be a Dominican to be a Thomist? True enough. I can understand the need to dissasociate the two! But back at the origins of the debate it surely was...

A Canberra Observer said...

I went to school with Fr Leonard.
I suppose one can observe that there was not that much content in our year 11 & 12 religious education.
I have followed, but not closely, his progress. Thoroughly liberal in the worst sense of the word. Obviously self-confident but that was ever so if memory serves.

I also had a look at the article linked from CathNews. Objectionable and obviously not Catholic. These guys earn a living from the Church. I wish they had the guts of a Luther or Calvin to up stumps and take their pernicious teachings somewhere else.

PM said...

Will you allow me a 'distinguo'? Rather than saying that God’s will is more in the big picture than in the small, I would prefer to say that our knowledge of God’s will is more in the big picture than in the small. We know that there is resurrection and God's providence turns all to the good, but I at least often struggle to see how He is doing it in particular cases.