In his Holy Thursday letter to priests, Pope John Paul II described clergy sexual abuse as an expression of the “mystery of evil” at work in the world. Some columnists scoffed that the Pope was evading the issue. In fact, he was cutting straight to the heart of the matter.
Unlike religions that fudge the problem of evil by describing it as an illusion or a negation, Christianity does not deny the reality of evil. The Catechism of the Catholic Church faces the problem squarely: “…why did God not create a world so perfect that no evil could exist in it? With infinite power, God could always create something better. But with infinite wisdom and goodness God freely willed to create a world ‘in a state of journeying’ toward its ultimate perfection” (310).
In other words, God created a world of freedom. In a world of freedom, things can and do go wrong. God’s answer to that hard truth was to enter the world, in the person of his Son, to redeem the world of its evil and restore creation to its true trajectory — the path that leads to eternal life within the light and love of the Trinity.
The mystery of evil remains. But the mystery of evil is transformed, in ways sometimes difficult to discern, by God’s saving acts in history. The Catechism again: “We firmly believe that God is master of the world and of its history. But the ways of providence are often unknown to us. Only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God ‘face to face’ [1 Corinthians 13.12], will we fully know the ways by which — even through the dramas of evil and sin — God has guided his creation to that definitive sabbath rest [cf. Genesis 2.2] for which he created heaven and earth” (314).
The Christian answer to evil, and to the fear that evil engenders, is the cross of Jesus Christ. There, the Son of God took all the evil and fear of history onto himself, offering them to God in a perfect act of obedience. God’s answer to that obedient act of radical, self-giving love was given on Easter Sunday, in the resurrection of Christ. Embracing the cross of Christ in baptism and being born again into his resurrection, we, too, are empowered to live beyond evil. Christians do not deny fear. Because of Christ, Christians can live beyond fear.
The omnipresent brutality and violent death of the mid-twentieth century led many European intellectuals to despair about the human future — to the conviction that life is absurd, a constant struggle for power in which the weak are ground into the dust by the unscrupulous and the strong. Ideas have consequences, and what the philosophers taught and the novelists wrote about eventually seeped into the general culture, leading to all sorts of dehumanizing behavior: the abuse of alcohol and drugs; sexual promiscuity; crass consumerism, in which “having more” is identified with “being more;” the manipulation of others for our pleasure or convenience. Pope John Paul II has sometimes described these behaviors as a “culture of death.”
The Christian answer to the culture of death is not optimism, but hope. Hope adds a further dimension to the Christian understanding of the mystery of evil: Christians believe that God, through his providence, will always bring good out of evil and meaning out of meaninglessness. Christian hope is a virtue, a virtue grounded in faith. Faith is the ultimate antidote to despair. And Christian faith is founded on Jesus Christ, who faces the evil of the world and conquers it through his cross and resurrection.
Faith in God’s victory over evil is a truth to be believed. The Catholic Church in America today must believe that God has given us this time of Calvary for a purpose. That purpose, I suggest, is the authentic reform of the Church according to the teaching of Vatican II as authoritatively interpreted by the pontificate of John Paul II.
What seems like a time of endless humiliation is, in truth, a time of purification — if all the people of the Church take the opportunity of this crisis to lead more intentionally, thoroughly Catholic lives.