A Roman Catholic Perspective
Monsignor Peter R. Beaulieu, M.A., S.T.L.
Illness vs. Disease
There is a significant, though often overlooked, difference between illness and disease. Physicians are attentive to facts which patients relate to them that the doctor determines to be relevant in leading to a diagnosis of a disease state. Patients, on the other hand, focus on how the condition (or illness) that precipitated their visit to the doctor has already affected their lives. The subjective meaning of that illness has already been formed in a prospective patient’s mind based upon the knowledge they have about the inner workings of their body and the significance this particular illness has had on them, which is all filtered through religious, spiritual and cultural predispositions. As a sign of our mortality and the result of the sin of Adam, illness can often provoke a grave spiritual problem in a religious man or woman or, conversely, it can also prompt a search for God or a return to a vibrant life of faith. Both sickness and death were not part of God’s original creation; no, those two evils are the result of sin. The problem of suffering, too, has been a stumbling block to faith in God. These realities are undoubtedly hardships that are the byproduct of sin and manifest the presence of evil in the world. The avoidance of illness, suffering and pain is in accord with God’s plan. However, embracing those realities can also be salvific because it demands more than we can usually give and does so in situations that we would rather avoid. The faith requirement necessary is uniting our lives with that of the suffering Christ. Every human person is endowed with the prospect of immortality and is, thus, an embodied spirit—fashioned by God in a manner that makes each person His potential child. This is a promise God has made and which He will not renege upon. Christ not only was moved to pity at the sight of the sick, but He made their infirmities His own. Some who were sick, He healed, but not all—physical healing was the most dramatic sign of the dawn of the kingdom of God, but even miraculous healing proffered an even more radical healing, the destruction of sin and death and the prospect of life eternal.
Jean-Claude Larchet. The Theology of Illness. Trans. by John Breck and Bruce Lansky. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002.
Mixed Nature of Reality
Sickness is not the only element of life that seems to belie the existence of the loving God we believe in. Almost everything that exists seems to have something wrong with it. Rose bushes produce beautiful flowers, but they also have thorns. The foods that taste the best usually do so because they are loaded with grams of fat. Late summer evenings lure people out-of-doors, yet hungry mosquitoes roam the airwaves looking for warm blooded creatures. Nature is both terrible and beautiful at the same time. Even people—your closest friend or favorite cousin—can be a disappointment when the chips are down and you need them the most. We proclaim life to be good, but even the best things in life often have something wrong with them. Jesus saw this same phenomenon, whether it was visible in His apostles who could be petty and ambitious, while also being loving and kind. The religion of His day had assumed commercial aspects of the day and those who supplied the sacrificial needs of the Temple were, more often than not, gouging the temple goers. This mixed nature of reality—the simultaneous presence of good and evil—Jesus put into a parable known as the Wheat and the Weeds (or Tares). In that Gospel, a farmer had sewed his field with wheat, while an angry neighbor had gone through that same filed, under the cover of night, and sewed it with weeds (Gk. ζιζάνια or zizania). During the early part of the growing season, the wheat and weeds were indistinguishable, but once the wheat began to ripen it became obvious, though it was too late to do anything.
Origin of Evil Remains Forever A Mystery—The Reality of Evil Is An Undeniable Fact
The first question concerns the origin of evil or the how question—how did evil become part of the world that God created and decreed that creation was good? The slaves, in the parable, were the ones who asked their master the obvious question, “…did you not sow good seed in your field?” If the answer to that question is yes, then, “Where have the weeds come from?” Later on, in His explanation of the parable, Jesus identified the enemy who had sewn the weeds as the devil. However, this only removes the question one degree further away, since you would, now, need to ask where Satan came from. Though Satan is known to be the Prince of all the fallen angels, who rebelled against God, the existence of the devil prompts another question as to why God would create such a malicious being as Satan who is capable of monstrous evil and be given free access to the human family? The parable is not an attempt to explain the reasons for the existence of evil (i.e., theodicy), but simply confronts us with the stark reality that evil does existence!
While Jesus offered no explanation for how evil came to be or why God allows it to exist, unlike contemporary thinkers, He did not explain evil away either. The weeds were real and totally alien to the plan of the farmer who only sewed good seed in the field. Thus, their presence in that field stood as testimony that someone or something was warring against the farmer’s original intention.
This tentative conclusion leaves the mystery of evil unanswered, but it also serves to clarify one of the impractical implications of the fact of evil. First, however hard we strive to be good and to do what is right, the reality of evil means we face an uphill battle. Becoming good and remaining so is not going to be a cakewalk! Evil’s origin remains an unfathomable mystery, but its existence remains indisputable.
Dealing with Evil in the World
When face to face with evil, having to struggle with it everyday, you have to wonder why God allows it to continue? The farm hands in the parable wanted to pull out all the weeds from the field, but the master determined that approach to be impractical. Frequently, like wheat and weeds, good and evil can be impossible to distinguish. When the difference between them is noticeable, the two are so intertwined, that you often destroy what is good by targeting the obviously evil. Precipitous action to smash evil, almost invariably does more harm than good. The owner of the field instructed his farmhands to allow the wheat and weeds to grow together until the harvest. This advice—namely, to wait until the time for harvesting—is usually a veiled reference to the final judgment, when Christ will return again in glory. Such an admonition constitutes both a warning and words of reassurance. There will be a time of reckoning—a particular and a final judgment—but that until that time, the world is still in God’s hands. This present admixture of good and evil is not a permanent state of affairs. Unlike other religions who believe that human history is cyclical, forever turning back on itself and beginning again; Christian belief is that evil will ultimately be overcome. Human history is proceeding toward a concluding point wherein good will triumph over evil. The exact date or specific period of human history during which this will happen, as well as an explicit description of how it will happen were not given. Nevertheless, this parable assures those who believe that the end is inevitable. Until that final day, the world remains imperfect, though is perfectible. The religious attitude that we need is future-oriented. Perfection is yet-to-come, so, there is something wrong with everything and everyone. Do not be overwhelmed by the reality of evil because the future is securely in God’s hands.