The Problem of Natural Evil

shutterstock_149246516She can play the flute just fine, but Kaitlin Windt will never march with the other students in her high school marching band.

Windt, a freshman from Youngstown, Ohio, has Freidreich’s ataxia, a rare debilitating muscle disorder which is inherited. The disease, which has no known cure, usually starts in the legs, rendering those who have it, like Windt, wheelchair-bound. But it spreads from there, affecting the movement of arms, the ability to speak, and even the functioning of the heart muscle. As one writer puts it, it’s “muscular dystrophy, scoliosis, heart weakness, circulation problems, diabetes and more rolled into one tragic syndrome.”

Windt’s story is truly heart-rending. Words like “unfair,” “sad,” or “tragic” probably leap to mind, as they did for the writer quoted above. But Catholic moral theologians would also use another term to describe her condition: “natural evil.”

Natural evil should not be confused with moral evil—the evil wrought by human beings (in the extreme, think of weapons of mass destruction, genocide, murder, rape, and torture).

The reality of moral evil is usually confronted by theologians in the form of a question: How can the existence of evil can be reconciled with belief in a God is not only all-good but also all-powerful? In other words, how could God allow bad people to do such terrible things? This is the classic problem of evil. (The answer has traditionally been sought in the existence of free will for mankind. Of course, this is only to leap out of the frying pan into the philosophical fire, as it raises the apparent conundrum of how free will is possible if God is all-powerful and all-knowing, but that’s an issue for another article.)

The problem of natural evil, on the other hand, is a different, and, in some ways, a more difficult dilemma. It raises the question of why people like Windt who, through no fault of their own or others, are facing a devastating disease. It’s the same kind of question that gnaws at our consciences when we read reports about mudslides that bury whole villages or tsunamis that swallow thousands of innocents. And it’s a question that has gained new urgency in the wake of the typhoon in the Philippines earlier this month, which flattened entire cities, killed thousands, and left more than a million homeless—the second worst one on the record for the country.

Unlike the problem of moral evil, there is no moral agent whom we can blame for natural evil—no Hitler or other sadistic mass murderer. The typhoon, like other natural disasters and diseases, involves the very impersonal elements of nature. When that happens, we can’t help but wonder: How a personal God could stand by and let this happen?

Catholic theology does have an answer to this question. The answer begins by taking seriously the reality of the creation event.

The created world, Catholic theology asserts, has real existence. God did not make a dream world full of shadows and appearances. The rocks, trees, and air around us are all very real and exist according to the principles inherent in their nature. So the winds will knock over trees that have grown old and rotted and rocks will eventually crumble into the sea after centuries of weathering.

The best testament to the real existence of creation is humanity itself: the Church teaches that we are not wind-up toys, string-controlled puppets, or a race of Pinocchios. We really have an individual existence, self-awareness, and the free will that those realities entail. The same idea applies to the rest of creation. While only we have free will, the rest of creation is certainly not a puppet show put on for God for our amusement. Each thing operates according to principles that shape its activity: animals behave according to instinct and natural selection, the weather and the seas ebb and flow in keeping with the laws of thermodynamics, and the sun and stars obey the laws of physics. (For the more formal explanation of this, see St. Thomas Aquinas’ Contra Gentiles, Question 72.)

This may seem self-evident to us. But it wasn’t always so. In the ancient world, the Greeks and Romans did not recognize a clear distinction between the gods and the natural world. For them, the lines between the two were blurred: the gods inhabited nature and even embodied aspects of nature. Aphrodite, for example, personified sexual desire. Likewise, Artemis typified the untamed restlessness of hunter. Even the elements of nature were viewed as quasi-divine, which is why the ancient Greek historian Herodotus depicts the Delphians offering sacrifices and prayers to the winds in his Histories.

Of course, this isn’t to say that we believe in a clockmaker deity: God certainly does intervene in His creation, the Incarnation being the paramount example. But creation and Creator are distinct. To deny the existence of creation is to fall into a kind of Hindu-like monism (the belief that there is only one absolute reality) while denial of the the existence of a creator usually ends in some form of atheism.

Now, all creation, Genesis tells us, was good. So where does evil come from? St. Augustine posed just this question in the Confessions:

And I said, Behold God, and behold what God has created; and God is good, yea, most mightily and incomparably better than all these; but yet He, who is good, has created them good, and behold how He encircles and fills them. Where, then, is evil, and whence, and how crept it in hither? What is its root, and what its seed?

In order to find the origins of evil, we must first understand what it is. Augustine provides this definition in the City of God: “For evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name ‘evil.’” This is essentially the same view that St. Thomas Aquinas offers in the Summa Theologica: “For evil is the absence of the good, which is natural and due to a thing.” Another way of saying this is that evil is a privation or a negation of the good.

So, given that evil is a kind of not-good, what causes it? Aquinas explains that evil cannot be caused by the good directly—instead, it must be accidental. This can happen in two ways. The first involves the action of the agent (the thing acting to bring about, or cause, an effect). The second way involves the effect itself.

In the first place, evil can result by the action of the agent. Here is how Aquinas explains it in Contra Gentiles:

It will be on the side of the agent when the agent suffers a defect in its power, the consequence of which is a defective action and a defective effect. Thus, when the power of an organ of digestion is weak, imperfect digestive functioning and undigested humor result; these are evils of nature. Now, it is accidental to the agent, as agent, for it to suffer a defect in its power; for it is not an agent by virtue of the fact that its power is deficient, but because it possesses some power. If it were completely lacking in power, it would not act at all. Thus, evil is caused accidentally on the part of the agent in so far as the agent is defective in its power.

Natural evil as a defect in the power of an agent is not at issue in the Philippines typhoon. As we know, the typhoon was all too effective in its operation. According to Aquinas, the second way that evil can be caused involves the unintended effect of good actions. For example, a good thing can be so effective in its operation that it causes another good thing to lose its form (in technical terms, the privation of its form). In the Summa, Aquinas offers the example of fire, which is an apt analogy for the destructive winds of the typhoon:

[E]vil is caused in a thing … sometimes by the power of the agent. …It is caused by reason of the power or perfection of the agent when there necessarily follows on the form intended by the agent the privation of another form; as, for instance, when on the form of fire there follows the privation of the form of air or of water. Therefore, as the more perfect the fire is in strength, so much the more perfectly does it impress its own form, so also the more perfectly does it corrupt the contrary. Hence that evil and corruption befall air and water comes from the perfection of the fire: but this is accidental; because fire does not aim at the privation of the form of water, but at the bringing in of its own form, though by doing this it also accidentally causes the other.

We’ve answered one question only to immediately raise another: Why would God create a world in which it is possible for good things to accidentally cause evil things? The answer is that it is one good thing in particular—mankind—that went astray, throwing the rest of creation askew. What changed it all, according to Scripture, is the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden—an event so catastrophic that it not only estranged us from God, but also wounded the whole of creation in the process. As Genesis 3:17-18 says, “Cursed is the ground because of you! In toil you shall eat its yield all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles it shall bear for you, and you shall eat the grass of the field.”

This idea of the whole of creation as suffering from the sin of man—its steward and vital link to its Creator—is echoed in Romans 8:22, where St. Paul writes of a universal expectation of redemption: “We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now.”

Of course, ultimately we must acknowledge our inability to answer all questions raised by the problem of evil (natural or moral). In this life, we can attain only a limited understanding of how it is possible for evil to come about from good things. This shouldn’t be construed as a cop-out—a throwing up of our hands as we collectively attribute it all to “God’s mysterious ways.” It is, rather, an honest and humble admission that we simply do not have all the answers to everything. But the Church has more answers—and better ones too—than I believe you’ll find elsewhere.

This is the approach Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI took when a 7-year-old Japanese girl who had been affected by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami asked why children had to suffer. The pope responded, in part:

I have the same questions: why is it this way? Why do you have to suffer when others live in ease? And we do not have the answers, but we do know that Jesus suffered as you do, an innocent, and that the true God who is revealed in Jesus is by your side. (Click here to view the full response.)

This ultimately is the best answer to the problem of evil, both natural and moral: that God cares enough for us that he became one of us—not like us, not disguised like us, but fully human (while retaining full divinity). And that as one of us, God not only shared in the pain and suffering we experience, but took the curse of the Fall upon Himself in order to redeem the entire created world.

image: Shutterstock 

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • Winston Barquez

    Why do bad things happen to good people?

    Firstly, the Book of Job implies that these things happen as a test, although God answered Job in the Book with a series of questions that seem to imply that the divine plan cannot be completely grasped by the finite human mind, which echoes God’s declaration through Isaiah that “my thoughts are not your thoughts and your ways are not my ways.”

    Secondly, our Lord was confronted with the same dilemma in the Gospel of Luke in connection with the disaster involving 18 people who were killed when the Tower of Siloe collapsed on them perhaps because of an earthquake or human negligence. Our Lord said that it happened as a warning without elaborating more on the whole divine plan.

    Thirdly, the natural and moral disorder caused by original sin is such that St. Paul declared in the Acts of the Apostles that it is only through many tribulations that we would be able to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

    Lastly, our Lord confessed before Pilate in the Gospel of John that “my Kingdom is not of this world,” and in the same Gospel told his Apostles “in my Father’s mansion there are many rooms.” These appear to indicate that we were created for a heavenly destiny, the same destiny allotted to the crucified thief in the Gospel of Luke to whom our Lord said “today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

    Christ the King rules over all things!

  • JohnnyVoxx

    Good article, thank you.

  • Charlie500

    We do know from scripture that original sin, and of course ongoing sin, has a mystical effect on creation and affects humanity like a ripple effect, both innocent and guilty. That will be the case until the Lord restores all creation.

  • nannon31

    De facto current not documentary Catholicism is at cross purposes though in this sense: it’s majority preaching in the current age is pro life and sunny and rarely talks of the catastrophic which is at first glance anti life and can’t happen without God’s permission. Christ calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee and the apostles were safe but 4000 Catholics in the Phillipines did not have that pro life intervention by Christ. Why? Part of the answer is that 150,000 people approximately die each day world wide, 365 days a year. Each day of the year, 150K humans are departing for the next life…not no life…the next life. Now the 4000 Phillipinos doesn’t seem as big a figure when put beside the daily toll of 150K that our news media nor our preaching ever report.
    At the intimate level though, the suffering was incredible to each person who lost children like the woman on the news who lost her husband and six children and her home and all supportive income. Christ according to Aquinas suffered the greatest suffering ever internally but Christ did not suffer every conceivable suffering like disease or old age as Aquinas noted too…nor did Christ suffer as long a suffering as a person who has a disease for longer than the life span of Christ on earth…unless Christ’s subjectivity as a uniquely sensitive being caused Him to suffer in hours of Good Friday greater than a mere human suffers in decades.
    I only know that Satan will be whispering to the survivors in the Phillipines that God was not watching over them the way the old Holy card showed the angel watching over children crossing a rickety bridge. They must remember that God freed both Peter and Paul miraculously from prison cells in Acts…But God did not free John the Baptist from his cell, one of His all time favorite sons who died by beheading for the 6th and 9th commandments. Later the freed Peter and Paul would not be rescued again miraculously anyway.

  • http://theyhavenowine.wordpress.com/ Bob Drury

    Thanks for an excellent essay. Many of the essays on the problem of evil omit the basic fact that evil is not existent, but is the absence of a perfection, which we judge should exist. Note that even the prospect of pain is good in that it prevents our foolhardy self-destruction. Your conclusion is the best solution to the mystery of suffering, namely the mystery of God’s becoming man to redeem the entire created world, which human sin has messed up.

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