Why is Life Good?

In Centesimus Annus (1991), Pope St. John Paul II writes that atheism is one of today’s causes for misunderstanding the human person. “If we then inquire as to the source of this mistaken concept of the nature of the person and the ‘subjectivity’ of society, we must reply that its first cause is atheism” (13). This may at first seem to be an odd connection. How can atheism—the belief that God does not exist—be the cause of our modern misunderstanding of the human person and the dignity of his or her life? To answer this question, we must place it within the context of John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae. Most Catholics are aware of the beauty and sanctity of life, from conception to natural death, regardless of the mental or physical condition of the particular person. Yet John Paul II’s encyclical gives important theological explanations for the goodness of life, and reflecting on these will help us to discover the connection between the absence of God and modernity’s degradation of the human person.

What are the “deepest roots” (EV 21) of the clash between what John Paul II calls the “culture of life” and the “culture of death?” He writes, “We have to go to the heart of the tragedy being experienced by modern man: the eclipse of the sense of God and of man, typical of a social and cultural climate dominated by secularism, which, within its ubiquitous tentacles, succeeds at times in putting Christian communities to the test” (Ibid). Thus, because man no longer has respect for God, he likewise disregards the dignity of other men; this abandonment of God comes from the secular nature of the culture, which emphasizes the importance of the material over the spiritual (more on that below). Thus, John Paul II speaks of this “sad vicious circle: when the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, of his dignity and his life” (Ibid). Why is this true? Fundamentally, man is created in the image and likeness of God, as we read in the Scriptures: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). If man is created in God’s image, it follows that he mirrors His image and, in a certain sense, is “stamped” with the reflection of God. Furthermore, there is a great dignity in being created in God’s image, as we hear in the Psalmist’s wonderment: “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than the angels, and you have crowned him with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:4-5). And again, in the Wisdom of Solomon, “For God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity” (2:23). Therefore, if man is created after God’s image, this means that he is rejecting both his human and divine origin when he rejects God. God is the author, origin, and sustainer of all life, and if He is cast aside, then man will no longer be able to respect the life that comes from Him. Indeed, as John Paul II explains, “By living ‘as if God did not exist,’ man not only loses sight of the mystery of God, but also of the mystery of the world and the mystery of his own being” (EV 22).

Our next question is this: what happens in society when our understanding of God (and thereby man) is lost? John Paul II writes that the “eclipse of the sense of God and of man inevitably leads to a practical materialism” (EV 23). This materialism emphasizes the importance of quantifiable and empirical data l over anything spiritual. John Paul II explains it perfectly: “The values of being are replaced by those of having” (Ibid). Rather than caring about the spiritual nature of man, all that matters is the “pursuit of one’s own material well-being” (23). We have arrived at the definition of the goodness of life in secular and modern terms. Life is good only insofar as it has material value or worth. If you are wealthy and have a large house, then your life is good. If your body is perfect and athletic, then your life is good. If, however, you have some defect—if you are poor or have a disability, for example—then your life is not good; you cannot have “material” success as defined by the world.

John Paul II discusses the problematic attitudes that arise from this materialistic understanding of life. He explains, “In such a context suffering, an inescapable burden of human existence but also a factor of possible personal growth, is ‘censored,’ rejected as useless, indeed opposed as an evil, always and in every way to be avoided” (EV 23). This rejection of suffering is indeed a trait of the modern world and its inability to suffer. However, the materialistic mindset almost prescribes that any form of suffering is a contradiction to a “good life.” Suffering means that there is pain, which is contrary to the pleasure given by material goods. Therefore, everything is done to get rid of suffering, to the point that the elderly and disabled are seen as “burdens” and living “below average” lives. Even though suffering is inescapable, as John Paul II explains, modern man tries to do everything to avoid it and disregard its significance.

Second, this materialistic understanding of life leads to a skewed understanding of the body. While modernity seems to be enthralled by the body, this enchantment is strictly at the level of physical appearance. Thus, “the body is no longer perceived as a properly personal reality, a sign and place of relations with others, with God and with the world. It is reduced to pure materiality” (Ibid). Unlike the descriptions of the body from the Scriptures quoted above, there remains little reverence for its spiritual signifiance, for “it is simply a complex of organs, functions, and energies to be used according to the sole criteria of pleasure and efficiency” (Ibid). The body has now become a machine that is meant for the purposes of pleasure, which also shows why suffering is not valued.

If the body is no longer respected, then sexuality and procreation follow with that, as John Paul II goes on to explain. Rather than “being the sign, place, and language of love…it increasingly becomes the occasion and instrument of self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal desires and instincts” (Ibid). Because the self-gift of God is written into man’s nature, we see the result of rejecting Him: His creation is no longer valued for its original intention. The human body, which was originally designed for love, is now used for the selfish and individualistic purposes of pleasure. If this is the case, then “procreation becomes the ‘enemy’ to be avoided in sexual activity” (Ibid). Contraception and abortion thus become valid means of ending life, because there cannot be “consequences” from the act of pleasure. Just as Cain, who forgot the worship he owed to God, justified the murder of his brother Abel, so too do we, when we forget God, rationalize the need to take innocent life for the sake of our pleasure.

Nevertheless, as discussed in the beginning, John Paul II’s intention is to show that man’s life is not only good because of its material value, even though his body is indeed a good. Man’s life has value because of its relationship to God and its eternal end of Heaven. John Paul II affirms, “Life is always a good” (EV 34). He then asks our very question, “Why is life a good?” (Ibid). He responds: Life is “a manifestation of God in the world, a sign of his presence, a trace of his glory…Man has been given a sublime dignity, based on the intimate bond which unites him to his Creator: in man there shines forth a reflection of God himself” (Ibid). Thus, the goodness of man’s life does not merely come from his material existence, but from the dignity given to him by God. For this reason, “the life which the Son of God came to give to human beings cannot be reduced to mere existence in time” (EV 37). Therefore, not even suffering determines the goodness or lack thereof in man’s life, for even that is meant to bring him into closer union with God. In John Paul II’s estimation, to bring modern man to respect human dignity once again, we must first bring him back to understanding the goodness of God, for the two of these are intimately connected. Thus, man ought to return to the following words from Scripture: “For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wisdom 13:5).

Veronica Arntz

By

Veronica Arntz graduated from Wyoming Catholic College with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts, which included courses in humanities, philosophy, theology, and Latin, among others, using the Great Books of Western thought. The title of her senior thesis was, “Communio Personarum Meets Communionis Sacramentum: The Cosmological Connection of Family and Liturgy.” She is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Theology from the Augustine Institute.

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  • noelfitz

    This article challenges me, as I do not understand it.

    Perhaps focusing on one point will illustrate my concern. I consider suffering an evil, which one should try to minimize, whether in animals, other people or ourselves. If suffering comes, we should try to remove it, as best we can, since it, being the state of undergoing
    pain, distress or hardship, is an evil, that is the lack of good. I cannot see how anyone,
    other than a sadist, can see suffering as good.

    Jesus, who is God, did not want to suffer and wanted it removed from him. In the Gospel one reads “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”’ (Mk 14:36, also Lk 22:42 and Mt 26:39).

    In trying to see what St. JP II thought of suffering I looked at Salvifici Doloris, but still I lack insight.

    Can anyone help me to get get an understanding of his thinking, and of this article?

  • Veronica Arntz

    Thank you for your comment. Yes…this is one of the most difficult questions to answer. Why does a good God allow for suffering? Why do good people sometimes suffer the greatest evils? Indeed, this is the question of Psalm 73: even if a person serves the Lord day and night, the wicked are often rewarded in this life. Furthermore, it is Job’s question, for he has done all that is right for the Lord, yet he is struck down with great sufferings and temptations.

    In Spe Salvi, Benedict XVI writes that suffering can never be eliminated while we live on earth, because it is part of the human condition (cf. 37). Does this mean that we should adopt the attitude of Ecclesiastes? “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains for ever” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-5). Certainly not! This attitude denies any good in the earthly life that we are leading, which we know is not true. It emphasizes an almost circular pattern: we live, we bring forth generations, we die–all to no end. In this perspective, there is no point to suffering other than it is something we have to undergo. However, we know that human life is good because God created us completely out of love. Being perfect in himself, he had no need of us, which means that we were created entirely out of love and for love. Surely there is goodness in that.

    So, what does Benedict XVI say about suffering? He says that it is a school for learning hope. This does not mean that we should seek out suffering for the sake of suffering, for he says that we ought to do everything to soothe pain (cf. SS 36). However, because suffering is part of the human condition, it can be turned toward the good. I quote directly: “It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it, and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love” (SS 37). Thus, we are truly healed of our sufferings when we unite them completely with Christ’s own sufferings, who endured much more pain than we ever will. Christ became a servant, even unto death on a Cross (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). He loves us with an infinite love, and it is thus fitting for us to offer our sacrifices in union with his out of love for him.

    To speak to Christ’s words from the Garden of Gethsemane, yes, he was asking the Father to remove the suffering. But what is even more crucial is that Christ was willing to suffer these greatest pains, if that was the Father’s will. To bring this back to Benedict XVI, Christ did not wish to “sidestep” the suffering. He wanted to embrace it, for this would be fulfilling the Father’s will and bringing him glory. If we recall from Christ’s prayer for the Church, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him power of all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him” (John 17:1-2). Thus, the suffering that Christ was to endure was for the glory of the Father. And furthermore, from this suffering would come eternal life for all of us.

    In Evangelium Vitae, I believe that John Paul II’s main concern is about individuals who merely wish to do away with suffering because they do not understand its good. He writes, “A person who, because of illness, handicap, or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those who are more favored tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of ‘conspiracy against life’ is unleashed” (EV 12). He is thinking of older individuals who have incurable diseases: some wrongly believe that it is better to end their lives (euthanasia) than allow them to live until their natural death. He is also thinking of so many who aborted simply because they might have Down Syndrome or some other potentially “life-altering” disease. This is the error I wrote of: life is not merely good because of its material value. Life is good because it is given by God, even if that life is marked by terrible temporal suffering. That suffering does not make life any less good or possess any less dignity. This kind of life still has as much dignity as someone who is capable of walking, talking, and living by “normal” standards.

    In the final analysis, I think it is important to remember the words of St. Paul: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:18-21). This life is not merely for material and temporal goods. We were created for more: we were created for glory with God–“glorious liberty” in Heaven. So, even though this world is filled with suffering, it is not merely about the suffering. Here, we see the opposite view of Ecclesiastes: this life (and the suffering that comes with it) is for Heaven; it is for our eternal goal. Suffering in itself is not a good. But it can be turned toward the good when oriented toward preparation for Heaven.

    This question about suffering is difficult and will remain a mystery until the end of time. It is a question to be wrestled with in prayer. I wouldn’t hesitate to read Salvifici Doloris again, maybe even in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, and Spe Salvi would likewise be a good read. I hope this is helpful to you.

  • Veronica Arntz

    Thank you for your comment. Yes…this is one of the most difficult questions to answer. Why does a good God allow for suffering? Why do good people sometimes suffer the greatest evils? Indeed, this is the question of Psalm 73: even if a person serves the Lord day and night, the wicked are often rewarded in this life. Furthermore, it is Job’s question, for he has done all that is right for the Lord, yet he is struck down with great sufferings and temptations.

    In Spe Salvi, Benedict XVI writes that suffering can never be eliminated while we live on earth, because it is part of the human condition (cf. 37). Does this mean that we should adopt the attitude of Ecclesiastes? “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains for ever” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-5). Certainly not! This attitude denies any good in the earthly life that we are leading, which we know is not true. It emphasizes an almost circular pattern: we live, we bring forth generations, we die–all to no end. In this perspective, there is no point to suffering other than it is something we have to undergo. However, we know that human life is good because God created us completely out of love. Being perfect in himself, he had no need of us, which means that we were created entirely out of love and for love. Surely there is goodness in that.

    So, what does Benedict XVI say about suffering? He says that it is a school for learning hope. This does not mean that we should seek out suffering for the sake of suffering, for he says that we ought to do everything to soothe pain (cf. SS 36). However, because suffering is part of the human condition, it can be turned toward the good. I quote directly: “It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it, and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love” (SS 37). Thus, we are truly healed of our sufferings when we unite them completely with Christ’s own sufferings, who endured much more pain than we ever will. Christ became a servant, even unto death on a Cross (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). He loves us with an infinite love, and it is thus fitting for us to offer our sacrifices in union with his out of love for him.

    To speak to Christ’s words from the Garden of Gethsemane, yes, he was asking the Father to remove the suffering. But what is even more crucial is that Christ was willing to suffer these greatest pains, if that was the Father’s will. To bring this back to Benedict XVI, Christ did not wish to “sidestep” the suffering. He wanted to embrace it, for this would be fulfilling the Father’s will and bringing him glory. If we recall from Christ’s prayer for the Church, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him power of all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him” (John 17:1-2). Thus, the suffering that Christ was to endure was for the glory of the Father. And furthermore, from this suffering would come eternal life for all of us.

    In Evangelium Vitae, I believe that John Paul II’s main concern is about individuals who merely wish to do away with suffering because they do not understand its good. He writes, “A person who, because of illness, handicap, or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those who are more favored tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of ‘conspiracy against life’ is unleashed” (EV 12). He is thinking of older individuals who have incurable diseases: some wrongly believe that it is better to end their lives (euthanasia) than allow them to live until their natural death. He is also thinking of so many who aborted simply because they might have Down Syndrome or some other potentially “life-altering” disease. This is the error I wrote of: life is not merely good because of its material value. Life is good because it is given by God, even if that life is marked by terrible temporal suffering. That suffering does not make life any less good or possess any less dignity. This kind of life still has as much dignity as someone who is capable of walking, talking, and living by “normal” standards.

    In the final analysis, I think it is important to remember the words of St. Paul: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:18-21). This life is not merely for material and temporal goods. We were created for more: we were created for glory with God–“glorious liberty” in Heaven. So, even though this world is filled with suffering, it is not merely about the suffering. Here, we see the opposite view of Ecclesiastes: this life (and the suffering that comes with it) is for Heaven; it is for our eternal goal. Suffering in itself is not a good. But it can be turned toward the good when oriented toward preparation for Heaven.

    This question about suffering is difficult and will remain a mystery until the end of time. It is a question to be wrestled with in prayer. I wouldn’t hesitate to read Salvifici Doloris again, maybe even in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, and Spe Salvi would likewise be a good read. I hope this is helpful to you.

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