President Obama called the earthquake in Haiti an “incomprehensible tragedy.” He’s right. But is there any tragedy that is comprehensible? By what measure do we comprehend something like this? What could ever make it so understandable that we can eliminate from our hearts and minds the cry that surfaces again and again, the cry of why?
I am a Catholic priest. On the day the earthquake happened I was trying to answer an email from a young woman who, after the suicide of a close friend, had begun to wonder how the God who loved her was compatible with the church’s doctrine about hell. I had also received a message from another friend who was also questioning the compatibility between the Christian God and the suffering of the innocent. He was quoting something I wrote: “I cannot worship a God who demands that I tear out from my heart and my mind the question of why the suffering of the innocent happens”.
I remember a debate I had with Christopher Hitchens in which he was frustrated when I kept agreeing with him that things happen that make it reasonable to despise a God that demands a blind acceptance of the goodness of His will. Then this horror in Haiti happens…What am I to say to myself about the question that will not go away: why?
I will not suppress the question. I want to face the horror as it is, without tranquilizing consolations. Officials keep coming out assuring the victims of the tragedy that their “hearts and prayers” go out to them. Prayers? To Whom? To a God who could have simply prevented this from happening?
The church was not spared anything. The cathedral collapsed killing the archbishop, seminaries and convents were destroyed, killing future priests and dedicated religious sisters. The pope’s representative was saved because he happened to be outside his collapsing residence and is spending a second night in the garden with surviving workers from his office. To what kind of God can one pray in such circumstances?
Only to that God who, as St. Paul wrote, “spared not his own Son” the pain of the cry of why. If he gave his Son to die for us, Paul argues, it is impossible that he should refuse us anything that will help or bless us, since he has nothing he values more than His Son (cf. Romans 8, 32). I do not want an explanation for why this God allows these tragedies to happen. An explanation would reduce the pain and suffering to an inability to understand, a failure of intelligence so to peak. I can only accept a God who “co-suffers” with me. Such is the God of the Christian faith.
But faith or no faith, Christian or not, our humanity demands that the question “why” not be suppressed, but that it be allowed to guide our response to everything that happens. This is the only way to a possible redemption of our humanity.
Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete