In August 2016 an earthquake struck central Italy, killing 297 people and injuring more than 300. I’m sure at least some believers—especially those wandering in the rubble—were brought to the brink of cynicism in the face of such horrors: What can God be up to? In the Earthquake Control Department, isn’t now the time for almighty to mean something?
Mourners might not know of H. L. Mencken’s declaration, “The whole Christian system, like every other similar system, goes to pieces upon the problem of evil,” but looking at crushed babies, they might give Mencken a thumbs-up. If someone dared to pat me on the back at that moment and whisper, “God is here to comfort you”—my response would be an obscene version of get-out-of-my-face.
In fact Christian posturing about a benevolent Cosmos—engineered and supervised by a loving deity—is shown to be nonsense in the face of earthquakes and tsunamis, hurricanes and tornadoes (among many other things that nature throws at us).
Christian apologists have written endless streams of theobabble for centuries trying to square this theological circle. But Catholic theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann is candid: ““The question of the origin of evil, of what causes the tears and deviltries of the world, the question that no theologian has so far managed to answer, is one that humans have always posed.” (Putting Away Childish Things, p. 62).
But Popes are in charge of the brand—they’ve got a big business to protect and defend—so pushing theobabble that supposedly sounds good is what they do best. So Francis rushed in to play the comfort card. His meaningless words qualify superbly as diversionary fluff:
“I cannot fail to express my heartfelt sorrow and spiritual closeness to all those present in the zones afflicted. I ask you to join me in praying to the Lord Jesus, who is always moved by compassion before the reality of human suffering, that he may console the broken hearted, and through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, bring them peace.”
How pathetic. Especially for those who are skepical about long-dead heroes who supposedly live in the sky (or in our hearts?). Is that the best he can do? This is theology distilled into sentimentality, something I might expect from a mediocre Bible college graduate assigned to a backwoods pulpit. I suspect that many among the devout, through their tears, give a shrug to this theological white noise.
They want to know why. People in the deepest pain imaginable have looked their pastors in the eye, pleading for answers that make sense. The answers aren’t there. In Chris Chibnall’s superb BBC drama, Broadchurch, about the murder of an 11-year old boy in a small English coastal town, the parents sit with a young parish priest out of his depth trying to ease their anguish. The father stammers a few words: “Just need some answers, don’t we? We need some help. You have a line to the Big Man, why don’t you ask him? We’re drowning down here.”
Well, if there’s anyone with a line to the Big Man, isn’t it the Vicar of Christ on Earth? Who else might have the Red Phone on his desk? “Jesus will console and Mary will bring you peace” just doesn’t cut it. If that’s the best the Pope can do, he simply demonstrates, once again, that Mencken was right.
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in August 2016.