The National Catholic Review
Out of Bounds

Professor Daryl Domning’s boldness in tackling the very confusing matter of evil in the world deserves respect (“Evolution, Evil and Original Sin,” 11/12/01). But some of his conclusions leap out of bounds. They go beyond the limits of his working method, a scientific one. Underlying the article appears to be a presumption that a blanket of science is laid over all of reality, and universal conclusions are drawn out from under it. But that presumption is mistaken.

Science, by its nature, observes and manipulates physical data. It protects its conclusions with the charge, “Where’s the evidence?” That sounds prudent and wise. But it is an abridged question. The question really being asked is, “Where’s the physical evidence?” To be honest, science needs to acknowledge the limits it places on itself by requiring measurable, physical evidence for every aspect of reality.

Evil, sin and subsequent suffering are experiences of the spirit. They are grasped intellectually as moral—i.e., nonphysical entities. Spirit is an area of reality from which science as a method excludes itself by presumptively implying its nonexistence. Nevertheless, thinkers like Professor Domning attempt to judge the intangible and immeasurable realm of spirit by the laws observed in the physical world. That is like trying to understand the relationship between human persons by observing the interaction between monkeys or cats or rats: you can do it if you wish, but you sure miss a lot!

James Crafton

Dayton, Ohio

Human Pain

I’m writing to thank you for the article “Evolution, Evil and Original Sin,” by Daryl P. Domning (11/12/01). As a physician for many years, and a deacon for almost six months, I have struggled to explain to my patients, and now to my congregation, a rationale for evil, sin, disease and the process of aging that can be of some help to them. Most of the time I have been forced to admit that I have no idea why this or that particular illness or tragedy happened. Now I have an explanation that fits with current scientific knowledge and still includes a loving, caring God.

The author doesn’t say much about suffering, but what he does say seems to be not clearly differentiated from the symptom of pain. My understanding of suffering is different from Professor Domning’s. Most animals can feel pain (certainly primates and higher vertebrates can) but suffering is reserved for us humans. It has to do with our unique ability to imagine a future. When that future appears to have only negative aspects, like endless pain, loss of physical abilities and eventual death, suffering then is occurring. To the degree that we choose to imagine a future with hope, we can ameliorate our suffering.

I think it is a hopeful sign that some of the time, at least, we humans oppose our genetic drivenness and choose to do the selfless thing, just because it is right.

(Deacon) James J. Benjamin, M.D.

Severna Park, Md.

Reality Faith

How could America approve and print such a misguided article as “Evolution, Evil and Original Sin,” by Daryl P. Domning (11/12/01)? I was dumbfounded that such an article would ever see the light of day in America, as was Robert F. Patterson and another critic of the article, Andrew Szebenyi, S.J. (12/10/01).

Possibly, in response, America could provide another article on the subject, avoiding the distortions presented by Mr. Domning. As Father Szebenyi noted in his letter, the pieces of his puzzle did not fit reality in light of our faith.

John F. 0 ‘Connor

Winchester, Mass.

Fragmentation

Patrick A. Ryan, S.J., has made some important points in his essay, especially in his emphasis on the internal reasons for Muslim anger (11/26/01).

He might also have pointed out that the early wars in Arabia were not religious. Mohammed enlisted Christian allies (Origins of Dhimmi). Further, the defeat of Heraclius was critical to the loss of Syria and Egypt. Most scholars reject the idea that local Christians welcomed the invaders. Further, the locals accepted Islam in large numbers very slowly, and then chiefly as a result of sporadic persecutions. On the crusades, the rapid progress of research argues for caution in the kind of statement Father Ryan makes, which largely feeds into Muslim frustration. But I don’t want to argue a very difficult case further in this space. Finally, Christianity in the West had to confront the fragmentation of political organizations. Although the idea of religion as a unifier surfaced again and again, the church had to learn to deal with this untidy world. It is still learning, but it is more pragmatic. Islam has found it much more difficult to confront the huge ethnic diversity that separates its world. Islam has been slower to accept the need to adapt. Many Muslims try to externalize these problems, blaming the West. Unfortunately, the failure of the Western powers to work harder for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has brought us to where we are on that issue.

James M. Powell

Syracuse, N.Y.

World’s Pain

The Rev. Donald Heet’s article “Preaching From the Sacred Text” (11/26/01) raises an important question about one aspect of the pastoral-liturgical response to the events of Sept. 11: “Why did they not address their people’s pain?” As the editor of the Canadian liturgy magazine Celebrate!, I heard similar anecdotes from readers—both in Canada and the United States—who were utterly dumbfounded at either the callousness of some homilies or the silence of the homilists. Father Heet says, “The problem may be traced to, of all places, the Second Vatican Council and its ‘Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy’...[which] most Catholic preachers interpret...to mean that preaching is to be ‘on the Scriptures.”’ Father Heet points out that the American bishops’ document Fulfilled in Your Hearing builds on the constitution to describe the homily as “about human existence as interpreted in light of the Scripture readings of the day.” It became painfully clear from what I heard that some preachers simply were not equipped to undertake this task of making meaning out of the horrific events that we had just experienced.

“Why did they not address their people’s pain?” I wonder if this question doesn’t need to be posed more broadly and be asked about every Sunday homily, not just those of Sept. 16. The pain of Sept. 11 is so overwhelming that ignoring it becomes scandalous. But perhaps the simple answer to Father Heet’s question is that too many homilists regularly sidestep their people’s pain as well as their joy. Without the weekly or daily habitus that schools preachers to enter deeply into these experiences through the process of making meaning, tackling an event like Sept. 11 would be like trying to run a marathon with no training.

Just as astonishing were the reports I heard that in many parishes no mention was made of the terrorist attacks in the prayers of the faithful. They did not pray for the dead, the survivors, the rescue workers or the politicians who were charged with responding to these events. The events were simply passed over in silence. Here again, Father Heet’s question is pertinent: “Why did they not address their people’s pain?”

The scandal of this silence impels us to move beyond the rubricism that dominates so many liturgical discussions these days to reinvest our energy in pondering the dynamics of the paschal mystery, which is at the heart of human life and which we celebrate at every liturgy. “Correct” liturgy is insufficient. Remembering the God who poured out the divine self in Jesus, remembering the Christ who embraced human brokenness, suffering and death, remembering the Risen One who breathes the Spirit of peace and reconciliation on the universe, binds us to the suffering, broken, groaning world where God’s Spirit still works. Bound together by this Spirit, and formed for our living by celebrating this mystery, our eyes and hearts learn to discern God’s presence in all manner of events and to perceive the world’s deepest needs. Then we must help one another find words that bear the weight of this discovery, words for pain and joy, and most importantly, words for hope. It is a fearsome challenge, not just for every homiletics teacher, but for all who preach and give voice to the world’s needs when the community celebrates.

Bernadette Gasslein

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Some Good Points

Permit a criticism. The last few words in your editorial “War in Afghanistan” (10/29) came close to mentioning the key word in the terrorism question: why do people hate us?

You made some good points, especially on the matter of just war, that contradiction in terms, but “why?” should be one of the most important questions we ask. The mainstream press has avoided that question.

It isn’t as if we need much brainstorming on this question, or to call a seminar or dig into our archives. Right off the top of my head I can think of our action on land mines, which are still killing people. We ship armaments—small arms and weapons of mass destruction—to some 90 countries, rogue or otherwise. The United States shows disdain for the United Nations and has refused to sign treaties designed for the common good of the world community. The air raids on Afghanistan mark the 23rd instance of U.S. bombing, in 19 different countries, since the end of World War II. We send billions of dollars to such regimes as Turkey, Egypt, Israel and Colombia. We have a defense budget that is obscene in a world where 40,000 people die every day from malnutrition and other diseases. We help dictatorships in Central American countries conduct near-genocidal campaigns against their own people.

Why go on? Our moral leaders know all about these matters, and it is unlikely that these things will be discussed in either the press or at church. But we are in it for the long haul, right? Maybe it will come up sometime.

Tom Brubeck

Silver Spring, Md.

Comments

Peter Barbernitz | 1/15/2002 - 11:24am
I would like to participate in the discussion regarding the preaching in our parishes after the events of September 11th.

I was not scheduled to preach on the Sunday immediately following the tragedy. I did preach on the Sunday following that - with readings that were sharply focused on social justice. The prophet's call to us to stop exploiting the poor led me to explore in my homily how unfettered capitalism wreaks havoc in 'third world' countries. I lightly connected the anger of much of the world at American arrogance and obliviousness to September 11th. I challenged my congregation to re-think their assumptions about the way our world economy works without haranguing them. Many parishioners welcomed what I said and some hated it. Those who hated it told me that they had come to church that morning seeking words of comfort for their pain and found instead my personal political agenda. I struggled to listen to them without being defensive.

In hindsight my parish did not respond well to the tragedy in those early weeks. No parishioner of ours was killed at the Pentagon though dozens work there and lost acquaintances. Some parishioners clearly were grieving more deeply than we realized. We should have done more in those first weeks to comfort them. Why couldn't we?

One reason was the overwhelming media coverage - it went on 24 hours a day, day after day. The same video and commentary footage was relentlessly repeated. A bit of 'new news' grafted onto what was already known passed for a major story. I know that I got to a point where I could not stand to hear about it, watch it, or read about it any more. The last thing I wanted to do was to reflect on its meaning and preach about it. I should have been able to push through this exhaustion with the topic but I couldn't.

A second and more difficult reason - whose pain are we talking about? The monolithic and transparent parish of old bears no resemblance to St. Camillus in Silver Spring. Our diversity in race, income, language, and age means that any assumptions about what our parishioners are feeling are going to miss the mark for many or most. One quick example: some of our parishioners are low-income men and women who are in this country without documentation. Their jobs in hotels and restaurants were tenuous before September 11th and they disappeared almost overnight. They are in a great deal of pain - they cannot use the immigration system to become legal as they used to be able to do (with difficulty) and they are out of work besides. Their pain is very different, however, from the pain of white, middle class persons like me whose stable and comfortable world has been shattered. Whose pain do I address when I look out a sea of very different faces ready to give an 8-minute homily? I should have found a way to address it all, but I couldn't. A third reason we hesitated and failed, I think, was based on a reluctance to offer superficial comfort. It is better to simply say, "I am very sorry about your loss" and to stop than it is to continue and deliver platitudes. We should be capable of deeper words of comfort but I found them hard to find in those days.

Finally, our training is at least partially responsible for our good and bad performance. It is so ingrained in me to preach from the text and only from the text that I rarely even consider the possibility of doing something else! I think that this very fundamental insistence rooted in our homiletics training is responsible for helping to gradually raise the quality of preaching in our Catholic parishes but it comes at the cost of reducing our ease with responding to external events and other situations. I hate preaching on Mother's Day, Fourth of July, and similar days because of the normal incongruity between the readings and the 'theme'. I should have broken free and reacted but I couldn't.

Should've, would've, could've . . .. I'm trying to learn from my

Peter Barbernitz | 1/15/2002 - 11:24am
I would like to participate in the discussion regarding the preaching in our parishes after the events of September 11th.

I was not scheduled to preach on the Sunday immediately following the tragedy. I did preach on the Sunday following that - with readings that were sharply focused on social justice. The prophet's call to us to stop exploiting the poor led me to explore in my homily how unfettered capitalism wreaks havoc in 'third world' countries. I lightly connected the anger of much of the world at American arrogance and obliviousness to September 11th. I challenged my congregation to re-think their assumptions about the way our world economy works without haranguing them. Many parishioners welcomed what I said and some hated it. Those who hated it told me that they had come to church that morning seeking words of comfort for their pain and found instead my personal political agenda. I struggled to listen to them without being defensive.

In hindsight my parish did not respond well to the tragedy in those early weeks. No parishioner of ours was killed at the Pentagon though dozens work there and lost acquaintances. Some parishioners clearly were grieving more deeply than we realized. We should have done more in those first weeks to comfort them. Why couldn't we?

One reason was the overwhelming media coverage - it went on 24 hours a day, day after day. The same video and commentary footage was relentlessly repeated. A bit of 'new news' grafted onto what was already known passed for a major story. I know that I got to a point where I could not stand to hear about it, watch it, or read about it any more. The last thing I wanted to do was to reflect on its meaning and preach about it. I should have been able to push through this exhaustion with the topic but I couldn't.

A second and more difficult reason - whose pain are we talking about? The monolithic and transparent parish of old bears no resemblance to St. Camillus in Silver Spring. Our diversity in race, income, language, and age means that any assumptions about what our parishioners are feeling are going to miss the mark for many or most. One quick example: some of our parishioners are low-income men and women who are in this country without documentation. Their jobs in hotels and restaurants were tenuous before September 11th and they disappeared almost overnight. They are in a great deal of pain - they cannot use the immigration system to become legal as they used to be able to do (with difficulty) and they are out of work besides. Their pain is very different, however, from the pain of white, middle class persons like me whose stable and comfortable world has been shattered. Whose pain do I address when I look out a sea of very different faces ready to give an 8-minute homily? I should have found a way to address it all, but I couldn't. A third reason we hesitated and failed, I think, was based on a reluctance to offer superficial comfort. It is better to simply say, "I am very sorry about your loss" and to stop than it is to continue and deliver platitudes. We should be capable of deeper words of comfort but I found them hard to find in those days.

Finally, our training is at least partially responsible for our good and bad performance. It is so ingrained in me to preach from the text and only from the text that I rarely even consider the possibility of doing something else! I think that this very fundamental insistence rooted in our homiletics training is responsible for helping to gradually raise the quality of preaching in our Catholic parishes but it comes at the cost of reducing our ease with responding to external events and other situations. I hate preaching on Mother's Day, Fourth of July, and similar days because of the normal incongruity between the readings and the 'theme'. I should have broken free and reacted but I couldn't.

Should've, would've, could've . . .. I'm trying to learn from my

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