Suffering is an extremely difficult concept. From the dictionary, I get a couple definitions – distress; agony; a state of acute pain. One source even called suffering and pain virtual equals. In the last piece, I described suffering as the assumption of pain. That was nice to distinguish it from sacrifice, which is why I said that, but it’s not fully correct. Here, I want to focus on a different definition; suffering as misery resulting from affliction.
That definition is much closer to the Catholic understanding, very different from the secular one. Some people consider the difference very stark. One such writer is Nicholas C. Lund-Molfese, M. A., J. D., involved with higher education ministry for the Archdiocese of Chicago. Nick was involved with the transition after Father Mike’s resignation. He is not a good man. Also, I am extremely unhappy with his leadership. Fortunately, that doesn’t cloud my mind and prevent my learning from his scholarship. You can find some of his writings
on this site. In
“Salvifici Doloris: A Challenge to Catholic Social Scientists”, the following excerpt appears. It’s a strong but not unusual viewpoint of what folks call the culture of death.
According to our culture, suffering is first of all meaningless and second of all perceived as the greatest evil. It is meaningless in that, in a world without God, human suffering is not ultimately explicable. Suffering becomes the greatest possible evil to be avoided at any cost and by any method: be it abortion, euthanasia, or infanticide. There has even developed substantial popular approval for abortion, and to a lesser extent infanticide, as morally praiseworthy choices. Such killing is perceived as necessary to end present suffering or to prevent future suffering. Thus, killing a disabled child before birth becomes a “compassionate” choice or “the best choice in a difficult situation.” Mark Barton of Atlanta, before killing his wife, two children and ultimately himself, left a note for police explaining his actions: “I killed the children to exchange for them five minutes of pain for a lifetime of pain. I forced myself to do it to keep them from suffering so much later.”
The title of that paper refers to a 1984 letter from the Pope on the understanding of human suffering, available in full. There are a lot of letters and promulgations from the Vatican, and I’m glad Nick pointed this one out. I’ve spent the last week reading the letter, and I want to look at a few things. But before moving to the Pope’s paper, what about Nick’s claims?
A few of his claims ring true, but most are false. He is right about the difficulty of explaining suffering without God, which I’ll come back to later. Furthermore, majority support does exist for abortion. Many of those people, a decent percentage if no majority, label abortion a moral choice. On the other hand, infanticide and selective abortion do not have popular support. Elsewhere, Mr. Lund-Molfese tries to correlate low sentences for new mothers that kill babies with public support for the practice. If he were to listen – to commentary and outcry – he would realize the opposite. People feel the internal penalty of having killed one’s child is so great that only a small additional penalty is necessary. There’s plenty of outrage. Calling Mark Barton, someone who committed suicide, a normative example is a great stretch. And as for abortion, I rarely hear abortion defended as a release of suffering, or even a release of pain. The most common defense is power over the female body, freedom to do what one wants. Tangentially, there’s avoidance of pain, because bearing and raising a child takes time and effort. At least from what I hear, the pain is secondary to the control and liberty. The claim, like many others, is not correct. Putting two facts together and divining causation doesn’t work.
Enough digression; I return to the main topic, suffering. The Pope’s paper covers a lot of ground, more than I could justly place in one musing. I’d need a whole page, and probably a month of nightly journaling, which I don’t want to spend. Maybe I could give a lecture or something. Here, I want to focus on the basic definition, what Nick rightly says a world without God lacks, full understanding of suffering.
Suffering is humankind’s response to evil. Man suffers when he experiences evil. Section 7 of Salvifica Doloris points out that linguistically, the Old Testament Hebrew doesn’t have a root to distinguish between evil and suffering. Greek, and the New Testament, separated the two words. The concepts, though, haven’t separated much. Evil, in its many forms, causes misery. Sometimes we bring this misery upon ourselves, because of our own ungood acts. Not all suffering is a consequence of our fault, or any fault, though; the Christian sense (and section 10) does not label all suffering punishment.
There’s an tricky point about death. Watching people contract cancer, or stroke out, or attending funerals causes sadness. I wrote about that earlier on this page. When I die, whether today, tomorrow, or in the future, I expect pain as well. Any honest definition of suffering must account for death. A world without another, without God, must consider death immensely great pain. And it does. Even us Christians, who claim to believe, have some trepidation over the process. After all, our belief is less provable than the solution to linear regression. Plus, the physical pain, trouble of change, and struggle with loss lead to suffering. But can we call death evil? I have to duck, focus the evil on the process, and hope for the Rapture. But that’s not fulfilling. So I’ll duck, admit the problem for now, and head back to the letter.
The Pope focuses on atonement theology, that Jesus suffered redemptively. “Each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ,” he writes in section 19. The Bishop of Rome points out that Jesus calls us to suffer with him. In Luke 21 it is said “you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. … You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” Christians shouldn’t be afraid to proclaim the Gospel, and take whatever problems may arise. I fully assent here; I’m often annoyed because my Church does not proclaim enough. What scares me is that the Pope’s view of atonement goes farther, much farther than suffering for Christ. Suffering is talked about as glorious, as necessary, as completing the messianic suffering of Christ. I’m not sure about needing to finish anything; maybe remembering or upholding would be better. The most pernicious quote lies in section 24:
“Suffering has a special value in the eyes of the church. It is something good, before which the Church bows down in reverence with all the depth of her faith in the Redemption.”
How can suffering be good? Suffering is the experience of evil. Suffering is caused by evil. We can talk about the redemptive value. It’s not useless – we remember Christ’s choice, we understand our limitation and fallibility. The world doesn’t see these values, that meaning. Suffering is not useless; that I understand, and that every human needs to understand. But our promise, our Revelation, is of a world where every tear will be washed away. Our future is without evil and pain, without suffering. Calling our temporary situation good confuses the terms, and that’s an error.
The other problem with atonement is that it neglects our responsibility to oppose evil. While reading, I wrote “But why don’t we have more?” There are movements, like those talked on this page, who decided that the proper course was to create pain for themselves. Others might cite the positivism, the “goodness”, to let pain and evil continue. This makes no sense, and the letter rightly states so: “Christ’s revelation of the salvific meaning of suffering is in no way identified with an attitude of passivity.” Unfortunately, this appears in section 30, long after several pages on atonement and glory. That’s too late, and too dangerous, and I’m worried about that. Do my worries override the helpful parts of the letter? Well, no. I’m glad I read and studied it. Suffering’s not the greatest possible evil, and it has value, but that still doesn’t mean I should mortify myself or create it.