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June 26 - July 9, 2016

Why does God allow violence to exist in the world? Christians are obliged morally to combat injustice wherever it is and to work tirelessly for the salvation of souls

The mass shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on June 12 shocked and grieved many Americans. Coupled with the high number of shootings in the city of Chicago this year, Catholics are asking, why does God allow such violence to occur? What does it mean?

To shed some light on this difficult issue, editor Joyce Duriga spoke with moral theologian Melanie Barrett. Barrett chairs the Department of Moral Theology at the University of St. Mary of Lake/Mundelein Seminary and is the author of “Love’s Beauty at the Heart of the Christian Moral Life: The Ethics of Catholic Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.”

Catholic New World: Gun violence has been at the forefront of the minds of Catholics in Chicago with the rise in violence this year and with the massacre in Orlando. Why does God permit violence in the world? How does our faith help us understand violence? How is violence related to the presence of evil in the world?

Melanie Barrett: Why God permits evil in the world is a mystery. But we can speculate that it has to do with the meaning of love.

God’s very nature is love. He is a communion of persons eternally united in love. Because we human beings are made in the image of God, we too are called to love, not minimally but maximally: to love God with the entirety of our heart, soul, mind and strength; to love our neighbors as ourselves; and to love even our enemies (rather than taking revenge upon them).

Indeed, love is the human vocation. As the Second Vatican Council proclaimed, “Man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes 24).

But in order to be capable of love, we must be free. Love can never be demanded or coerced; it can only be given freely. Otherwise, it is not truly love.

Animals perform many good acts — like protecting and nurturing their offspring, even at great risk to themselves — but they do so out of instinct, not love. By contrast, when human beings lay down their lives for the sake of the others — as did the Christian martyrs, in imitation of Jesus — they do so freely, and out of genuine love.

By endowing us with freedom, God makes it possible for us to love. But he also risks that we might refuse to love. And this dichotomy gives rise to the drama of salvation: either we say “yes” to God, through faith expressing itself in love; or we say “no” to God, by opting for selfishness, hatred and malevolent destruction.

We see the “yes” in a world in which the sacrificial love of saints like Maximilian Kolbe shines forth amid the carnage of the Nazi death camps and where Christian martyrs in the Middle East testify to the faith while being raped, tortured and brutally murdered by ISIS.

Although God permits the weeds and the wheat to grow together — because uprooting all of the bad weeds would destroy much of the good wheat as well — at the time of the harvest, the weeds will be permanently destroyed and the wheat will be gathered carefully under God’s protection (Mt 14:24-30). But this will take place on God’s timetable, not ours.

In the meantime, we Christians are obliged morally to combat injustice — wherever we find it — and to work tirelessly for the salvation of souls. We cannot build the kingdom of God on earth perfectly, but we can further God’s reign by preventing the weeds from completely taking over.

CNW: What should we learn from violence in the world? Is God sending us a message when these things happen?

Barrett: I don’t believe that God is “sending us a message” when unspeakable acts of violence occur. But such incidents do challenge us to respond morally with compassion for the victims and their families; with a thirst for justice, to remedy any wrongs that have been committed; and eventually, in the long run, by forgiving perpetrators: for “they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34), and “if [we] do not forgive others, neither will [the] Father forgive [our] transgressions” (Mt 6:15).

CNW: Violence results in suffering. How can we view suffering through the lens of our faith?

Barrett: By creating a world in which freedom exists, God permits evil — and suffering — to exist as well. However, by means of God’s providence, and with the help of his grace, we can grow spiritually through suffering. Because Christ redeemed us by voluntarily suffering on our behalf, “human suffering itself has been redeemed,” so our own suffering can share in Christ’s redemptive suffering (St. John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris 19).

We also can become more virtuous by developing courage, perseverance, patience and compassion. By turning to God in our distress, we can deepen our faith and hope as well.

As St. Paul taught, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Rom 5:3-5).

Above all, suffering can provide the occasion for us to grow in love: either by allowing others to care for us in our time of need or by actively caring for others who are enduring hardships.

CNW: How does our faith call us to respond to violent acts like the massacre in Orlando?

Barrett: At the core of Catholic social teaching lies the principle of human dignity. All human beings possess dignity — intrinsic value — because all were created in God’s own image and likeness, and Christ died for all of us even while we were still sinners.

As bearers of dignity, human beings are entitled to receive all of the things necessary for their integral development — most notably, life, truth, formation, work, family and religious freedom — and society is morally obliged to ensure them. Among them, the right to life is foundational because if you’re dead (because someone has killed you), then you can’t exercise any of your other rights.

Although the church does permit killing in self-defense (in very limited circumstances), direct attacks against innocent life — such as abortion, murder and euthanasia — are never permitted. Such acts are categorized as “intrinsically evil” because they are always wrong, in every circumstance. By intentionally depriving someone of life, you are destroying not only their body but also their soul’s ability to choose the good — to perform daily acts of love toward their family members, friends, neighbors and God — so as to grow in holiness.

In our contemporary culture, however, human life increasingly is viewed not as sacred — as a profound gift from God — but as disposable. The poor, weak, disabled and those at the margins of society who lack the power to speak for themselves are especially vulnerable to being harmed or even killed.

In Chicago, the murder rate is especially high, yet this profound injustice often is ignored — not only by local politicians, but also by committed Christians who ought to be at the forefront in caring for the victims and their families, and working toward prevention.

In the midst of this tragedy, Archbishop Cupich, whose ecclesial mandate is the spiritual care of souls in this diocese, has exhibited a strong pro-life commitment by making this issue a key focus of his pastoral work. He has spoken out publicly against the atrocities in both Chicago and Orlando, and he has been a leading voice among the U.S. bishops in advocating for more efficacious gun control policies.

Lethal weapons in the hands of those who intend to use them to kill innocent human beings — rather than for hunting, sportsmanship or legitimate self-defense — is an ongoing problem in our society, one that desperately needs to be addressed in a sensible yet comprehensive manner.

CNW: What about this issue do you think is not being talked about or is being overlooked in discussions and media coverage?

Barrett: With regard to violence, more attention needs to be given to the root causes of the problem — the various “structures of sin” that make individual sinful acts much more likely to occur. As St. Augustine taught, true peace is not merely the absence of conflict; it is the attainment of justice.

Accordingly, if we want peace, we need to do more than persuade people to lay down their weapons: although this is a good start, and has been helpful in places like St. Columbanus Parish (with their “turn in a gun, no questions asked” event). But insofar as violence is a symptom of other injustices in the community, to substantially reduce violence we also must eliminate those injustices.

In Chicago, gang-related violence thrives in areas 1) of concentrated poverty; 2) with a higher concentration of single-parent families; 3) a lack of affordable housing, 4) impoverished, overcrowded and ineffective public schools; and 5) mass incarceration.

Poor families with only one parent at home must work long hours — often at very low wages — in order to make ends meet; but the time spent at work leaves children unattended when they come home from school, rendering them more vulnerable to being co-opted by gangs, who offer emotional attachment and a sense of belonging.

Ironically, new developments in poor neighborhoods can make matters worse by driving up the cost of housing for everyone, which forces the poor into even poorer neighborhoods with even fewer resources, resulting in a greater concentration of poverty. In addition, people who are incarcerated — rather than rehabilitated — for non-violent crimes (such as the possession of marijuana) often are psychologically traumatized by their prison experience. When subsequently they exit prison with a criminal record, they are blacklisted from getting jobs, so working for the drug trade becomes a highly viable option — especially for those with family members to support. Consequently, the rate of recidivism is very high.

Some of the necessary solutions are political in nature: 1) finding creative ways to help poor neighborhoods develop without sacrificing affordable housing; 2) providing greater funding for schools in poor neighborhoods, or giving parents alternative options by means of vouchers; 3) modifying drug enforcement policies that target poor sellers rather than affluent consumers; and 4) expanding rehabilitation programs for non-violent offenders, in order to protect their future job prospects and decrease their rate of recidivism.

Other solutions are more personal and spiritual in nature. In the Archdiocese of Chicago, a number of programs exist that have been extremely effective, yet receive very little positive media attention, either locally or nationally. The Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, run by Father David Kelly, spiritually guides families to forgive the individuals who murdered their children: thereby preventing retribution and breaking the cycle of violence.

St. Agnes of Bohemia Parish in Little Village also has reaped great success in the area of violence prevention. Through the Imago Dei program, parishioners go into public schools, obtain a list of at-risk youth — those who report only zero to one caring adults in their lives, rather than three or more — and then proceed to mentor those young people directly to prevent them from getting involved in gangs in the first place.

Through the parish programs Madres Por La Paz and Padres Angeles, mothers (and some fathers) who have lost their own children to violence run a bereavement group for new victims of gang violence, to facilitate healing and discourage retribution. They also minister to gang members, imploring them to stop killing by sharing the stories of how they personally were shattered emotionally by their children’s deaths.

Finally, many affluent parishes in the archdiocese have “sharing parishes” in poor neighborhoods to whom they provide not only financial support but also tutoring and mentoring to children in need. Not only does this instill more caring adults in those children’s lives, it also breaks down the psychological barriers between classes and races, so that people from all backgrounds can come together and enrich one another’s lives.