Excerpted from "The Truth of Catholicism" with permission of HarperCollins.

Two generations ago, Catholicism had an answer to a very basic human question: What do you tell a youngster facing the terrors of the dentist's chair? The answer was "Offer it up to God, for the souls in purgatory or in reparation for your own sins." That stock answer (which is almost never heard these days) strikes many Catholics today as lying somewhere between quaint and cruel. Perhaps there was something more going on here, though. For that answer attempted to link our suffering here and now to the redemptive suffering of Christ, and to the purification that the grace of Christ can work in our own lives and the lives of our dead friends and relatives. That is no small thing. Besides, as a famous Catholic writer of liberal disposition once said in criticizing the contemporary Catholic loss of a sense of redemptive suffering, "What else are you going to tell the kid as the dentist comes at him with that drill?"

Suffering, in the Catholic view of things, is a mystery. By "mystery," Catholic theology means not a puzzle to be solved as Sherlock Holmes would do, but a reality that can only be grasped and comprehended in an act of love. There is no "answer" to the problem of suffering in the sense that there are answers to questions like "Was Alger Hiss guilty?" or "What is two plus two?" The Church has always believed and taught that there is a different kind of answer to the question "Why do we suffer?" That answer takes us directly into the heart of the Church, which is Jesus Christ.

There is no "answer" to the problem of suffering as there are to questions like "What is two plus two?" There is a different kind of answer.

That Jesus Christ is a suffering redeemer has been a shock and an offense since the first days of Christianity. The challenge of belief in a redeemer whose victorious strength is displayed in his weakness may be greater today than at any other time in the past two thousand years, given our culture's resistance to the idea that suffering is the necessary path to beatitude or human flourishing.

But that is the mystery -- the profoundly human mystery -- of suffering. Dogs and cats and pandas feel pain. Only human beings suffer. That fact should suggest that there is a link between suffering and the essence of our humanity. Pondering that link is an opening into the entire Catholic story about the world and about us. In that story we meet an even more astonishing proposal. God's answer to suffering is not to avoid it, or deny it, or blame it on human folly. God's answer to suffering is to embrace it -- to enter the world in the person of his Son, to redeem suffering through suffering.

Redemptive Suffering

The Bible, Pope John Paul II notes in his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris, is a "great book about suffering." In it we encounter many instances of that "pain of the soul" which is the worst form of human suffering: the death of one's children, the fear of annihilation, barrenness, exile, persecution and mockery, loneliness and betrayal, the prosperity of the wicked amid the misery of the just, unfaithfulness and ingratitude. Suffering, in the biblical world, clearly has to do with evil. We suffer when we experience evil.

God's answer to suffering is to embrace it--to redeem suffering through suffering.


Still, the Christian conviction, drawn from the first chapter of the Hebrew Bible, is that creation is essentially good. Evil is not a coprinciple of creation, as in other ancient religious systems. If the world God created is essentially good and yet there is evil in the world, evil and good must be somehow related. Evil, John Paul writes, "is a certain lack, limitation, or distortion of good." Illness is a deprivation of health; a lie is a distortion of the truth. We suffer, the Pope suggests, because of evil, but that very suffering points us toward a good. Suffering is caught up in the interplay of good and evil in the world. Suffering is enmeshed in the mystery of human freedom.

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