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.

The Bible sometimes describes suffering as a punishment for the evil we do, but that punishment, the Pope suggests, is also linked to good. The punishment "creates the possibility of rebuilding goodness" in the person who suffers. This, John Paul underlines, "is an extremely important aspect of suffering." Suffering opens up possibilities for the breakthrough of good, for "conversion," for our becoming the kind of people who can enjoy beatitude with God, because we "recognize the divine mercy in this call to repentance."

Still, the Pope suggests, the mystery of suffering is not ultimately susceptible to rational explanation. However elegantly constructed, our explanations leave us dissatisfied. Something seems missing. That missing something, the Pope suggests, is in fact someone: Jesus Christ.

God's love, which was so great that it burst the boundaries of God's inner life and poured itself forth in creation, is "the ultimate source of the meaning of everything that exists," including, of course, the meaning of suffering. Learning that "love is...the fullest source of the answer to the question of the meaning of suffering" requires not a rational argument, but a demonstration. That is what God has "given...in the cross of Jesus Christ."

Finding the meaning of suffering requires not a rational argument, but a demonstration.

The entire life of Christ points inexorably toward the cross. Jesus' human life is a growth into the world of suffering to which he responds by his healings. Those healings, both physical and psychological, are signs that the Kingdom of God, a world beyond suffering, is breaking into this world. Yet even as he heals the suffering, Christ suffers. He experiences exhaustion, homelessness, the misunderstanding of those closest to him. When Peter rebukes Jesus for saying that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer, Jesus turns on the fisherman and calls him "Satan" (Matthew 16.23). Slowly, relentlessly, the net of hostility closes around Jesus, and the crux of the matter is at hand: the moment in which to link suffering to love in the passion of the cross.

Christ's was an "incomparable depth and intensity of suffering." Christ suffers as a man, but "insofar as the man who suffers is in person the only begotten Son himself," John Paul writes, Christ's suffering has a cosmic and divine density that is "capable of embracing the measure of evil" contained in the whole of human history. As the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar puts it in almost frightening language, we cannot imagine what agonies that entailed. What it would mean to "bear the burden of the world's guilt, to experience in oneself the inner perversion of a humankind that refuses any sort of service, any sort of respect, to God" is beyond our comprehension. We cannot imagine the suffering involved when the Son takes on himself all that the Father finds abominable. Yet that is what Christ suffers on the cross.

In Christ on the cross, we meet the triune God's "eternal...plan...to clear out all the refuse of the world's sin by burning it in the fire of suffering love." Christ's passion is the embodiment in history of "the fire that has burned eternally in God as [a] blazing passion," the passion of resolute and radical love. God burns for the world to enter into this divine passion. For that to happen, the burning love of God in himself must reach out to the world and redeem it by consuming everything in the world that is incapable of love, including evil and suffering.

Slowly, relentlessly, the net of hostility closes around Jesus, and the crux of the matter is at hand: the moment in which to link suffering to love in the passion of the cross.

That is what happens on the cross when, in obedience to the Father and in the most profound act of self-giving love, the Son takes all the world's evil upon himself, including the evil of death. On the cross, Balthasar writes, two eternal realities meet: "God's fury, which will make no compromises with sin but can only reject it and burn it to ashes, and God's love, which begins to reveal itself precisely at the place of this inexorable confrontation." The cross is not the end of the story. On the cross, evil and death are overcome through redemptive suffering. Christ conquers suffering by his "obedience unto death," which the Father vindicates in the resurrection.

In the mystery of God's love, burning its way through the world and through history, the moment of catastrophe is, in truth, the moment of liberation.

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