Are Natural Disasters Really Chastisements?

What does the Church teach?

I have yet to find where the Vatican — i.e., any official Church documents — warns that natural disasters are modern-day chastisements from God. Let’s take a look at what the Catholic Church Magisterium teaches about God’s punishment to see if we can answer the question: Are natural disasters really divine chastisements?

In Pope Benedict’s homily of Sunday, 2 October 2005, he said:

The judgment that Isaiah foresaw is brought about in the great wars and exiles for which the Assyrians and Babylonians were responsible. The judgment announced by the Lord Jesus refers above all to the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70.

Note: These were judgments upon God’s people who broke their Covenant relationship with him and who rejected Jesus as their Messiah. It refers to the Jews of biblical history.

With this Gospel, the Lord is also crying out to our ears the words that in the Book of Revelation he addresses to the Church of Ephesus: “If you do not repent I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (2:5). Light can also be taken away from us and we do well to let this warning ring out with its full seriousness in our hearts…”

This judgment is upon those who profess to believe in Jesus as Savior. We lose the light of Christ when we choose to live in darkness by sinning. Christians who walk in darkness will stumble and fall into the pits (i.e., destruction) they create for themselves. We’re not talking about hurricanes or natural disasters here. Nor are we talking about immoral non-believers whose sins are corrupting our society.

John illustrates for us the final, true outcome of the history of God’s vineyard. God does not fail. In the end he wins, love wins.

Not punishment — love is what wins hearts to Christ and inspires conversion to holy living.

From the Son’s death springs life, a new building is raised, a new vineyard.

This is the New Covenant, the New Testament of God’s relationship with his people. This is the transition. God didn’t change — He wasn’t first a punisher in the Old Testament and then became Mr. Nice Guy in the New Testament. His mercy was always present during the Old Covenant, and his wrath is still present in the books of the New Testament and in our New Testament life today. However, from the beginning, in Genesis, God always intended to change his tactics when dealing with sinners, based on the day when Jesus would take upon himself all the sins of all the world for all time and from every human, nailing them to the cross and letting them die with him.

He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole… (Isaiah. 53:4-6)

So, does the Catholic Church warn that natural disasters are modern-day chastisements from God?

Church authorities do teach us important lessons from the chastisements of Old Testament days. Church writings also mention chastisements in regards to our deaths, “the eternal judgment which no one can escape” for which we who are Christians have “an awareness of the faults committed and the prospect of divine chastisement” while trusting “with faith in the divine mercy and with the certitude of the fatherly concern of God who wills the eternal salvation of each one” (see Pope John Paul the Great’s Sunday 11 June 1989 Angelus message).

The Church also speaks of the discipline of the Lord, when God uses life’s hardships to teach us how to live in greater holiness. John Paul II homilized about this for the Wednesday 25 July 2001 general audience, using text from the Old Testament book of Tobit:

[Tobit] tries to respond to the question which the dispersed and tried People of God [the Old Testament Jews] are raising: why does God treat us like this? The response turns both to divine justice and mercy: “He chastises you for your injustices, but he will show mercy towards all of you” (verse 5). The chastisement appears thus to be a kind of divine pedagogy, in which the last word is reserved to mercy: “He scourges and then shows mercy, casts down to the depths of the nether world, and he brings up from the great abyss” (verse 2)….

Sin is a tragedy not just because it draws God’s punishments upon us, but because it banishes Him from our hearts.

And for his general audience of Wednesday 24 April 2002, he wrote:

As is always the case in the history of salvation, the last word in the contrast between God and his sinful people is never judgment and chastisement, but love and pardon. God does not want to judge and condemn, but to save and deliver humanity from evil.

An interesting observation about our human nature

It seems that we are more interested in seeing sinners get the punishment they deserve than God is! Why is it that we want a hurricane or earthquake to be proof that God is taking action against sinners? Why is it so important to us for a natural disaster to be sent by God? Is it our anger revealing itself, from the hurts we’ve experienced? Is it an indication that we still need more healing — and that we need to forgive someone?

Some Christians point to New Orleans as a den of inquity and claim this is why 2005’s Hurricane Katrina was so destructive. Why do we actually want to think that God withheld his mercy and protection from the good Christians who lived there? He was more merciful than that in the Old Testament when he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah! Remember that he told Abram he would not destroy it if ten good people lived there.

If God uses terrible forces of nature to destroy evil-doers, why were the poor the target of Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Pakistan? It’s no sin to be poor. The poor are often holier than affluent Christians. Jesus never condemned the poor. Why do we condemn them on his behalf by claiming that the devastation was God’s will?

And what are the punishments that Pope John Paul II referred to in this homily on 25 July 2001? He doesn’t spell it out here, but he did go into it more fully on Sept. 29, 1999, when teaching about the value of penances after Confession:

The person must be gradually “healed” of the negative effects which sin has caused in him (what the theological tradition calls the “punishments” and “remains” of sin).

… God’s fatherly love does not rule out punishment, even if the latter must always be understood as part of a merciful justice that re-establishes the violated order for the sake of man’s own good (cf. Heb 12: 4-11).

In this context temporal punishment expresses the condition of suffering of those who, although reconciled with God, are still marked by those “remains” of sin which do not leave them totally open to grace. Precisely for the sake of complete healing, the sinner is called to undertake a journey of conversion towards the fullness of love.

In this process God’s mercy comes to his aid in special ways. The temporal punishment itself serves as “medicine” to the extent that the person allows it to challenge him to undertake his own profound conversion. This is the meaning of the “satisfaction” required in the sacrament of Penance.

Thus we know that temporal punishment (i.e., earthly, rather than eternal punishment after death) is the damage caused by sin. It’s the speeding ticket we have to pay after being stopped for violating a traffic law. God allows us to reap what we’ve sown. It’s the extra flooding after Hurricane Katrina caused by dikes that couldn’t withstand the heavy rainfall because repair money had been spent to build nice bike paths on top of the dikes instead. God allows the whole community to reap what a few civil leaders sowed with their bad decisions, not because the whole community deserves it but because of the natural ripple affect that any sin has, extending out to unseen numbers of people.

Sin and human errors cause temporal punishments, whether we deserve it or not.

We know that people create their own disasters when they make bad decisions and when they sin. God allows people to reap what they sow — it’s a spiritual law — so that they might learn from their sins and repent. This is their personal, self-made chastisements. God prefers them to repent an easier way. God does everything possible to help them repent an easier way. He is merciful.

The Church actively and loudly teaches that we must be good stewards of all of God’s creations. The Church lays the blame for natural disasters on us humans, not on God, when they’re caused by humankind’s greed or laziness or pollution or waste or lack of concern for the poor, etc.

Pope Benedict XVI

If natural disasters are God’s punishment for evil-doers, why would the pope not ask us to pray for their conversion?

On September 25, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI asked for prayers and aid for those affected by U.S. hurricanes and by other natural disasters worldwide.

After reciting the midday Angelus with crowds, he said, “Our thoughts go especially to those who are affected by the natural disasters in the United States and other parts of the world.

“I invite to join in prayers to the Lord for all who suffer, for the victims and their loved ones, and for the rescue workers. May God grant them consolation and strength in their trials.”

In-depth study

Probably the most in-depth study of the true meaning of chastisements is found in Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris:

Within each form of suffering endured by man, and at the same time at the basis of the whole world of suffering, there inevitably arises the question: why? … It is well known that concerning this question there not only arise many frustrations and conflicts in the relations of man with God, but it also happens that people reach the point of actually denying God.

Here’s an easy Web course on this document. It will help you understand natural disasters and other forms of suffering on a deeper, wider level. Please see http://catholicdr.com/e-Classroom/SalvificiDoloris/.

By saying that hurricanes and other natural disasters are a punishment from God, we’re pushing people away from him. Who wants to embrace an angry God? Rather, we’re called to imitate Jesus, who showed everyone what God was like by loving them. He didn’t preach, “Repent, for disaster is near” like the prophets of the Old Testament. Instead, he preached, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you. Go the extra mile for them.”

As 1 Peter 4:8 says, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”

Also see Where Is God When Disaster Hits?

© 2005 by Terry A. Modica


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