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Divine Providence carries out an Eternal Plan of Wisdom and Love

1986, March 14

General Audience

To the recurring query, and one at times indicative of doubt-whether and how God is present in the world today-the Christian faith replies with luminous and firm certainty: "all that God has created, he watches over and governs by his Providence." In these concise words the First Vatican Council formulated the revealed doctrine on divine Providence. In the Old and New Testaments, we find ample expression of this revelation. According to it, two elements are present in the concept of divine Providence: the element of caring for and at the same time that of authority. These two elements permeate each other. God as Creator has supreme authority (dominium altum) over all creation, as is said by analogy with the sovereign power of earthly princes. All that is created, by the very fact of having been created, belongs to God its Creator, and consequently, depends on him. In a certain sense every being pertains more "to God" than "to itself." It is first "of God" and then "of itself." This is so in a radical and total manner which infinitely surpasses all the analogies of relationship between authority and subjects on earth.

The Creator's authority is expressed as the Father's care. This other analogy contains in a certain sense the heart of the truth about divine Providence. To express the same truth, Sacred Scripture uses the comparison: "The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want" (Ps 23:1). What a stupendous image! The ancient creeds and the Christian tradition of the early centuries expressed the truth about Providence with the term: Omnipotens, corresponding to the Greek Panto-krator. But this concept does not do justice to the depth and beauty of the biblical "shepherd," as revealed truth communicates it to us in such a vivid sense. Divine Providence is an "authority full of solicitude" which carries out an eternal plan of wisdom and love in governing the created world and in particular "the ways of human society" (cf. Second Vatican Council, DH 3). It is a "caring authority," full of power and of goodness at the same time. According to the text of the Book of Wisdom cited by the First Vatican Council, it "reaches from end to end mightily (fortiter) and governs all things well (suaviter)" (Wis 8:1)-that is, it embraces, sustains, cares for and in a certain sense nourishes the whole of creation, according to another biblical comparison.

The Book of Job expresses it thus:

"Behold God is sublime in his power, what teacher is there like him?... He holds in check the waterdrops that filter in rain through his mists, till the skies run with them and the showers rain down on mankind. For by these he nourishes the nations, and gives them food in abundance" (Job 6:22, 27-28, 31).

"With hail, also, the clouds are laden, as they scatter their flashes of light. He it is who changes their rounds, according to his plans, in their task upon the surface of the earth" (Job 37:11-12).

Likewise the Book of Sirach:

"By his command he sends the driving snow and speeds the lightnings of his judgment" (Sir 43:13).

The Psalmist exalted "the power of your wonderful deeds," "the abundant goodness," the "splendor of the glorious majesty" of God, who "is good to all and has compassion over all he has made," and proclaimed: "The eyes of all look hopefully to you and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing" (Ps 145:5, 6, 7, 9, 15-16).

And again:

"You raise grass for the cattle, and the vegetation for men's use, producing bread from the earth, and wine to gladden men's hearts, so that their faces gleam with oil, and bread fortifies the hearts of men" (Ps 104:14-15).

In many passages Sacred Scripture praises divine Providence as the supreme authority over the world. Full of care for all creatures, and especially for human beings, it avails itself of the efficient power of created causes. This manifests the creative wisdom which is supremely far-seeing, by analogy with an essential quality of human prudence. God infinitely transcends all that is created. At the same time, he ensures that the world presents that marvelous order which can be observed both in the macrocosm and in the microcosm. It is precisely Providence as the transcendent Wisdom of the Creator that ensures that the world is not "chaos," but "cosmos."

"You have disposed all things by measure and number and weight" (Wis 11:20).

The Bible's mode of expression refers the government of things directly to God. Nevertheless, the difference between the action of God the Creator as First Cause, and the action of creatures as secondary causes is sufficiently clear. Here we come up against a question which very much occupies the mind of modern man. It concerns the autonomy of the creature, and therefore the role of efficient cause in the world which man thinks to carry out.

According to the Catholic faith, it pertains to the Creator's transcendent wisdom to ensure that God is present in the world as Providence, and at the same time that the created world possesses that "autonomy" of which the Second Vatican Council speaks. On the one hand, God, by maintaining all things in existence, makes them what they are: "For by the very circumstance of their having been created, all things are endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, proper laws and order" (GS 36).

On the other hand, because of the manner in which God rules the world, the latter is in a situation of real autonomy, which "harmonizes with the will of the Creator" (GS 36).

Divine Providence is expressed precisely in such "autonomy of created things," which manifests both the power and the "gentleness" proper to God. That autonomy confirms that as a transcendent and mysterious wisdom, the Creator's Providence comprises everything ("it reaches from end to end"). It is realized in everything with its creative power and its regulating strength (fortiter). But it leaves intact the role of creatures as secondary causes, immanent, in the dynamism of the formation and development of the world, as in that suaviter the Book of Wisdom indicates.

In what regards the immanent formation of the world, man possesses a very special place. He has this from the very beginning and constitutively, inasmuch as he is created in the image and likeness of God. According to the Book of Genesis, he is created to "have dominion," to "subdue the earth" (cf. Gen 1:28). By participating, as a rational and free subject, but always as a creature, in the Creator's dominion over the world, man becomes in a certain sense "providence" for himself, according to the beautiful expression of St. Thomas (cf. Summa Theol., I, 22, 2 ad 4). For the same reason, however, there falls on him from the beginning a particular responsibility both before God and creatures, and especially before other people.

The New Testament confirms and enriches these notions about divine Providence which are offered to us by the biblical tradition of the Old Testament. Of all Jesus' words on this theme, those recorded by the evangelists Matthew and Luke are particularly touching: "Therefore do not be anxious saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well" (Mt 6:31-33; cf. also Lk 12:29-31).

"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father's will. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows" (Mt 10:29-31; cf. also Lk 21:18).

"Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?... And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?" (Mt 6:26-30; cf. Lk 12:24-28).

With these words the Lord Jesus not only confirmed the teaching on divine Providence contained in the Old Testament. He entered more deeply into the subject as regards humanity, every single person, treated by God with the exquisite delicacy of a father.

Without doubt the verses of the Psalms which exalted the Most High as the refuge, protection and strength of man were magnificent. For example, Psalm 91 states: "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, who abides in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, 'My refuge and my fortress; my God in whom I trust'...because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your habitation...because he cleaves to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. When he calls me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble" (Ps 91:1-2, 9, 14-15).

These are beautiful expressions; but Christ's words reach still greater fullness of meaning. They are said by the Son who, "scrutinizing" all that has been said on the subject of Providence, bears perfect witness to the mystery of his Father, a mystery of Providence and of paternal care which embraces every creature, even the most insignificant, like the grass of the field or the sparrows. How much more, therefore, human beings! Christ especially wishes to emphasize this. If divine Providence is so generous in regard to creatures inferior to man, how much more will it have care for him! In this page of the Gospel on Providence we find the truth about the hierarchy of values which is present from the beginning of the Book of Genesis, in the description of creation-man has primacy over things. He has that primacy in his nature and in his spirit, he has it in the attention and care of Providence, he has it in the heart of God!

Moreover, Jesus insistently proclaimed that man, so privileged by his Creator, is duty-bound to cooperate with the gift received from Providence. He cannot be satisfied with the mere values of sense, of matter and of utility. He must seek above all "the kingdom of God and his righteousness" because "all these things (namely, earthly goods) shall be yours as well" (cf. Mt 6:33).

Christ's words direct our attention to this particular dimension of Providence, at the center of which is man, a rational and free being. We shall return to this subject in the following reflections.