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Science and Faith in the Coronavirus Epoch

 Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti
Full Professor of Fundamental Theology, Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome

March 2020

originally published on

translated from Italian into English by Geoffrey Woollard

We are living in an unprecedented time. For nearly all of us, we could compare things to the last world war, with its global reach and extent of the measures taken, as we heard from our grandparents, or in my case from my parents. The whole world is involved. But so is the whole man, the whole person: scientific research, emotions, feelings, relationships, personal beliefs.

In other words, we ask ourselves scientific questions, but also existential questions, which challenge the faith of those who believe that history and the world are ruled by a creator God. There is a specific way, it seems to me, in which science and faith are coming into relationship today, in the Coronavirus epoch. I notice this from the questions that many have asked me these days. But there are also opportunities, which emerge in these circumstances and would not have emerged at different times.

Each of us has already received and continuously receives, through his social network, comments, advice, recommendations, and encouragement. Various analyzes have been made, some prophetic because proposed in the past, such as those of Bill Gates; others projecting what our future will be like on an economic, psychological, and social level. And there are the daily statistics, which are not projections but real facts of people who are working, struggling, and in many cases, unfortunately, even dying. In line with the themes we usually deal with on this web page, I just want to engage two questions, which have been addressed to me in recent days. Why does God allow all this? (Someone, even more directly, asked me why God created the Coronavirus). And, again, what is the meaning of praying to God to overcome this disease? From the TV studio of a national broadcaster, an impertinent mathematician qualified prayer as superstitious, and defined our country of Italy as medieval (sic!), where people gather to pray, declaring that the solution to the problem is with science. And here the dialectical opposition between the two, science and faith, is reaffirmed.

Coronavirus, like past epidemics, earthquakes or tsunamis, raises the question of the meaning of physical evil: that which is not caused by the malice of the wicked, but by the processes of nature, of which we are part. Since there is no enemy to disarm, it is God who soon ends up on the defendant's bench. The answers that believers and Christian tradition have provided throughout history have been different, according to the historical periods and the culture to which they were directed. In the past, these kinds of events were considered a sort of divine punishment, a solution from which Jesus of Nazareth distances himself (cf. Lk 13:1-5).

Others re-propose the reflections of Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas: God is not the cause of evil, but allows it in order to derive a greater good from it. It is a more reasonable solution, which however leaves more than one of us unsatisfied, especially if one thinks of the price that the highest good comes to cost. Others observe that the scandal of evil can only be noticed by those who have expectations of good, those who expect a world where justice and peace triumph, and therefore they implicitly affirm hope in the existence of a God who is expected to restore all this. For the materialist and the atheist, however, there should be no expectation, no court for God; there would be no harm to heal, but there would be merely unfortunate events.

Augustine and Thomas are not mistaken when they say that, hidden behind evil, there can be a “greater” good; but the solution cannot be in applying quantitative and proportional criteria. Rather, we must understand Providence as the only complete gaze on the world, realize it is the gaze of the Creator of all things, the only one who can truly know what is good and what is evil: that which leads everything towards the goal of salvation and that which, instead, hinders its achievement.

It is not a question of accepting a certain amount of evil in order to acquire a greater quantity of good, but accepting to go through what we, with our limited gaze of creatures, call evil, but which in the eyes of the Creator is recognized as good. Good, because it makes progress along a path of salvation, which only he knows.

It should not be forgotten that sacred Scripture does not offer metaphysical answers to the problem of evil, but only existential ones. God the creator asks Job, overwhelmed by evils, to look at nature surrounding him, the starry sky and all creatures, and be convinced that there is Providence. If God deals so with smaller creatures, he will also take care of Job, created in his image. God asks Job to recognize him as a creator and, therefore, to trust him. The answer is existential, not philosophical or mathematical, that comes through the cross of Jesus of Nazareth. God does not avoid evil, does not abrogate it, does not destroy it, but passes through it, carries it on his shoulders. He tells humans that he is carrying the cross with us, he tells us that he will not abandon us, no matter what happens. Jesus asks us to trust him. As he trusts the Father, even in apparent abandonment.

It would have been easy for Jesus to get off the cross and perform one more miracle. But then we would have remained alone, with pain and death. By remaining on the cross, Jesus explains nothing, but accompanies us, suffers with us, wrests an act of trust from us. Only by going through evil can evil be transformed into good. Evil is not a price to pay. Instead, what we call evil can, in the eyes of God, be a path that leads to good; through uniting our suffering with Christ, we can transform evil into good.

Prayer is part of all this, because it is the manifestation that we recognize ourselves as a creature in front of a Creator from whom we have received life, the air we breathe, the earth on which we live, and who we recognize possessing that look on the whole that we, from our limited condition, do not possess. In order to know what superstition is, we would need to know first what a religion is, because superstition represents a deviation and a corruption of true religion. Prayer, if sincere, is never superstitious; it is a confession of the creaturely bond that binds us to God. This bond establishes us, but many, mistakenly, would like to cut it, thus considering themselves more free. In reality, the creature without the Creator disappears.

Science will undoubtedly offer us the tools to get out of the painful health emergency in which we find ourselves. We will have to take steps forward in medical and biological research that will allow us, sooner or later, to get out of it. But vaccines are not enough. It is the altruism of healthcare workers, the sacrifice of those who assist the sick, those who deal with logistics, those who know how to serve others at the cost of their lives, it is this, in Italy and all over the world, that will counteract the pandemic.

I doubt that all these attitudes would be possible in a human society that no longer knows how to pray. On the contrary, they arise from the solidarity and love of those who recognize a brother in other people. This is already prayer. I doubt that without a Christian tradition that first taught us to take care of the human person, giving rise to hospitals, whether built in China or Calcutta, in the 4th or 21st century, a society could emerge from a pandemic. I doubt that, without the hope of accomplishing, in front of one's conscience or in front of God, a good that transcends us, we can sustain for a long time, the motivation of those who work in hospitals.

At the risk of sounding rhetorical, but a risk I decide to run, I also quote the verses of the American teacher Kitty O’Meara, which in a few hours went around the web, written a few days after the pandemic we are experiencing spread. They contain a wish that I extend to everyone. And they interpret, I am sure, the feelings of many of us. They tell us about those hidden opportunities and how they can help us turn evil into good, healing everyone.

And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.

And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.