A contemporary Catholic theodicy

Having seen these sorts of arguments in other places, I figure Melanie Barrett’s theology of evil is representative of contemporary Catholic scholarly theodicy. But I find myself taking exception to almost every claim she makes.

Why God permits evil in the world is a mystery… 

Calling something a mystery does not release you from the obligation to explain what you mean and why this is so. I have students who describe things as “mysteries” all the time and mean nothing more than “This hurts to think about! Can we label it a mystery and feel justified in changing the subject?” Let me sharpen the problem of this particular appeal to mystery: what exactly is mysterious about permitting evil? I’ve permitted all sorts of evils and it didn’t seem like a very mysterious process. For that matter, I’ve committed all sorts of evils and it didn’t seem particularly mysterious.

Describing something as a mystery is only appropriate in media res. Either you have a pretty good account of what a mystery is and you want to characterize x as a mystery, or you have a pretty good account of what it is to think about x, and you indicate why exactly it is mysterious. Using the word short of this is disheartening and frustrating.

…But we can speculate that it has to do with the meaning of love. God’s very nature is love. He is a communion of persons eternally united in love.

The contemporary desire to reduce all divine actions to love continues apace. This can make a fine theology but we never seem to be vigilant enough in addressing its obvious danger of devolving into sentimentality. Theology – even purely pastoral theology – should give light and sentimentality is incapable of doing so.

Whereas older trinitarianisms might have been vulnerable to the charge of forgetting the Spirit or reducing him to the Father-Son relation, our contemporary “communion of love” trinitarianism seems in danger of forgetting the Son-Logos and reducing him purely to the Spirit. How much will we end up overlooking if we forget that God is Love in the same way he is Reason/Discourse/Argument and Birth! How many professors would be horrified at the idea of God as natus, i.e. a blood relative or of national origin!

By endowing us with freedom, God makes it possible for us to love. But he also risks that we might refuse to love.

Okay, okay, I’ll actually start dealing with her argument: Love requires freedom, freedom belongs only to who could be wicked, therefore etc. The problems occur almost immediately, and it’s no good to cry “mystery!” in the face of them:

1.) This is a perfectly fine proof that God could be terribly wicked. Good grief, it is a perfectly fine proof that God is empowered to be a maximally wicked being precisely because he is Love.

2.) We’ve known since Anselm that the ability to choose wickedness is not integral to freedom, and we’ve known since the Greeks that “choosing wickedness” is a purely accidental description of evil. True, if you define “the chosen” as “anything one is culpable for” then we can choose evils, but only in the way that we can choose things we are ignorant of (since there are many kinds of culpable ignorance cf. c. 1).  But there is clearly something wrong in saying that we choose something we are ignorant of since choice is incoherent except as an act made with respect to known alternatives.

3.) Let’s intensify #1: Both God and the communion of Saints is the domain where one would look for the maximal possible wickedness. In other words, this unreflective love-freedom nexus (which, to be honest, seems like a deification of a democratic regime) has puzzling eschatological effects. What would “the definitive conquest of evil” mean on this sort of theodicy? Salvation and Resurrection become sorts of totalitarianism. The only reasonable response to the history of salvation is Non serviam! 

Although God permits the weeds and the wheat to grow together — because uprooting all of the bad weeds would destroy much of the good wheat as well — at the time of the harvest, the weeds will be permanently destroyed and the wheat will be gathered carefully under God’s protection (Mt 14:24-30).

This is a fascinating eschatology. Salvation comes to be seen as “protection” and perdition as “permanent destruction”. Leaving aside the problems just mentioned in founding this on a love-freedom theology, we seem to get the first hints of an allergy to the scandal of hellfire (evildoers are destroyed forever) and an idea of salvation as “protection” from evil, i.e. that evil is something extrinsic to the self that needs to be walled off and kept out. While there is a sense in which this is true, we are left to wonder whether Barrett is hitting it.

The most fascinating overlooked element in this whole comment is the notion of evil as a properly historical reality. The point of the wheat and the tares is, for both Barrett and myself, that evil is not something ontological but something properly historical which belongs to a middle-era of human existence (and a proto-era of cosmic existence) but which will be overcome in the final era of history that has already been anticipated by the Resurrection of Christ and Theotokos. I’ve argued before that ontological accounts cannot explain the reality of evil, only its possibility, and only then if the possibility of evil is itself a good. Actual evil requires an appeal to an entirely different set of categories than transcendental ones. It arises in an account of being in via, and so isolated to a particular era of historical existence.

All human beings possess dignity — intrinsic value — because all were created in God’s own image and likeness… Although the church does permit killing in self-defense (in very limited circumstances), direct attacks against innocent life — such as abortion, murder and euthanasia — are never permitted. Such acts are categorized as “intrinsically evil” because they are always wrong, in every circumstance. By intentionally depriving someone of life, you are destroying not only their body but also their soul’s ability to choose the good — to perform daily acts of love toward their family members, friends, neighbors and God — so as to grow in holiness.

The “although” clause and the adjective “innocent” seem to make room for a morality of capital punishment and war,* but neither make sense in the context of the argument.

1.) The description of what makes killing intrinsically evil (see the last sentence) applies directly to CP and all war. I have a great deal of sympathy with this position, but trying to avoid it by qualifications of “innocent” or “self-defense” strikes me as betraying an absence of conviction in the logic of one’s position.

2.) It is strange to the point of incoherence to describe killing in self-defense as permitted. Can one get a license for it? Can you buy game tags for your aggressors? My point is not to be glib but to force this vague theology of permission into giving an account of itself. “Permission” means half a dozen very different things in human affairs but we’re never very clear on which one of these is supposed to analogize to the divine permission of evils.

3.) Killing in self-defense, at least since STA, is a paradigm case of double-effect reasoning but double effect is worthless in describing actions whose evil outcome is part of the per se description of the action. So either we need some per se description of judicial execution and warfare that doesn’t involve killing (!) or we have to describe both of these actions as something other than execution and warfare (again…!)

*This is to say nothing of what they would mean in light of a theology that allows for the permission of evils or the eternity of punishment.



  1. July 2, 2016 at 1:42 pm

    Interesting comments. I’m a bit new to your blog and Thomism in general, could you point me in the direction of a theodicy you do agree with?

    • July 2, 2016 at 2:08 pm

      Like a book or an article? Fagettaboutit. I’m waaaaay outside even crank, minority opinion – forget about scholarly consensus! Books or articles? Who would publish them?

    • David said,

      July 2, 2016 at 3:25 pm

      Check out Ed Feser’s work and blog. He’s a bit more… Dogmatic? Published? I come here for the open ended questions and hi-fallutin’ musings. 🙂 with all respect to the proprietor…

      • July 2, 2016 at 3:32 pm

        I’m very familiar with Feser, he’s who introduced me to Thomism actually. But I asked this question here because, based on the post above, I’m not sure if the writer of said post would actually agree with some of Feser’s answers on evil

      • July 2, 2016 at 6:14 pm

        Feser writes very quickly and very well, and he’s part of both the Analytic and manual Thomist tradition (which is way more creative and diverse than it gets credit for, as is Ed). Still, he’s pretty far outside the scholars of science of religion or philosophy of mind, even after publishing respectably in both. As far as I can tell, no one else in the field even recognizes he’s there (Searle had to listen to him at a conference once, I guess, but it made no impression on his work.) He’d be the first one to tell you that his career will never get past teaching in Community College. If you ask Ed for supporting sources he’ll point you to his own books.

        Like or hate what you get here, you’re only gonna get it here. I was trained in the Laval tradition but I don’t have a place in it any more, and I’m utterly invisible to the philosophical community and its journals, conferences, publishers and peer review. I have no romantic fantasies of being a loner. That’s just the way it is.

    • July 3, 2016 at 11:03 am

      Harrison, here’s a theodicy that St Thomas himself gives in a reply to an objection (Ia, q 22, a 2, ad 2): «It is otherwise with one who has care of a particular thing, and one whose providence is universal, because a particular provider excludes all defects from what is subject to his care as far as he can; whereas, one who provides universally allows some little defect to remain, lest the good of the whole should be hindered. Hence, corruption and defects in natural things are said to be contrary to some particular nature; yet they are in keeping with the plan of universal nature; inasmuch as the defect in one thing yields to the good of another, or even to the universal good: for the corruption of one is the generation of another, and through this it is that a species is kept in existence. Since God, then, provides universally for all being, it belongs to His providence to permit certain defects in particular effects, that the perfect good of the universe may not be hindered, for if all evil were prevented, much good would be absent from the universe. A lion would cease to live, if there were no slaying of animals; and there would be no patience of martyrs if there were no tyrannical persecution. Thus Augustine says (Enchiridion 2): “Almighty God would in no wise permit evil to exist in His works, unless He were so almighty and so good as to produce good even from evil.” It would appear that it was on account of these two arguments to which we have just replied, that some were persuaded to consider corruptible things–e.g. casual and evil things–as removed from the care of divine providence.»

  2. July 3, 2016 at 1:25 pm

    This post is awesomeness altogether. Thank you! Please indulge me one piece of philological pedantry, though, for that is my charism:

    “in media res”

    This should be “in media re,” where “re” is the ablative singular, to match “media” (which is correct). It would mean, “in the middle of the thing/affair,” where “in” means “within.”

    The expression originates in literary criticism. In epic poetry, the narrator typically throws the reader “in medias res,” where “medias res” is accusative plural because “in” means “into.” There, “in medias res” means “into the middle of things.”

  3. Zippy said,

    July 3, 2016 at 7:21 pm

    An anthropic approach to theodicy: https://zippycatholic.wordpress.com/2006/09/08/the-problem-with-the-problem-of-evil/

    (Speaking of crank opinions).

  4. David said,

    July 4, 2016 at 7:48 pm

    Well, as long as we’re all posting links to things, this is a unique perspective related to theodicy, from an evangelical Thomist: http://normangeisler.com/god-evil-and-dispensations/

  5. Lucretius said,

    July 7, 2016 at 8:27 pm

    How about this theodicy? 😳

    The purpose of Creation is to reflect the Divine as much as is possible for a harmony of created things. Objects don’t change their motions naturally (Newton’s first law) and life forms reproduce their forms so that said forms would last longer than any mere individual would: in other words, they all, we all, seek to transcend change and corruption, which is just to say that all seek eternity and perfection, who is God.

    Since God is absolutely perfect, He cannot have imperfection, nor the potential for any sort of imperfection, as that is itself an imperfection.

    However, since a single created thing cannot wholly partake totally in the Divine Nature (otherwise it would just be God), in order for God to most fully reflect His glory in a created nature, He creates a multiplicity of things.

    However, these things are, by themselves, imperfect reflections of the Divine. Only together in harmony do they reflect the Logos as much as created things can: because Creation is a multitude of things, when each thing is considered by itself, each is imperfect and lacks somethings that the rest of Creation as a whole doesn’t. When created things are in harmony, they share their qualities with each other, and these shared qualities help fill the qualities that the individuals by themselves lack, helping build each other up like members of a body. When all of Creation is in Harmony, all things are as perfect together as possible for created nature.

    However, because each thing is separated from other things, each has the potential to break harmony with the rest of Creation, and since each lose qualities they lacked as individuals that were once shared with them when they were in communion with the rest of Creation, the qualities they do possess by themselves become unbalanced, and since all evil is a good unbalanced by another good, things, well, start to unravel. The love for justice becomes totalitarian murder, the ability to focus despite distraction becomes indulgence in fantasy, the desire to nourish one’s body becomes gluttony, and so on.

    Thus, the potential for evil in Creation is explained. How did evil actually enter creation? Refer to Genesis for details 😃

    I won’t lie: much of this, if not all, is probably bits and pieces of St. Thomas and Mr. Chastek and Father Walstein and others I’ve studied. In fact, much of this post is inspired by Mr. Chastek’s comment to me in a recent post of his about the purpose of procreation for the sake of the species. Quite honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone like St. Thomas or Mr. Chastek could or did think this up in their sleep 😉

    Christi pax,


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