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.