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Theologians Strive to Explain Tragedies Like Lethal Storms

As the tragic dimensions of Hurricane Katrina continue to unfold, many people affected are turning to their religious leaders for help in understanding why it all happened. The southern United States is a strongly religious part of the country. The Gulf region in particular is dominated by Catholics and Baptists. VOA recently spoke with theologians from both of these denominations about why bad things happen to good people.

It is a question that has preoccupied theologians for centuries: If God is all-good… all-powerful… and all-knowing… why do bad things like Hurricane Katrina happen? The branch of theology that attempts to unravel this conundrum is known as "theodicy," and although Baptists and Catholics are both Christians, they each have very different answers to the question that is at the heart of theodicy.

According to Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, people who focus on God's loving and powerful qualities have an incomplete understanding of who God is. "The one thing that is often missing from that picture, in terms of how people think about God, is that He is also just," Reverend Mohler says. "That means that we know that one of the reasons the world experiences earthquakes and tsunamis and hurricanes and tornados is because of sin, and the fact that this is a fallen world. It is not like Eden, as God had intended from the beginning." A hurricane happens, in other words, because the balance that God intended for this world has been upset by sin.

A natural disaster, then, can be an opportunity for redemption, according to the Baptist faith. That does not mean, though, that Baptists believe God sent Hurricane Katrina to the Gulf region to punish the people who live there. Albert Mohler says Baptist theodicy is not about the individual sins of individual people. It is about the idea of sin… the original sin that most Christians believe was passed down to them when the Bible's first human beings -Adam and Eve--disobeyed God.

"The perfection of creation was ruined by human sin," Reverend Mohler clarifies. "We have in the Bible, the Book of Genesis, Chapter Three that tells us that the earth now suffers the effects of sin. Paul in Romans, Chapter Eight says that the Creation is groaning for the redemption that is to come. But it was forbidden us to say, 'Look, we know why these people are suffering. It's because of their specific sins.'"

Nevertheless, the idea that human sin is responsible for something like a hurricane is completely foreign to Catholics, according to Sister Elizabeth Johnson, who teaches Theology at Fordham University, a Jesuit school. She says in Catholic theology, hurricanes and earthquakes are caused not by God and not by sin, but by Natural Law. "God is the cause of all causes. God is the primary cause," she says. "Catholic theology teaches that God set the world up with its own integrity as a creature. It has its own natural laws, it has its own internal ways of working. You have an undersea earthquake, and you get a tsunami," Professor Johnson says. "God didn't cause that. That's the actual working of the planet that keeps it fertile and refreshed and so on. And hurricanes are in the same boat."

Catholic theology does not teach that human sin is responsible for hurricanes and tsunamis, but Sister Elizabeth Johnson says it does teach that sinfulness can play a role in the suffering that often follows. People suffer not because they are sinful, but because other people are sinful-engaging in price gouging, or violence, or neglect. In this case, Professor Johnson says, it is the individual sins of individual people that Catholic theology is talking about--not "original sin." She says Catholics do believe that original sin has had a powerful effect on the world--just not the effect that Baptists and other Protestant Christians believe it has had.

"In the Protestant view, original sin destroyed human nature, so there is absolutely nothing good in us, except what grace works to redeem," she explains. "Catholics see [that] original sin injured human nature, somehow weakened it, and we need healing. But we're not wretched. And so based on that different view of human nature, then come different views of responsibility in terms of evil, and in terms of how you interpret God."

Regardless of their differences over why Hurricane Katrina happened, both theologians agree that the storm was not God's fault. They also say the suffering that has followed can be an opportunity for Baptists and Catholics alike to renew their faith-because amid all the mistakes that humans have made with regard to the recovery effort, there have also been great acts of human kindness, goodness, and love. And that, these theologians say, is the core message of Christianity -- be it the Catholic or the Baptist version.