‘Risks of religious life’; God & suffering

Perilous Vows

I was disappointed in Barry Gault’s article on Jesuits (“Society Men,” April 22), but I enjoyed the letters in response (May 20) and the debate over whether religious vows can keep the young Jesuit from growing up. In a little-known essay published in Woodstock Letters (Vol. 96, Fall 1967), John Courtney Murray, SJ, discussed the dangers of the vows. It was originally a talk he gave to fellow Jesuits in 1947.

He warned young Jesuits about the “risks of religious life,” especially “the one supremely perilous risk—that of losing your manhood.” Look around, he said, and see men damaged by their reaction to poverty, chastity, and obedience; and see men unorganized, and intellectually and emotionally immature. They lack responsibility and purpose because they have failed to grapple with three elemental forces—the earth, woman, and their own spirits. “Man is not a man until by his own hard work he has bent stubborn earth to his own purposes.” Without woman, a man loses the possibility of becoming a father, more fully like God, and the “possibility of headship”: Adam’s fault was allowing Eve to “rule” him into temptation. (Obviously Murray wrote long before Theological Studies had published articles on feminist theology.) Finally, through obedience, one loses power to choose a destiny. “Your typical bachelor is proverbially crotchety, emotionally unstable, petulant, and self-enclosed—small and childish in the emotional life.”

Jesuit life has been radically revised in an effort to avoid producing typical bachelors. Nevertheless, some of what Murray wrote still rings true.

Raymond A. Schroth, SJ
New York, N.Y.


Perishable Goods

The lively debate between John F. Haught and Brian Davies on “The Suffering of God” (June 3) prompts me to agree with Haught that suffering preceded human evolution (“nature, red in tooth and claw”), but with Davies that such prior suffering does not necessarily imply that God, too, must be subject to suffering.

Haught can claim the support of St. Paul, who implies that suffering is an inherent part of corporeal existence independent of sin: “It is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.… Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Cor 15:46–50).

On the other hand, we may ask, with Davies: If suffering characterizes the world of the imperishable, how could the Second Adam, the man from heaven, bring salvation? But at least on the issue of pre-Adamic suffering, Haught can claim the support not just of Paul but of Thomas Aquinas, who says that death (which is rarely pain-free in the biological world) is both a punishment for sin and a fact of all physical reality: “The necessity for man’s dying derives partly from nature, partly from sin” (Commentary on the Sentences). In a much later work he repeats the same point: “When considering the nature of the body, death is natural” (Compendium of Theology).

Edward T. Oakes, SJ
Mundelein, Ill.



Brian Davies demonstrates with impeccable logic that God can “suffer” only in his human nature united to his divinity. But he stops short of applying the logical consequences of the fundamental difference between our mode of existence and God’s. We form our concept of “suffering” from our own sensory experiences (“nihil est in mente, nisi prius in sensibus”). But God’s mode of existence is radically different from ours, except for the fact that it is “real” (and not fictitious or figurative). So we cannot apply our human concepts to his divinity univocally, but only analogously.

Thus it is logical to assert that, except in his human nature, God cannot suffer—at least not in the way we humans experience and understand suffering. But this does not preclude the possibility that there is in God’s unfathomable essence/existence some aspect of activity that would be analogous to suffering if it could be expressed in human terms. By applying the crucial distinction between univocal and analogous senses, one could logically assert both that God can suffer only in his humanity and also, albeit in an analogous sense, that he can suffer in his divinity.

For a similar line of reasoning, check out then–Professor Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, particularly its explanation of the “plurality” of the one Godhead.

Edmund F. Kal
Fresno, Calif.

Published in the 2011-07-15 issue: 

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