Seeing COVID-19 through the lens of faith opens up a divine perspective. It allows us to see beyond the moment, with all its uncertainty, into eternity. It grants us the ability to understand how all things and events are included in God’s loving providential plan.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
19 March 2020
There are essentially two different ways of looking at life, our surroundings, and the circumstances in which we find ourselves under threat of the physical evil of COVID-19. One views life and all its implications through the theological virtue of faith, which is a divinely given gift that opens our eyes and hearts to God, the fullness of divine revelation in Christ, and our Lord’s providential rule and governance over all things and events. The other is from a secular, closed-in, non-religious perspective that sees everything profanely in terms of natural causes and effects—even attributing random chance as itself a cause. The former takes a very different and more complete view of COVID-19 and its ramifications than does the latter.
From a secular, irreligious point of view, the forces of science and reason offer the only defense against the virus. All the focus is on protecting people from contracting it, quickly developing vaccines (which may cause more harm than good), treating those who are infected, and counting the dead as lost. Secularists battle COVID-19 in purely human ways, with eyes that are spiritually blind to things like God’s providence, his ability to provide divine protection, and the manner in which he uses physical evils to bring about particular goods such as repentance. Secularists see science as the savior and reason as the only hope.
On the other hand, faith in God allows us to recognize several important, essential truths.
First, God is the divine Creator—which really says it all. All things fall under his providential governance and rule. There is nothing that exists, material or spiritual, that is outside of the realm of his loving providence. Every possible event is foreseen by God. Every cause and effect is visible to his eye and guided by his hand toward the ultimate outcome he wills for the created order. Whether it be world wars, volcanoes, tyrants like Adolph Hitler or Stalin, Communist China, spring rains or snows, or COVID-19—all these fall within his wise management of creation.
Vatican I proclaimed (1869-1870), “God in His providence watches over and governs all the things that He made, reaching from end to end with might and disposing all things with gentleness.” According to divine providence, all events are a part of God’s eternal plan. Everything is accounted for. Nothing surprises God or catches him off balance. Even the personal decisions of human beings throughout all time are included in his universal plan. Further, nothing can upset God’s divine plan for creation. It is infallibly certain that God’s plan for the universe cannot fail. Nor can it change since God himself is immutable.
The Catechism teaches: “Divine providence consists of the dispositions by which God guides all his creatures with wisdom and love to their ultimate end” (321).
What does this mean in terms of COVID-19?
COVID-19 is a physical evil. It is called a physical evil because it is capable of depriving human persons of the good of physical health. It even deprives some of the good of physical life, causing death. However, God guides his creatures with wisdom and love toward their ultimate end. In faith, we know that God is in control. COVID-19 is within the realm of divine providence, as are all things and events. From this we can draw two main conclusions: 1) God has permitted COVID-19 for a purpose, and 2) he will bring good from it.
Whether we contract the virus or not is up to God. This is not to say we should disregard science and reason as means of combating it or insulating ourselves against it. They are gifts God himself has given us to be used by his creatures in participation with his plan. What we can humanly do, should be done, provided it is ordered toward the true good and thus morally legitimate. Faith in God doesn’t mean complete idleness or a kind of total pacifism that offers no resistance to anything. We’re not plants. We’re rational human persons. Yes, we should employ science and reason. Take certain precautions. However, we must not adopt a purely secular, atheistic and insufficient view, relying only on human powers. A primary reliance on God in faith and trust is required because all things and events fall within his providential rule. Looking first to God is a sane, fully human way of thinking. It takes into consideration reality as it is.
If I contract COVID-19, it is because God has permitted it. If I am healed, God has willed it to be so. If I die, that too is God’s will. In faith, I’m set free by embracing the loving providence of God, knowing that in him I am ultimately safe. My life consists in more than this world and those fleeting things it affords. God has my eternal destiny in mind. My life belongs both in life and death to the Lord:
If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.Rom 14:8-9
Is COVID-19 a form of punishment for sin?
In faith, we know that everyone of the age of reason who is in possession of their faculties of cognition has sinned (cf 1 John 1:10). Sin both deserves and brings punishment: “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). If you have doubts about this, read the story of the fall of humankind in Genesis chapter 3. The first sin of Eve and then Adam brought forth divine judgment and punishment. And that first sin has its effects on all of humankind, one of which is the fact that harmony with creation has been broken (CCC 400). Now, man experiences this disharmony in the form of suffering from physical evils such as hurricanes, viruses, and cancers, among other things (cf. CCC 1264). Further, due to that first sin, physical death of the human person entered the world (cf. Rom 5:12). Given original sin and its effects as well as personal sin and its consequences, it is contrary to the divinely revealed Word of God to suggest that God does not punish sin. For if he did not, he would be treating the just and the unjust the same, which would make God himself unjust.
The Catechism notes that punishment for sin flows from the nature of sin itself and should never be viewed as “a kind of vengeance inflicted by God” (1472). Hell is the ultimate punishment for mortal sin as a definitive self-exclusion from the kingdom of heaven. Its principle punishment is “eternal separation from God in whom alone man can have the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs” (CCC 1057).
Some will suggest that since Christ died for our sins, redeeming us before God, there is no longer any punishment for sin. However, that kind of thinking is incorrect and out-of-sync with the divine scriptures:
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.2 Cor 5:10
One way God punishes sin is by allowing its consequences to play out in our lives—a punishment which is always directed toward repentance, that we may return to God and be saved in Christ, for it is God’s will that all come to a knowledge of the truth and experience salvation (1 Tim 2:4). The suffering brought on by sin is a strong motivator toward repentance (read the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11 ff). God punishes as a loving Father, always with our eternal benefit in mind (Heb 12:6). Additionally, although God forgives the eternal guilt of sin in his mercy for those who repent and receive absolution in the sacrament of confession, the temporal consequences for sin remain and must be paid, either in this life or through purification in Purgatory after death. If one lives a wicked life in rejection of God and his commandments and dies unrepentant, the punishment for such a life is hell. Note that when someone deliberately rejects God, he chooses hell. At death, God’s judgment ratifies that choice, confirming for eternity the personal choice such a person made during his life.
If I contract the coronavirus, is God directly punishing me for my sins?
Both the just and unjust often suffer the effects of physical evils like COVID-19. For instance, innocent children below the age of reason might be effected, as similarly they fall ill and even die from natural causes like cancer or other diseases. From this we learn that contracting the virus is not necessarily a sign of God’s punishment for personal sin. Here we encounter the mystery of evil and human suffering. While we do not have all the answers, we do know that both relief and answers are found by “fixing the eyes of our faith on him who alone is [evil’s] conqueror” (CCC 385; Cf. Lk 11:21-22; Jn 16:11; 1 Jn 3:8).
The Catechism observes:
Illness and suffering have always been among the gravest problems confronted in human life. In illness, man experiences his powerlessness, his limitations, and his finitude. Every illness can make us glimpse death.CCC 1500
How can God bring good from physical evils?
God would not permit evil if he did not bring good from it: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). St. Paul is emphasizing that in all things, whether health or illness, suffering, persecution, unemployment, and trials of every sort, God works in such a way as to bring good from every difficulty and suffering in the lives of those who have given themselves over to him in faith.
Whatever happens, in health and in sickness, we must trust in God and recognize our situation as permitted by his will for some good purpose. That purpose may be penance for our soul or the souls of others. It may be that others may see the light of faith in us through our trust in God and be themselves led toward Christ. If God insulates us from the virus, it might be so that we may assist others in need in accord with the virtue of charity.
For those of little or no faith, human suffering, aided by grace, can be a means of leading someone to focus on ultimate truths and seek God in repentance. The Catechism teaches:
Illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God. It can also make a person more mature, helping him discern in his life what is not essential so that he can turn toward that which is. Very often illness provokes a search for God and a return to him.CCC 1501
Times like these pose a test of faith. Yet that test will build spiritual character if we will but focus on Christ, whose death and resurrection has defeated the ultimate powers of sin, evil, and death.
Faith in God the Father Almighty can be put to the test by the experience of evil and suffering. God can sometimes seem to be absent and incapable of stopping evil. But in the most mysterious way God the Father has revealed his almighty power in the voluntary humiliation and Resurrection of his Son, by which he conquered evil. Christ crucified is thus “the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” It is in Christ’s Resurrection and exaltation that the Father has shown forth “the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe.”CCC 272
The Christian attitude of trust.
Childlike abandonment to God the Father’s loving providence is key. If we trust in God, we should recognize that everything is in his hands. We should bless God and give him thanks and praise, regardless of our condition in life. We should understand well that God certainly can insulate anyone he wishes from the effects of COVID-19. All things are under his rule and governance. It seems to me that such knowledge is of great comfort. Our life is in the hands of Almighty God!
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?”. . . Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”Matt 6:31-33
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.