Katrina and Company: Hurricanes or Chastisements?
By Nicholas E. Barreca
Our first response to the calamity of Hurricane Katrina, when we find we have survived the disassembly, should be to fall on our knees, thank God for His mercy and ask for the grace to carry on. Then we should get up as best we can and get on with the recovery. Those not directly afflicted by the storm should open their wallets and hearts and help in any way they are qualified, positioned or physically able to do so. Criticisms and post-mortems should be relegated to the history books and after-action reports. The immediate concern is escape, then survival, always helping our fellow man in route.
Marked contrasts occurred during the devastation of Katrina’s unfolding and aftermath. There was the anger, resentment, discontentment and helplessness of those seemingly held confined and impoverished during the storm by the ineptitude of city and state leadership, and poorly planned and executed evacuation strategies at state and federal levels. Certainly there was inordinate anger and resentment toward President Bush as if he caused the natural disaster (he faces withering criticism for a tepid governmental response to the Aug. 29 hurricane, while his approval ratings are at the lowest point of his presidency), sometimes alluded to as an Act of God. Then there were the heroic efforts of numerous rescuers, dangling precariously from helicopters, cruising in flat boats and air boats to avoid treacherous obstacles, risking their lives day and night. Police and fire departments from other states even came volunteering their services.
Simultaneously one observed good or acceptable looting and bad, never to be tolerated looting, confusing legal authorities and defying sound morality and ethics. At the same time, gangs of armed thugs began shooting at rescuers and police officers.
The contrast of moralities was even more apparent in the history of the city of New Orleans and its surround. The predominantly Catholic population (36% of 1.36 million people – Archdiocese of New Orleans population) with a high concentration of churches (142 parishes), liturgical practices and devotions, Eucharistic Adoration chapels (90), Catholic schools (29) and colleges (3), convents (25) and Catholic orders (35 men’s religious houses and centers) was opposed by a hedonistic reputation replete with drunken and sexually explicit Mardi Gras celebrations and parades, prostitutes, drug culture, pornography, illicit activities, voodoo and gay/homosexual activities and communities. So we have a holy city with beautiful music (Preservation Hall, jazz, blues and Dixieland), tasty food (gumbo, Creole, and top notch culinary delights) on the one hand and a den of iniquity from voodoo, prostitution, pimps, murder and crack on the other. The National Catholic Register editorialized, “It was reviled as a center of sin, but praised as a center of Catholic piety. It was defined by both the innovations in its music and the old world touches in its architecture.” It could be a cultural hell-hole or heavenly culture.
Raymond Arroyo, newscaster for EWTN, who escaped with his family the night before Katrina struck had these comments; “This is a very Catholic center of our country. It has the highest per capita number of prayer groups and the most Eucharistic adoration chapels in the country. The spiritual import of that if these people should scatter will be significant.”…“Mardi Gras is not New Orleans. The sacred and the profane march lockstep in New Orleans. Some of the holiest people in the world live in that city. I can’t imagine it is a judgment. If it is, God’s aim is off. He drowned all the good areas – East New Orleans, Lakeview, Metairie. The French Quarter is five feet above sea level. It will most likely survive.” Interestingly, the city’s historic St. Louis Cathedral lost a few slate roof tiles but otherwise was undamaged. The adjoining French Quarter was not nearly as damaged or flooded as other parts of the city. Which site did the Lord favor? The Loyola University campus is on relatively high ground and apparently was safe from the flooding. The Jesuits have had a habit of building their colleges on hills by purchasing the high ground.
What about the contrasts in human nature and the way we frequently act. There are those people who accept sinfulness or their inclination to sin, without guilt or remorse. They participate in it freely; relish, celebrate and flaunt it; encourage others to enjoy or engage it and profit from it. They sink into the mire and sludge of repeated or sustained immoral behavior. Many others struggle with personal sin. They realize their inclination to sin (concupiscence), attempt to overcome it, and discourage others from embracing it. They feel guilty every time they fall into sin. Some of these even practice or approach heroic virtue as they overcome their sinfulness.
People keep asking. Where were the brilliant and capable leaders we needed to avert the present chaos and seeming late and inadequate response to this disaster? Perhaps God would say, “You aborted those leaders 40 years ago.” What about the misappropriated money that wasn’t used to strengthen the levees in New Orleans? He responds, “You killed all those wage earning, tax payers in the womb, over 40 million of them.” Is there a burden of sin in this country and the world that incurs a terrible divine debt? Would the Lord of Heaven and earth be inclined to discipline His children? Perhaps He would permit natural and environmental forces to cause death, destruction, fear, anger and reprisals amidst us to get our attention. Would he direct that “wrath” at the evil in New Orleans and the Casino riddled Gulf Coast, or just permit another accident of nature…they just being the innocent and guilty bystanders? Is God in control or does He just let things happen helter-skelter? Pope John Paul II didn’t seem to think so in a statement during his audience on May 28, 2003, “Only God, who governs history with a “higher plan,” can extricate man from “the dark forces” of chaos, says John Paul II. If the Lord reigns, there must be no fear: One is not tossed here and there by the dark forces of fate or chaos. At all times, even in the darkest moments, there is a higher plan that governs history.”
The Archbishop of New Orleans, Alfred E. Hughes, was displaced to Baton Rouge, from which he said, “God has brought us to our knees in the face of disaster. We are so overwhelmed; we do not really know how to respond. Powerlessness leads us to prayer. And we know when we turn to God, God offers us His grace.”
Many have questioned how God could allow such devastation. The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property had an excellent reflection about the two miracles that occurred during the Great Tsunami of Christmas 2004. It states:
These thoughts must also be reflected upon in the context of and from the perspective of salvific suffering. Their philosophical theme is also reflected in the previous statement made by Pope John Paul II.
Alabama State Senator Hank Erwin wrote, “New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast have always been known for gambling, sin and wickedness. It is the kind of behavior that ultimately brings the judgment of God.” He also said, “Sadly, innocents suffered along with the guilty. Sin always brings suffering to good people as well as the bad.” His statements were rapidly criticized as lunacy by many, saying he had lost his grip on reality. Perhaps his great mistake was suggesting that God had taken aim specifically on the evils of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. If in fact, God had allowed this to happen, in all likelihood it was aimed at our collective acceptance of and participation in evil throughout the country and throughout the world. One evening of television in this country will convince most of the truth of that statement. Perhaps what appears to be God performing evil is actually a reflection of His Justice and Mercy and the necessary discipline and punishment of unruly and recalcitrant children. In spite of these lessons, the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, soon after the first signs of city recovery, proposed the building of major Las Vegas style, land-based gambling casinos in the largest hotels, near the Bourbon Street section, along Canal Street. This was felt to be necessary to revitalize the New Orleans’ shattered economy. He said, “Now is the time for us to think out of the box. Now is the time for some bold leadership, some decisive leadership.” Where was this leadership before Katrina struck the coast of the city? Perhaps it was still inside the box or insufficiently responsive.
It is said that it is not possible for our God to actually will evil, but He has power over life and death. He can exercise discipline and end our lives in His chosen time. Only He truly has sovereignty over our lives and existence.
Can we be the subject of God’s wrath, His chastisements, and His justice, retribution, judgment, and condemnation, especially as depicted in the Old Testament? For example, the Great Flood of Noah’s day; or the slaying of the first-born of the Egyptians and their Pharaoh; or the order of Moses to the Levites to slay their brothers who violated God’s law. Perhaps the latter was God’s first sanction of capitol punishment by a sovereign leader. The extinction of Sodom and Gomorrah does not appear to have been caused by a natural disaster. The closest thing to raining brimstone and fire down from the heavens would be a volcanic eruption. There were no volcanoes in that locale. It appears that God brought that incident about through his angels.
In this day, we must pray fervently for those who have been afflicted by the natural and man-made disasters, catastrophes, tragedies and calamities that have befallen mankind due to our sinfulness and the burden of the collective evil, wrought and indulged in by the whole human race, that cascades into and permeates our existence, upsetting the balance of nature, and incurring a divine debt. These are the terrible and frightening incidents that indicate that we are not living in God’s Divine Will. Those whom God loves He chastises (an oft referenced paraphrase of a biblical statement (Hebrews 12:6) from the teachings of Fr. Benedict J. Groeschel, D.F.R). Another great and sinless woman said, “War is a punishment for sin.”
In all of these discussions, one must contemplate the concept of God’s permissive will. He does allow evil to exist in the world. Why? He gave the angels and us free will. Some of the angels chose evil presumably through the sin of pride. Satan… “I will not serve.” Then there were our representatives Adam and Eve. They too decided to choose evil by defying the command of God. And so today it seems modern man chooses evil even more abundantly. Through our culture of death we are wallowing in a sea polluted by lust, immorality, avarice, greed, pride, envy…shall one go on? God is our creator…Does he intend evil? No. Does he will evil? Only in the sense that he has to permit it to exist in order to allow us free will. He also knows, through omniscience, that we will chose evil, as well as good. In the Old Testament book of Jonah, Jonah proclaimed the message God told him. The king of Nineveh then said, “Who can tell if God will turn and forgive: and will turn away from his fierce anger (blazing wrath), and we shall not perish? …And God had mercy with regard to (and repented of) the evil which he had said that he would do to them, and he did it not.” (Jon 3:9-10) If God alludes to doing evil, is it not the expression of his displeasure with us, and his need to discipline us or impose punishment for our wrong doings? Does he in fact do evil if directing misfortune upon us is aimed at forcing us to repentance and reparation? There are numerous references in the Old Testament to the wrath of Yahweh. In many cases He appears to be positively willing penalties for errant behavior.
What about the evil? Evil is the absence of good, though some say the absence of God, but in the absence of God we would cease to exist. Are we and Satan not the authors of that evil? Is our former President Clinton’s decisions and actions an evil we created by our failure to make good choices. Evil begets evil. It is possible that the cumulative and collective evil that humanity amasses causes many imbalances in our existence and environment, by whatever means. The Garden of Eden in man’s sinless state had no weather disasters that we know. Are destructive floods, earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes part of God’s original plan for the earth? One would not think so. Do we bring about these forces by our own choices? Some say that God does not banish us to hell…that we choose to go there by turning our back on Him. Does our choice of evil somehow bring about a disordered universe or is Satan its mediator. Well, do we banish ourselves or does God banish us? The Final Judgment suggests that He condemns us on the basis of our evil choices.
It is interesting that several years ago, the Arkansas Legislature had a related debate. Is a tornado an act of God? How often do we talk about acts of God when discussing weather phenomena or insurance for same? Then Gov. Mike Huckabee believed his God would never inflict such evil. Who commits such chastisements then? Are they total accidents or natural disasters? What is so natural about a disaster? The then Arknasas Rep. Jim Luker said, “To say God didn’t create tornadoes is just like saying he didn’t create spring rains…If God didn’t create this universe and all the forces in it, then I don’t know who did.” The Arkansas House, after debating God’s role in the world, decided to use both phrases side by side…Act of God/Natural Disaster. The state of origin for this debate is certainly of great interest, pondering the former paragraph. Well what about it, fellow wonderers? We blithely speak of Acts of God. Are they merely random accidents or are they a reflection of God’s dissatisfaction with our collective choices…a chastisement?
Hurricane Mitch caused a seeming chastisement of Central America of earth shattering proportions. It produced death (upwards of 9,000 souls, hopefully heavenward), devastation, destruction and desolation (2 million homeless) like few other storm in recent past, especially because it inflicted its wrath on an already poor, unfortunate, downtrodden, and usually pious, predominantly Catholic people. Why them, one might ask? Then adding insult to injury, the Nicaraguan volcano, Cerro Negro erupted, spewing ash over a 90 square mile area. It comes down to the doctrine of suffering. The prayers of thanksgiving for being spared, pleas of mercy for relief from continued grief and the sufferings of the surviving victim souls of Central America; these are joined with the redemptive suffering of Christ, to ultimately make reparation for the evil that we humans are collectively committing in modern society, especially with our culture of death. Perhaps this is the meaning of Providence in this setting. As St. Augustine says: “For the Almighty God…being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil.”
Later one was able to ponder the terrifying and tumultuous Great Tsunami of 2004. This devastating tsunami struck down the predominantly poor countries of Hindu India, Muslim Indonesia, and Buddhist Thailand and Sri Lanka. While our offensive sin and immorality may play a role in its causation and evolution, God permits great suffering so that unblemished good may come from it. The sudden and spontaneous individual and collective outpouring of love, caring, helpfulness and even personal assistance, sacrifice or loss became commonplace and exemplary. Many whole nations poured out billions of dollars in aid, while personal contributions came to millions from all over the world. Military organizations excelled in delivering life saving and sustaining goods, services and medical aid. In a short period of time the world became a better place, despite loss of loved ones, the orphaning of children and the profound loss of property and possessions.
Thence came Katrina…then Ophelia…then Rita…then Stan (almost a repetition of Mitch, including an eruption)…then Wilma…then Bali terrorism…typhoons in Asia…and a massive earthquake near Islamabad, Pakistan and surrounding countries. These have been responsible for over 80,000 or more deaths, untold injuries and economic burdens probably exceeding $300-400 billion. They pale in comparison to the almost 300,000 people killed or missing from the Great Tsunami. How many of us have truly been brought to our knees, begging God for forgiveness for over 100 million babies sacrificed on the altar of modern sexual and selfish contraceptive and promiscuous hedonism; for our profound and perverse immorality permitted in communications, entertainment and society; for allowing the assault on God, marriage and the family; for violence and abuse of spouses or between adults and children and among children; for our unfettered reliance on wealth and possessions; for our inability to govern or be governed without constant harangue and disunity; for our failure to truly worship and praise God as we should and as He commanded in Genesis (Gn 9:1-7). Would anyone doubt that this might incur the anger of a God, whose Son He permitted to die for our salvation?
Recently on television, a priest was interviewed near the site of America’s devastation. He was asked what we can learn from all this tragedy and calamity. He proposed several questions regarding how we should respond. How can I change? What should I learn about myself from this disaster? What good will and should come from this? Certainly, we have seen much good result already from thousands of individuals, churches, governments and relief agencies. Where will we go from here? With the grace of God, we will avert future disasters if we pray to Him constantly like we never have before. Remember, God is in control!
E. Barreca, M.D.