Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Divine Chastisement in the Traditional Roman Missal

Ivan Aivazovsky, The Deluge (1864)
Note: The following article appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of The Latin Mass magazine on pages 42-47. Many thanks to the editors of TLM for allowing its publication here.
October 8 last week marked the 52nd anniversary of the Vatican’s decision to drop the (original) Votive Mass in Times of Pestilence from the Roman Missal.

The worldwide spread of COVID-19 has initiated a lively debate within the Church about God’s role in the crisis. Cardinals Raymond Burke and Paul Josef Cordes, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, and Bishop Athanasius Schneider have all referred to the pandemic as a punishment or chastisement from God, yet many of their brother clergy vehemently disagree. Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg, Germany calls such interpretations “cynical”, while La Civiltà Cattolica (a voice of the Holy See) refers to those who make these claims as “prophets of doom.” Cardinals Angelo Scola and Antonio dos Santos Marto go even further in their criticisms. Marto, the ordinary of the diocese in which the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima is located, has stated that any opinion linking COVID-19 to divine punishment is “not Christian” and the product of “ignorance, sectarian fanaticism or insanity.” (We will examine Scola’s views later.) 

To some extent, the debate even cuts across doctrinal divisions. Orthodox Catholic apologists like Fr. Frank Pavone and Trent Horn decline calling COVID-19 a divine punishment while orthodox bishops like Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas more or less affirm a concept of chastisement while tiptoeing around the word.
Recalling the principle that the law of prayer is the law of belief, can the traditional Latin Mass and the Novus Ordo shed any light on this controversy? 
Human Chastisement
In the 1962 Roman Missal, the noun castigatio and the verb castigo appear in two different Epistle readings (used four times during the year) and in eight different prayers. In most of these, the reference is to what we may call “human chastisement,” that is, a voluntary mortification of the flesh for the purpose of regaining a self-mastery lost to vice or threatened by concupiscence. It is this kind of chastisement that St. Paul has in mind when he writes: “I chastise (castigo) my body and bring it into subjection” (1 Corinthians 9, 27) [1].
As the prayers in the Missal reveal, human chastisement has at least five characteristics.
First, it fits the human condition. The Prayer over the People on the Thursday after Ash Wednesday asks that God provide relief to those who are “chastised by appropriate flagellations.” The “flagellations” are appropriate because our unruly appetites need to be whipped into shape.
Second, it beats damnation. The Collect for the Friday of Passion Week is striking:
Graciously pour forth Thy grace into our hearts, we beseech Thee, O Lord: that in mastering our sins by voluntary chastisement, we may be afflicted temporally rather than condemned to eternal abasement.
The Collect in the Mass for Any Necessity extends this idea to all punishment, both temporal and eternal:
Kindly show us Thine ineffable mercy, Lord: that Thou mayst strip us from all our sins and rescue us from the punishments that we deserve on account of them.
In the words of the Council of Trent: “Neither indeed was there ever in the Church of God any way accounted surer to turn aside the impending punishment of the Lord than that men should, with true sorrow of mind, practise these works of penitence.” [2] A good case in point is God deciding not to destroy the Ninevites after seeing them don sackcloth and ash (Jonah 3, 5-10). 
Gustave Dore, Jonah Preaches to the Ninevites (1866)
Third, human chastisement gets God’s attention. In the Old Testament “afflicting oneself” or “humbling oneself” is portrayed as a way of invoking divine aid when one is in dire straits. In 1 Samuel 1, 7-11, Hannah weeps and fasts over her barrenness and asks the Lord to “look upon [her] affliction and [remember] her.” God obliges, and Hannah gives birth to a son. A similar sentiment is operative in the Postcommunion Prayer for the Consecration of a Virgin(s):
O God, Thou who makest Thy home in a chaste heart: look upon Thy handmaids, that what they ask for through constant chastisements they may attain through Thy consolation. [3]
Fourth, even as a voluntary act, chastisement fulfills God’s commands. The third Collect for the Ember Saturday of Pentecost addresses God as He who orders “bodies to be chastised by the devotion of a fast as a remedy for souls.” We have been using the term “human chastisement” because man is the one doing the chastising; however, this chastisement springs from a divine rule and not human reason. [4]
Why God would make such a rule brings us to the fifth characteristic: it is good for us. As the previous prayer indicates, bodily chastisement is undertaken for the sake of the soul: paradoxically, and as we learn from the Collect on the Tuesday of the First Week of Lent, the soul chastises itself by mortifying the body. God willing, the soul’s “pruning” of itself (another meaning of castigatio) weakens its attachment to earthly affections and allows it to “grab onto” heavenly things more easily. [5] Chastisement, as the same prayer attests, is not undertaken masochistically but to increase authentic devotion and joy. It helps the soul “shine with desire” for God [6] and makes it more spiritually alive. [7] In the words of the Preface for Lent, human chastisement is that which, with God’s blessing, “curbs our vices, elevates our minds, and bestows virtue and reward.”
Divine Chastisement
The traditional Missal, however, also alludes to a different kind of chastisement in the Postcommunion Prayer of its votive Mass against Storms, which addresses God as “Thou who healest us by chastising and preservest us by forgiving.”
Here it is God chastising man (through the natural phenomenon of a storm) and not man chastising his flesh. This use of chastisement echoes that of 2 Cor. 6, 9-10 and especially Hebrews 12, 6: “For whom the Lord loveth, he chastiseth (castigat); and He scourgeth every son whom He receiveth.” The author of Hebrews goes on to argue that because it is in the nature of a father to correct his son, God’s chastisements are a proof of His Fatherhood and our divine adoption. If you are without chastisement, Holy Writ asserts, “then you are bastards, not sons!” (Hebr. 12, 8). Moreover, God chastises us out of love and for our own good, to heal us and to sanctify us (see Hebr. 12, 10). There is much in common between human and divine chastisement. 
But is every chastisement a punishment? The words are often used interchangeably, and this usage has generated no small amount of confusion. Some (like Trent Horn) who resist the idea that COVID-19 is a divine punishment rightly point out that although the Bible clearly teaches that God punishes sinners through physical evils like natural disasters, it just as clearly teaches that not every physical evil or misfortune is related to sinful behavior (Luke 13, 2-5, John 9, 3). [8] 
Our Lord teaches that the Father “maketh His sun to rise upon the good and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust.” (Matt. 5, 45) To our dismay, God lets His sun rise upon the wicked in order to give them time to repent, and He lets His rain fall upon the good in order to strengthen them in virtue. “The scourge of God,” Augustine writes, “educates the good to patience.” [9]
Similarly, if we accept that “chastisement” means correction [10] and that not all correction is punitive, then we should be able to speak of a bad thing happening as a divine chastisement without implying that everyone who suffers from the misfortune “deserves it.” And when the chastisement is a form of punishment, it is important to keep in mind that it is remedial, aimed at our healing and reconciliation. Like our own self-chastisements, God’s temporal punishment is an act of mercy designed to keep us from eternal punishment.  In both its punitive and nonpunitive forms, chastisement aims at correction, and correction at its best is only given out of love. True chastisement, even when it smarts, is a ministry of love.

Gustave Dore, Dante Purgatorio XXV (Terrace of the Lustful)
Mass in Time of Pestilence
The word “chastisement” does not appear in the 1962 Missal’s votive Mass in Time of Pestilence (Missa pro Mortalitate), but it is clearly implied. A picture emerges in this Mass along the following lines:
God has sent a “destroying angel” that He alone has the power to stop (Introit). In the Lesson from 2 Kings, God sends an “angel of the Lord” to strike Israel with a pestilence that kills 70,000 men.
God has done so because He is angry. The pestilence is a scourge of God’s wrath (Collect) from whom the people of God beg for deliverance (Postcommunion).
God, however, does not want the death of sinners but their repentance (Collect). His “scourging” is for the sake of correction, and therefore His ultimate motivation is not revenge but mercy. 
God’s mercy is obtained through intercession, namely, the intercession of our Savior Jesus Christ (Postcommunion). In the Lesson, David offers himself as the target of the angel in order to save Israel: God is pleased with this Christ-like gesture and stays the angel’s hand. Moreover, because it is an action of Jesus Christ the High Priest and Victim, the holy sacrifice of the Mass is a powerful means of intercession. In the Offertory Verse, the High Priest’s “sacrifice of incense” appeases the wrath of God, and in the Secret, the Church prays that the sacrifice of the Victim being offered in the Mass will deliver us from ruin. As this prayer implies, the Church’s historic response to pestilence is celebrating more Masses, not fewer.
The Secret also prays that we may be released from sin. Another key way to secure God’s mercy is to repent. Rather than blame God or question His justice, the Mass in Time of Pestilence interprets maladies as a call to repent and return to Him (Collect).
And God’s mercy does not fail. Sober teachings and penitential violet vestments notwithstanding, the Mass in Time of Pestilence abounds with hope. The Gradual describes the Lord sending His word and healing and delivering His people from death while the Gospel recounts Jesus’ miraculously healing the “sick with divers diseases.”
In response to COVID-19, Cardinal Angelo Scola was quoted as saying: “The idea of divine punishment is not part of the Christian vision — even in such a dramatic situation as the one we are experiencing right now. Of course it is a complex issue, but God does not use punishment to convert us!” The Mass in Times of Pestilence says otherwise, as does one of the Church’s oldest recorded prayers on the subject: 
O God, who desirest not the death but the penitence of sinners: graciously convert Thy people to Thee: that while they prove themselves to be devoted to Thee, Thou mayest take away from them the scourge of Thy wrath. [11]
Divine Evil?
Scola is not alone. One can easily imagine the Mass in Time of Pestilence scandalizing a modern audience. Those accustomed to think of angels as cute little winged babies are apt to forget the angels of death and vengeance that dot the landscape of Sacred Scripture, from Exodus to Revelation. These ministers of destruction are not fallen angels either but sinless servants executing God’s will.
Evelyn de Morgan, Angel of Death (1884)
St. John Henry Newman is instructive on this point when he construes the “wonderful harmony” of nature as “the work of angels.” Just as an invisible soul animates the body, so too do invisible angels animate nature, guiding its course in ways that are simultaneously wonderful, beautiful, and fearsome. Rather than blind us to the scientific laws of nature, “angel awareness” increases our awe of creation and of God’s multifarious providence as well as encourages the useful activity of connecting “the sight of this world with the thought of another” so that “heaven may be as little as possible an unknown place in our imaginations.” [12] The rise of the sun and the rise of a virus are mysterious effects of angelic operation.
Others bristle at the idea of God being angry. But as St. Thomas Aquinas explains, when the Bible and the Church speak of divine wrath, they are not suggesting that God experiences the emotion of anger, for as eternal and immutable Being, God does not move from one feeling to another. Rather, “anger and the like are attributed to God on account of a similitude of effect. Thus, because to punish is properly the act of an angry man, God’s punishment is metaphorically spoken of as His anger.” [13]
The deeper problem to which avenging angels and talk of anger points is God’s relationship with evil. As the psalmist puts it, ours is not a God who wills iniquity (Ps. 5, 5). But if deadly viruses (to say nothing of other dangerous things in nature) are creatures of God, then is not God a cause of evil? 
Presumably it is this conundrum that led Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of the Italian Episcopal Conference, to fumble when a reporter asked if COVID-19 was divine punishment. Bassetti quoted Jeremiah 2, 19—“Your wickedness will chasten you, and your apostasy will reprove you” (RSV)—but then added in direct contradiction of Hebrews 12, 6, “God does not chastise, but loves with infinite love.” One disappointed theologian referred to Bassetti’s equivocation as “a hermeneutical sleight of hand.”
St. Augustine, who wrestled greatly the problem of evil, offers a helpful clarification. There are indeed some things in nature rightly called evil insofar as they do not harmonize with other things (such as our bodily health), but in and of themselves all things are good insofar as they exist. Even if I saw only these “evil” things and nothing else, Augustine declares, “and even though I should want better things, yet even for them alone I should praise You,” for even the dragons and the deeps praise the name of the Lord.[14] Of course, we could have watched the dragons and the deeps from a safe distance in Eden, but because of original sin we live in a world of disease, disaster, and death—and suffer accordingly.
Novus Ordo
The Mass in Time of Pestilence is absent from the 1969 Roman Missal. Although Archbishop Annibale Bugnini does not specify the reason, he does write that some of the old votive Masses “were in response to needs now past and no longer felt or needs that were too specialized.” [15] The task of study group 13, which was responsible for drafting a new list of votive Masses, “was to limit the selection of Masses to themes that were truly essential, universal, and important, and to resist requests demanding the inclusion of Masses with the most diverse motifs, some of them utterly trifling and highly personal.” [16]
One wonders into what category the Mass in Time of Pestilence was placed. Needs no longer felt? Too specialized? Not essential or important? Utterly trifling? Group 13 completed its work in 1964, but the final list was still being discussed four years later. Father A.-M. Roguet, the relator of the group, explained their decisions to the eleventh general meeting of the Council for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy on October 8, 1968. [17] 
As he was speaking, a pandemic called the Hong Kong flu was sweeping the globe. The virus, which began in July of that year in Asia, had reached Europe by September; in Rome, it reached “epic proportions” two or three weeks after Fr. Roguet’s presentation. [18] Some cities, such as Berlin, were hit so hard that they had to store their dead in subway tunnels. In West Germany, garbage collectors had to help dig graves to keep up with demand. In certain regions of France, half the work force was bedridden. In December 1968 and January 1969 (two months after the Consilium definitively rejected the Mass in Time of Pestilence), the virus peaked. By the time it was over, between one and four million people were dead.
Pope Francis’ New Mass
With the arrival of COVID-19 in Europe earlier this year, the Congregation of Divine Worship came to recognize “the truly essential, universal, and important” need for a votive Mass of this kind. The new “Mass in Times of Pandemic” that it promulgated on April 1 of this year with the approval of the Holy Father, however, bears little in common with its predecessor. The Mass is prolix in its prayers for the sick, the dead, their loved ones, health care workers, and government officials and in its petitions for divine assistance. But by removing all references to sin (aside from one vague petition to be “free from sin”), repentance, divine wrath, and angels, the new Mass offers no robust theological framework for understanding misfortune or suffering (aside from a brief citation of Isaiah 53, 4), no challenge to understand the “hard sayings” of Scripture, and worst of all, no call to conversion and renewal of devotion. The readings and prayers that have been selected convey, at least to my mind, a strong sense of moral therapeutic deism. Simply put, the new Mass in Times of Pandemic betrays a hostile silence to the Church’s teaching about divine chastisement. 
Ilya Repin, Job and His Friends (1869)
Based on our examination, we make the following conclusions:
1. Divine chastisement is not well understood today, not even by some Princes of the Church. Perhaps one cause of this ignorance is that the Church after Vatican II also has little understanding of human chastisement to serve as a reference point.
2. A distinction should be made between chastisement and punishment. God’s chastisement may be a punishment of evildoers, but it can also be a way of “exercising” the good. Job was chastised, but he was not punished. Indeed, he lived up to a verse from his own story: “Blessed is the man whom God correcteth: refuse not therefore the chastising of the Lord” (Job 5, 17).
3. Be it punitive or not, divine chastisement is a loving correction that aims at amending lives or drawing people closer to God. Efforts to oppose God’s love with His “anger” are fundamentally misguided. 
4. A general connection between evils and divine chastisement is a part of Sacred Scripture and Tradition. Therefore, omitting all references to divine chastisement from the worship of the people of God or from the authoritative teachings of the Magisterium is a dereliction of pastoral duty, a failure to teach all nations and to catechize believers about the truths held infallibly by the Catholic Church. It is also a failure to form souls, to shape a Christian sensibility and imagination that can prudently interpret current events in light of supernatural principles and that can use this interpretation to grow in holiness and closeness to God. “He that hateth chastisement,” warns Sirach, “shall have less life” (Ecclus. 19, 5).
5. That said, unless explicitly stated in Scripture, conclusions drawn about particular connections between a historical event and a specific evil are not infallible or essential to our salvation and should therefore be made provisionally and tentatively. Looking for such connections is itself a constructive activity provided it is anchored in self-accusation and remains free of schadenfreude. Still, short of divine revelation, we do not know the details of God’s hidden plan about every historical moment. 
Reactions to COVID-19 have proved to be an interesting litmus test. Commentators tend to pick the sin they deplore the most and identify it as the cause of the pandemic. For traditional Catholics, it is recent acts of idolatry and sacrilege of the Eucharist; for progressives, it is ecological depredation and economic inequality. Again, there is nothing wrong with speculation per se (it is good training); but what God is doing with COVID-19, God only knows.
One final thought, which I propose at the risk of ignoring my own advice. It seems to me that our God has a fine sense of poetic justice and a flare for irony. Wouldn’t it be something to reach the Beatific Vision and learn that God allowed the spread of COVID-19 to expose the faithless hearts of His own faithful, even those in the hierarchy? What if God is chastising His people for failing to believe in His chastisement?
[1] The passage is in the Epistle reading of Septuagesima Sunday.
[2] Session XIV, chapter 8.
[3] The author of this prayer possibly had Hannah in mind, and thus the consolation sought is the spiritual fecundity of a virgin now espoused to Christ.
[4] See Summa Theologiae I-II.63.4.
[5] See the Collect for the Thursday of the Fourth Week in Lent and the Second Collect for the Wednesday of the Fourth Week in Lent.
[6] Collect for the Tuesday of the First Week of Lent.
[7] Collect for the Saturday of the Second Week in Lent.
[9] City of God 1.8.
[10] See Summa Theologiae II-II.33.1.
[11] Oratio pro Mortalitate, from the tenth-century Gregorian Sacramentary.
[12] “The Ministry of Angels,” 242-250, in Miscellanies (W.H. Allen, 1897), 248, 250.
[13] Summa Theologiae 2.
[14] Confessions 7.13.19.
[15] The Reform of the Liturgy: 1948-1975, trans. Matthew J. O'Connell (Liturgical Press, 1990), 401.
[16] Bugnini, 402.
[17] Bugnini, 401.
[18] Lawrence K. Altman, “Hong Kong Flu Is Affecting Millions in Wide Areas Around World,” New York Times, January 18, 1970, p. 18.

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