A Letter from Father Tom May 10

Dear Parish Family,

Here’s a pastoral observation on just one of he comments of Governor Cuomo. It’s not an easy read; however, if it is read slowly it make perfect sense.

Bishop Robert Barron writes, “Last week Andrew Cuomo, made on interesting theological observation. Commenting on the progress New York State has made in fighting the coronavirus; and praising the concrete efforts of medical and ordinary citizens, he said: ‘The number is down because we brought the number down, God didn’t do that. Faith did not do that. “I won’t waste a lot of time exploring the hubris of that remark, which should be obvious to anyone. I might recommend, out of pastoral concern, that the governor read the first part of Genesis Chapter eleven.

What I will do is instead explain the basic intellectual confusion that undergirds Cuomo’s assertion, one, that, I fear, is shared by many believers. The condition for the possibility of the governor’s declaration is the assumption that God is one competitive cause among many, one actor jostling for position and time upon the stage with a coterie of other actors. One this reading, God does certain things – usually of a rather spectacular nature—and creaturely causes do other things, usually more mundane. Thus, we can clearly parcel our responsibility and credit – some to God and some to finite agents. But this account is deeply unbiblical and alien to the Catholic theological tradition.

To understand the scriptural sense of the play between divine and human causality, it is helpful to consult the cycle of stories dealing with King David in 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel. What strikes the reader is the nothing “supernatural” takes place in these accounts. Practically everything that happens to David could be adequately accounted for on a psychological, historical, military, or political grounds. However, throughout the narrative, God’s activity and involvement are assumed, for the author takes for granted the principal that the true God works not typically in an interruptive way but precisely though a congeries of secondary causes. Mind you, it is not the case that some explanations of David’s story are political or psychological and some properly theological; rather everything is at once, natural and supernatural- precisely because God’s causality is operating noncompetitively. If you want a one – liner summery of this distinctively biblical perspective, you could not do better that this, from the prophet Isaiah. “O Lord, you have accomplished all that we have done.” (Isaiah 26.12).

Now why should this be true? Here it would be helpful to turn to the Church’s greatest theologian, Saint Thomas Aquinas. For Thomas, God is not the supreme being  (ens summum, in his Latin), but rather ippsum esse subsistens, which means “the sheer act of to be itself.” In a word, God is not one more instance of the genus “being”, one thing, however exalted among others; instead, he is the self- explaining source of existence as such, that great font of being in  and through which all finite things subsist and act. Therefore, God does not compete for space, so to speak, on the same ontological grid as creatures, a zero – sum game does not obtain in regard to God’s activity and creaturely activity – the more we ascribe to one, the less we have to ascribe to the other.

Allow me to ground this rather abstract rhetoric with a homey example. If one were to ask what is necessary to make a bicycle, the response would be something like this: “tires, brake pads, a chain, a metal frame, the skill of the builder, perhaps a schematic to guide the building process, etc.”. No one would ever to be tempted to respond as follows:” tires, brake pads, a chain, God, a metal frame, the skill of a builder, etc.” And yet, a smart religious person, upon finishing the project of constructing that kike, would quite legitimately say “Thank God!” The prayer would be a humble acknowledgement, not that God is responsible for the entire nexus of causes and behaviors that made up the process. The upshot is that the two dimensions of causality—on finite and the other Transcendent–operate simultaneously and noncompetitively: “You have accomplished all that we have done.”

All of which brings me back to Governor Cuomo. To claim that “God did not do that” because we did it is a category mistake. What brought the coronavirus numbers down? It is perfectly accurate to say: “The skills of doctors and nurses, the availability of hospital beds, the willingness of so many to shelter in place, etc.”. But it is also perfectly valid to say that God brought those numbers down, precisely by grounding the entire complex of creaturely causality just referenced. This relationship holds at the metaphysical level, but it is perhaps even clearer when it comes to the psychological motivation of those dedicated physicians and nurses. Why ultimately were they willing to do what they did? I would be willing to bet that a large percentage of them would say that it was a desire to serve others and to be pleasing to God.

So we should thank all of the good people involved in bettering our current situation; and we shouldn’t hesitate, even for a moment to thank God as well. There is absolutely no need to play the zero – sum game proposed by the governor of New York.”

God Bless you during this Easter Season, and may He and we Keep us all safe and well.

Father Tom