Against Suffering

(Originally published in May 2010)

Suffering is not something we should treasure. It is not something we should unquestioningly accept. Suffering is neither noble nor beneficial. We should work to end suffering, whether our own or that of others, using every tool at our disposal. Why? Because, although suffering cannot always be alleviated, it is not something anyone deserves. It is not a blessing. It is not useful. We should not accept it without a fight, let alone welcome it with open arms.

Today, at Fatima, Pope Benedict said:

“I have come to Fatima to pray, in union with Mary and so many pilgrims, for our human family, afflicted as it is by various ills and sufferings,” Benedict, the third pontiff to visit Fatima, said to an audience of at least 400,000 people.

Urging the infirm to take heart, he told the crowd it can “overcome the feeling of the uselessness of suffering which consumes a person from within and makes him feel a burden to those around him when, in reality, suffering which is lived with Jesus assists in the salvation of your brethren.”

In the guise of expressing sympathy for those suffering with illnesses and other afflictions, Benedict is parroting some of the core concepts of Catholic doctrine: that we are born sinners, that we must spend our lives suffering and atoning for both the sins we “inherit” and the sins we commit, and that redemption and salvation can be found only through the recognition that we, like Christ, must be punished for our sins. According to this argument, suffering and pain are the penance we must willingly and happily accept for the sin of having been born into a fallen world.

These ideas were clearly expressed in John Paul II’s 1984 “Apostolic Letter… on the Christian meaning of human suffering”:

With these and similar words the witnesses of the New Covenant speak of the greatness of the Redemption, accomplished through the suffering of Christ. The Redeemer suffered in place of man and for man. Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished. He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed. In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.

For it is above all a call. It is a vocation. Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: “Follow me!”. Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my Cross. Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him. He does not discover this meaning at his own human level, but at the level of the suffering of Christ. At the same time, however, from this level of Christ the salvific meaning of suffering descends to man’s level and becomes, in a sense, the individual’s personal response. It is then that man finds in his suffering interior peace and even spiritual joy.

This particular aspect of Catholic doctrine and practice is reprehensible and callous in many ways, one of which is especially pertinent to Benedict’s words at Fatima: it provides the Church with a convenient justification for their refusal to take direct action to alleviate the suffering for which they are culpable, either directly or indirectly. In other words, if the Church can convince its followers that suffering is a blessing, their refusal to directly confront and put a stop to the clergy members who sexually abused children or the institutional policies that turned a blind eye to it, or their indirect contribution to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, for example, begins to seem less cowardly and more noble.

Offering comfort and care to suffering individuals, whether through words or actions, is a noble and loving gesture, one that we should engage in whenever the need presents itself. This is not what the Church advocates or engages in, though. Suffering should be fought, not welcomed. No one has to atone for the “sin” of having been born into a “fallen” world. No one deserves their suffering. Certainly, the Church and affiliated charitable organizations do, in some situations, directly work to alleviate human suffering. However, because it is tainted with and weakened by the belief that suffering is deserved and is a blessing, the relief they provide is rarely more than temporary and palliative.

And the saddest thing, the most heartbreaking thing of all? They do not see that as a problem. The Catholic Church relishes in suffering, and I can think of few attitudes more reprehensible than that.

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