Viruses: Evil Suffered vs. Evil Done

The virus is cruel, but not evil. Because it sickens and can kill, it is natural for us to experience it as malevolent. Yet how could it be? A virus is as much a tribute to God’s handiwork as the dogwood blossoming by my neighbor’s mailbox, or the blue heron standing below the waterfall on our local pond. Viruses have endured longer than the sandstone cliffs on the Jurassic coast of Devon. They are older than the ferns, conifers, and butterflies of the Cretaceous Period. They were replicating before the emergence of lice, those parasites that outlived dinosaurs and might survive man as well.

Are viruses living or non-living flecks of matter? Organic or not? The jury is still out. We know only that they are part of the stunning enigma of the material world. And that they have their purposes. The plenary drama of creation includes even those things that repel, threaten, or frighten us. Beauty is as fearsome as it is wondrous.


Horse Attacked by a Lion. George Stubbs (1769).

A Thomistic Reflection on Evil

Herbert McCabe studied chemistry and philosophy before joining the Dominicans. A chemist’s regard for the properties of matter informs his thinking on the problem of evil in a world made by God. His Faith Within Reason includes an unconventional reflection on evil that speaks to our particular moment:

What is bad for one thing may be good for another. It is bad for the lamb to be eaten by the lion, but the very same action is good for the lion. I do not mean by this that evil is subjective (in the modern sense of that word). It is not just from the point of view of the lamb that what happens is bad for it. From anybody’s point of view what happens is bad for the lamb, and this is not just because the lamb dislikes it .  .  . but because eventually it dies. I should maintain that any evil suffered by one thing is always a good achieved by something else.

That last sentence prompts the question: Is the achieved “good” a true one, or simply a perceived or illusory good? Fr. McCabe, thinking with Aquinas, would assure us that God brings good out of evil. But that takes us down a metaphysical path that I am ill-equipped to follow. It is by fixing our eyes on the pathogen dominating our lives just now—a humble emblem for the natural world—that we can hold firmly to McCabe’s Thomistic reflection. And take from it reason to tremble:

The meal which is bad for the lamb is always good for the lion: the disease which is bad for me is a fulfillment and achievement for the germs that are causing it. It is the whole meaning of evil suffered that you are suffering from the activities and fulfillment of some alien being.


Bear attacking a woman
The Bear Cub Thief. Emmanuel Fremiat (1889). Statue in Jardin des Plantes, Paris.

The virus fulfills its ordained task by invading the cells of a host against whom it bears no grudge. Innocent of malice, it works merely to reproduce itself. It is guiltless in its cruelty. No force of nature, no living thing but man is guilty of evil done.

The Virus of Human Resentment

As I write this, evil—moral evil—is on view on the nation’s streets. Anarchic malice has just seized a 6-block area of Seattle, a so-called “autonomous zone” behind barricades. It is now a tiny foreign country, analogous to Vatican City but formed in the manner of the 1871 Paris Commune. Across the nation neighborhoods are still smoldering, consumed by turmoil and the menace of man’s own resentments. The ugliness of these past weeks was not caused by a treacherous virus, or any kind of natural calamity, but by what used to be called sin—the one feat for which only man has proficiency. Biblical man, attuned to history’s opportunities for evil, put into the mouth of Job an anguished utterance that takes on urgency in the current anarchy: “The earth is given into the hand of the wicked.” (Job 9:24)

On one of the index cards that serve me as book marks is a single statement by Abraham Heschel:

Even more frustrating than the fact that evil is real, mighty and tempting is the fact that it thrives so well in the disguise of the good, that it can draw its nutriment from the life of the holy. In this world, it seems, the holy and the unholy do not exist apart, but are mixed, interrelated and confounded. It is a world where idols may be rich in beauty, and where the worship of God may be tinged with wickedness.


The Close of the Age of Silver. Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1527-35). Three Graces, left, are powerless over mayhem after the Golden Age.


Moralizing Without Discernment

The last phrase applies to Catholics mewling over “systemic racism.” Bien pensant Catholics spring to their feet when a rogue white cop causes the death of a black man in a horrific incident that no one of any race excused. (And that is neither typical of police behavior nor, in itself, proof of anything larger than one officer’s moral abyss.) But these same pious casuists keep mum about racism—racial violence—directed against whites by blacks. Ecclesial bureaucrats like L.A.’s Cardinal Gómez have nothing to say against insidious tropes of “white privilege.” They direct no righteous anger toward the rotted core of identity politics. Gómez rose on hind legs to fuel the myth of America’s irredeemable guilt: “Racism has been tolerated for far too long in our way of life.” This, from a man who lives in a predominantly white nation that twice elected a black man president.

Bishop Mark Seitz was roused to kneel in submission to the distortions of a noxious—not to say racist—movement:

It’s difficult to know what a bishop should do. But I’ve had some excellent advisers, people and priests. I tried to listen to them, listened to my heart. Sometimes, you just have to take the leap into the unknown.


Bishop Mark J. Seitz of the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, kneels at El Paso’s Memorial Park, June 1, 2020.


What can be said about this virtue-signalling, soft-headed sentimentalist? Clearly he knows nothing about BLM, neither its history nor its aims. Seitz is ignorant about crime statistics, about the reality of systemic—the word du jour—victimization of black by other blacks, and the need for police in the very neighborhoods where BLM would abolish them. [He does know, however, about self-promotion. Pope Francis saw the photo of Seitz on his knees and called to congratulate him. Seitz went public with the call.]

An essential purpose of intelligence is the power to make distinctions. Civilization depends on our capacity to know right from wrong, good from evil, upside down from right side up. Now, Orwell’s inversion is barrelling over us: “Black Lives Matter,” good; “All Lives Matter,” bad. Bishop Seitz lacks the wits to discern the moral vacuity of that reversal. Francis, apparently, sees advantage in boosting it.

The velocity and ease by which a single terrible anecdote has inflated into evidence of thorough-going, intransigent social perfidy by white America is ominous. The identity game, sugared by piety and played in the name of Catholic social teaching, is a handmaiden to racial demagoguery. It bodes poorly for the health of our nation. And our Church.


Men attacking an enemy
Luca Signorelli. Oeonus killed in revenge by sons of Hippocoor. Cappella Brizio, Orvieto (late 14th C.)