ROME (ChurchMilitant) - The president of the Italian Episcopal Conference has conceded that the coronavirus pandemic may be interpreted as a chastisement we have brought upon ourselves by our evil and rebellion against God.
Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti quoted the first part of a verse from the prophet Jeremiah in an interview with leftwing Italian newspaper La Repubblica: "Your wickedness will chasten you, and your apostasy will reprove you" (2:19 RSV).
The archbishop of Perugia-Città della Pieve was asked if believers should view the coronavirus as divine punishment since "the Bible speaks of chastisements from God."
Basetti, however, was reluctant to attribute the pandemic to God's direct intervention since "God does not chastise, but loves with infinite love."
"If we thought of this situation as a punishment from God, we would betray the very essence of the gospel," he cautioned, before hammering home the warning from Jeremiah.
"God saves man by freeing him from sin, but leaving him free" to choose, the cardinal remarked. "There are already certain behaviors of men that themselves punish human beings by impoverishing our existence, breaking our relationship with God, with others and with creation."
While Italian historian Roberto De Mattei described Bassetti's statement "as bordering on Deism more than Catholicism" and Catholic theologian Gavin Ashenden called it "a hermeneutical sleight of hand," an Old Testament scholar from Rome tells Church Militant that "the quotation from Jeremiah was not random but carefully chosen."
"Jeremiah is not a book a bishop would quote in a newspaper interview," the academic argued. "The cardinal has accurately cited an obscure verse from the Catholic translation of the Italian Bible — even if he has quoted only the first half of the verse."
"There are two Old Testament traditions dealing with God's punishment: The prophetic tradition speaks of God directly punishing rebellious people, while the wisdom tradition, as in Proverbs, speaks of punishment as the consequences of our actions," the Hebrew Bible scholar explained.
Basetti is drawing on the wisdom tradition but is making the same point, i.e., we are being punished for our 'sinful actions' and 'apostasy.' The words in the text from Jeremiah are of great significance. In Italian, the first word 'malvagità' refers to both 'evil actions' and the 'determination to persist in evil,' while the second word 'rebellion' is translated as 'apostasy' in the Septuagint.
"I agree that to a layperson, the cardinal's words come across as self-contradictory, and Basetti could have used the opportunity to call people to repentance, especially during Lent!"
The Hebrew scholar also highlighted for Church Militant's Rome Correspondent pages from the Smyth & Helwys Commentary on Jeremiah by Terence Fretheim, explaining how Fretheim makes the connection between God and punishment even in the wisdom tradition.
"While this linkage can be properly understood in terms of the proverbial phrase, 'What goes around, comes around,' it is important that God is not removed from the connection between sin and consequence," Fretheim writes, noting that "God mediates the consequences that are already intrinsic to the evil deed itself."
God thereby sees to the moral order — a reality God has built into the very structures of creation in terms of which human deeds, whether good or wicked, rebound on the perpetrator's heads, though not in any mechanistic or inevitable way. ... This divine mediation of the consequences of sin has to do with God being true to himself, that is, true to the moral order that God has established in the creation.
Catholic theologian Dr. Ashenden agreed with Freithem's analysis and tells Church Militant that Basetti was in danger of "turning God into a 21st-century, non-judgmental therapist by claiming that he never chastises us."
"Making God into a therapeutic figure rather than a Father known in awe and received in mercy is that the former deepens our innate tendency to narcissism, a looking inwards, while the latter directs our gaze more properly beyond ourselves in a more authentic worship and a deepened penitence," Ashenden said, pointing to the first chapter from Paul's letter to the Romans where divine punishment comes about as a result of apostasy from God due to idolatry and to inverted and perverted sexual behaviors.
Lamenting the Deism of many bishops, Professor De Mattei told Church Militant that the entire biblical tradition of Judaism and Christianity recognized God's direct hand in executing judgment on Israel and the nations when they turned away from God and engaged in actions in flagrant violation of his covenant and Commandments.
"Why are our bishops turning the God of the prophets into the God of the deist philosophers and pretending that God is a 'divine clockmaker' who has wound his clock and is sitting back watching the world ticking along without intervening even when it goes awry?" the historian asked.
"Even Christians from other traditions believe in divine punishment," De Mattei insisted, noting an Anglican collect from the Book of Common Prayer (1662), to be prayed in times of plague.
The prayer acknowledges "God, who in thy wrath didst send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron, and also in the time of King David, didst slay with the plague of pestilence threescore and ten thousand" and asks God to have "pity upon us miserable sinners" and "command the destroying angel to cease from punishing" and "withdraw from us this plague and grievous sickness."
Asked how he would view Basetti's interview, Italian Pentecostal pastor Emanuele Di Martino of the House of Prayer in Rome said that the biblical principle of "reaping what we sow" is very clear in Galatians 2:7, as it is in Jeremiah.
"I would add that, as Christians, we are to take responsibility for what happens in our land," Di Martino said, quoting 2 Chronicles 7:14: "If my people who are called by my name humble themselves and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from Heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land."
In February, Church Militant reported on former archbishop of Milan Cdl. Angelo Scola dismissing the idea of divine punishment.
"Divine punishment does not exist. It is an incorrect view of Christianity," Scola told La Repubblica when asked if Christianity supported the vision of a divine punishment behind the coronavirus.