God and birth defects



Editor’s note: This column is being repeated by Catholic News Service. Father Doyle is now retired.

Q. I have several very devout and pious friends who believe that God creates children with birth defects to become his "victim souls" because God needs suffering in order to make up for what was lacking in the suffering of Christ in the work of redemption.

They quote to me the account of the man born blind in John 9:3 and Mother Teresa, who once said that suffering is the kiss of Jesus. Does God really do this? Ever? (Newton, New Jersey)

A. I do not support your friends' explanation. God can do anything he wants; he doesn't "need" human suffering to complete the work of redemption. If God decided that what Jesus did was sufficient in itself, that would surely be within the divine prerogative.

Having said that, I do not claim to know why the Lord allows children to be born with birth defects. That is one aspect of the "problem of evil," which has triggered theological discussion and debate since the dawn of creation -- and without a solution that totally satisfies.

One need only look at the Book of Job in the Old Testament; though Job had lost nearly everything he valued in life -- family and friends, health and crops -- and still failing to understand, he chose simply to continue to trust in God. "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (Jb 1:21).

So the ultimate and honest answer to the question is: "We don't know." For as long as we remain on this side of heaven, we simply do not know how to reconcile God's goodness with the fact that much of his creation is wounded and broken; but we trust that the reasons will be revealed once we enter the peace of God's presence.

Part of the explanation, theologically, is that sickness and imperfection, disease and death were not part of God's original plan but came through the disobedience of the earliest human beings. To me, though, the most helpful thought is that human beings move forward on the path of goodness and work out their salvation through their special kindness to those who are vulnerable. (I have seen it in my own family with my parents' tender care for my sister, who died of multiple sclerosis at the age of 28.)

I believe this is part of what is meant in the Gospel of John, when Jesus says that the man was born blind not through his parents' sins or his own, but that "the works of God might be made visible through him" (Jn 9:3).