Does Catholicism 'Revel In Suffering'?

In our day and age, with the help of television, the internet, relatively easy global travel, and ample opportunities for cultural exchange, North Americans have become more aware of the religious traditions of the East than ever before. The basic teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism are familiar to almost every high school graduate now, and many of us have visited the great temples and holy shrines of these religions on trips to Asia. In fact, the adherents of these faiths dwell among us in the West now in record numbers, and openly practice their faith, as is their right in a society that enshrines freedom of conscience into law.

But this also means that some people in the West inevitably will be confused when they try to compare the spirituality of the Eastern religions with the doctrines and spirituality of Catholicism. Sadly, too many of us - having been poorly instructed in our own religious heritage - may be inclined to view these Asian imports through "rose-colored glasses." A generation or more of lax and banal catechesis at too many of our Catholic schools is partially to blame (but that sad story is best left for another column).

Still, mostly through no fault of their own, many Catholics are confused when they try to compare the Catholic faith with Eastern religions. Moreover, many of those who were not brought up as Catholics were unable to get a clear, public account of the Catholic faith from many sectors of the Church from the end of Vatican II until the new Catechism came out in 1993. Those nearly 30 years of confusion took a dreadful toll on the public perception of our faith.

For example, a reader of this column named Wallace sent to me the following letter. I think it sums up the struggles of many of our contemporaries in trying to figure out what Catholicism is all about and comparing our faith unfavorably in certain respects with the great religions of the Far East:


First, I would like to thank you for your very nice explanation of Sister Faustina's usage of the term "misery" in her writings. You were very reassuring. However, I found her spirituality so dismaying not because of her words alone, but because she seems to typify Catholicism in general. The Mass, for instance, is said to be celebrated before the crucifixion, in spirit, if I understand rightly. Stigmatists like St. Francis of Assisi and Padre Pio seem to exhibit very bloody spirituality. Sister Faustina herself talks of receiving some sort of crown of thorns, among other travails, such as diabolical persecutions.

For somebody raised in a secular environment, outside of the faith, it is rather disconcerting. Frankly, I have endured enough in life without organized religion. Reading Sister Faustina's writings, and seeing how Catholic spirituality in general can be so grisly, sometimes honestly makes me wonder if that is just the Way of the Cross. ...

I may be no expert on the subject, but I do seem to recall something in the Gospel about spiritual relief being provided to those in need. It is difficult to square such words with what honestly strikes me as intensely painful spirituality. In Eastern religion, for example, namely Buddhism, the alleviation of human suffering is the central mission. Western religion, particularly Catholicism, seems to revel in suffering, almost. Please correct me, if I am wrong.

Well, Wallace, you have certainly pointed to an aspect of Catholicism that is distinctive of our faith: a very vivid and direct approach to human suffering. Even as a convert from Protestantism to Catholicism many years ago, I noticed the graphic and uncompromising way that Catholic religious art approaches the sufferings of Christ: the bleeding crucifixes, the Pieta, the "sacrifice" of the Mass. And the saints seem to walk this Via Dolorosa too: Our Lady of Sorrows, the countless martyrs, the tears of contrition, and works of penance. Of course, the simplest way to answer your letter would be to point out that all this "blood, sweat, and tears" is barely half the story. There is the great joy of the saints to contend with (no one can be canonized a saint in the Church without exhibiting "holy joy," and in fact, who was more joyful than the very saint you mentioned, Francis of Assisi, the Troubador of God, who, even while bearing that very stigmata, recited on his deathbed his marvelous celebration of creation, the "Canticle of the Sun"). There are the miracles of healing and Our Lady of Lourdes, and of course, the radiance of Easter morning! But I think your good question needs a more extensive answer than that, so I will try my best.

First of all, one of the very things that made Catholicism so attractive to me as a convert 15 years ago was that, like you, I had "endured enough in life." I had known sudden and brutal physical suffering, abandonment by loved ones, even a nervous breakdown as an undergraduate - all this in relatively sheltered, middle class North America! And I was well aware of the much worse sufferings endured by others. I wanted a faith that could face the reality of our human brokenness and sorrow "head-on," not one that would run away from it or try to explain it away. I looked at the Eastern religions and found them all lacking in this very respect.

You said that Buddhism seeks the alleviation of suffering. Yes, indeed, but how? In fact, it is the Catholic Church, not Buddhism, that has devoted itself to the relief of human suffering. Think of the countless Catholic hospitals, orphanages, schools for the poor, clinics, shelters for the homeless, and hunger relief projects down through the centuries. I believe it is true that the Catholic Church is still the largest single provider of health care in the entire world.

Did Buddhism inspire anything like that?

I am not saying that Buddhists do not care about human suffering (Buddha taught a way of compassion of sorts), but the central teaching of Buddhism is that human suffering comes from unsatisfied desires, and therefore the primary way to be released from suffering is to let go of all of one's desires. In other words, Buddhism seeks to escape suffering, to run away from it, not to find a way through it.

Escapism is surely not the answer, for much human suffering simply cannot be escaped that way, and I must not turn a blind eye to the sufferings of my neighbors, either. I must passionately desire their good ("blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake," Jesus said). Then there is Hinduism. Hinduism classically did not run away from suffering, but it did try to explain it away as a result of "bad Karma." No relief or equity for the lowest of the low, the "untouchables," in classical Hindi society: They must work off their bad Karma. Of course, this is also not to say that Hindus generally do not care about the poor. Many see this moral duty as an aspect of their "dharma" (their appointed role in life). But again, this is surely secondary to the great Hindu goal of escaping from the terrible wheel of Karmic justice.

So, in Catholicism I found the bloody crucifixes not to be disturbing but just plain honest, because that's precisely where most of us are, most of the time, in one way or another: We are with Jesus, on the Cross. The fact that the Son of God Himself once cried out on the Cross: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mk 15:34) is one of the greatest comforts of the Catholic faith to me. It means that there is no human misery that He has not taken on His own heart. It means that by taking flesh and dwelling among us as a real human being, He has shared with us all the joys, pains, and sorrows of the human journey, and He does not ask us to walk through any darkness or pain that he has not walked through Himself. "Surely He has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows. ... and by His stripes we are healed" (Is 53:4-5). It is precisely because He descended into the very depths of total human affliction for us on the Cross, and rose again, that I can believe He can raise us up from those depths to new life - even everlasting life. Nothing is a greater sign of hope to me than the Cross.

Secondly, the Catholic attitude to suffering has been explained so beautifully by Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter "Salvifici Dolores," that all I can do is urge you Wallace, and the rest of our readers, to read it for yourselves someday (you can find it on the Vatican website

To sum it up briefly: The Pope said that there are two basic attitudes that we should have toward human suffering. We should do what good we can for the suffering, and we should try to do what good we can with our own sufferings.

First, we should try to relieve the sufferings of others (and our own) as much as possible, with compassionate care. The Pope recalls for us the importance of Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan in this regard. But where our own crosses cannot be taken away, we can still offer them up, in union with the Cross of Jesus, for the good of others. United with His Cross, in the Holy Spirit, our sufferings can thereby become a source of blessings and graces for the Church and the world. The chronically ill and suffering are therefore not just to be objects of our pity: they have an important vocation in the Church. Let me finish this column with the Pope's own words, which I have quoted once before in this series, but never tire of repeating them again and again:

Christ does not explain in the abstract the reason 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 to him. ... Faith in sharing in the suffering of Christ brings with it the interior certainty that the suffering person "completes what is lacking in Christ's afflictions" (Col 1:24); the certainty that in the spiritual dimension of the work of Redemption he is serving, like Christ the salvation of his brothers and sisters. Therefore he is carrying out an irreplaceable service ("Salvifici Dolores," 26-27).

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at


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