• Edward R. Benet

Was the 2016 earthquake God's punishment of italy for introducing same-sex unions?

Updated: Aug 27, 2019

Edward R. Benet . July 30th 2019

Does God send natural disasters as punishment for our sins? Is all human suffering really a consequence of human depravity? Are we to take literally those biblical passages in which the Lord sends terrible calamities in response to particular grave offences? A few years ago, this debate briefly flickered into life following a major natural disaster in Italy, but the discussion was instantly nipped in the bud by Church authorities, for better or for worse. Here, we wish to review some aspects of this sensitive debate.

During the summer of 2016, a new law came into force in Italy permitting civil unions between people of the same sex. The first unions under the new law came into being during the month of August. On October 30th 2016, a 6.6-magnitude earthquake hit the very centre of the peninsula. It was the biggest earthquake in 36 years. A few days later, in a transmission for Radio Maria, Dominican theologian Giovanni Cavalcoli said that the earthquake was divine chastisement for “the offence to the family and the dignity of marriage, in particular through civil unions”. Fr Cavalcoli’s statement was swiftly and roundly condemned by a host of authoritative figures in the Church. Archbishop Angelo Becciu, a senior official in the Vatican’s secretariat of state, said Cavalcoli’s remarks were “offensive to believers and disgraceful for non-believers”. Becciu apologized to quake victims and assured them they had the “solidarity and support” of Pope Francis. Bishop Nunzio Galantino, speaking for the Italian Episcopal Conference, said that the comments of Father Cavalcoli were symptomatic of a form of “paganism without limits”. The Osservatore Romano, official newspaper of the Holy See, described the affirmations as “offensive” and assured the victims of Pope Francis’ closeness to all those affected by the earthquake. Radio Maria moved swiftly to distance itself from the transmission and suspended Father Cavalcoli from the station with immediate effect. For his part, the Dominican theologian refused to back down. He told the Vatican to “read your catechism” and insisted that earthquakes were “caused by the sins of men”. However, Father Cavalcoli also said that, as a religious, he would be obedient to his suspension and also to a requirement from his superiors that he not give interviews.

Did Father Cavalcoli’s transmission really have foundation in the bible and in the catechism, as he claimed? Was the Vatican right to condemn him, or was this condemnation directed primarily towards showing solidarity with the victims? And if Father Cavalcoli’s statement was well-founded regarding the divine cause of natural disasters, does the Church show true solidarity to victims by denying the truth and presenting a more politically-correct version of events?

The epicentre of the earthquake was just 5km from Norcia, birthplace of St Benedict in the year 480. St Benedict is considered the principal founder of western monasticism. The order founded by him helped to re-Christianize and re-civilize Europe after the fall of the western Roman empire. As well as preaching the Gospel, the monks helped to bring order, discipline, and learning to a continent in chaos. The Benedictine rule, with its emphasis on prayer, manual work and study, became in turn the basis of the rules of other religious orders. It is no accident that St Benedict is one of the main patrons of Europe. Indeed, he and his order can be considered one of the pillars of European civilisation.

The house in which Benedict was born in Norcia was later built into a church. From the 12th century until the October 30th 2016 earthquake, this church remained substantially the same. Now, all that remains is the façade and part of the apse. The rest has been completely destroyed, along with many other historic buildings in Norcia, not to mention the homes of ordinary families. When we consider Benedict’s role in the construction of a Christian Europe, we can perhaps better understand Father Cavalcoli’s assertion that the destruction of the birthplace of the patron of the continent should be taken as a sign – a sign that we have betrayed our Christian roots and that the Lord is calling us to repentance. It probably did not help the Dominican priest’s case that he already has a reputation for being outspoken. And there was nothing politically correct in his response to those who criticized the transmission. Homosexual unions provoke God’s chastisement, he says, because these unions involve “sins against nature”.

It is understandable and perhaps right that Church authorities quickly distanced themselves from the comments. The priority in the aftermath of the earthquake was solidarity and care for the victims. Attributing blame for the cause of the earthquake was hardly helpful to those families who at that moment were acutely suffering its effects. But was Bishop Galantino correct in saying that comments of this sort constituted “paganism without limits”? And was Vatican Radio right to say that the Dominican’s position was “not in line with the proclamation of mercy which is the essence of Christianity and the pastoral activity of Pope Francis”?

The central question here – and this was a question that was not sufficiently aired during the quashing of Father Cavalcoli’s remarks – is: “Can a God with a merciful nature be compatible with a God who chastises humanity?” The answer to this question is a definite “Yes!” And the key to the debate is the difference between punishment for the sake of punishment, and a punishment that seeks to chastise humanity in order to lead it to the fullness of life. The Bible is full of stories of this merciful God who chastises. Think of the plagues of Egypt, the forty years of hard formation in the desert, the various exiles, the tongue lashings from the prophets, and much more – “For the Lord chastises those he loves, and scourges the people he calls his own” (Hebrews 12,6). Indeed, if we look at the remarks of Father Cavalcoli, we see that the phrase he uses more often than divine punishment is “divine chastisement” (“castigo divino”). Jesus himself, in the discourse at the Last Supper, says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (John 15, 1-2).

Marian apparitions that have the full approval of the Church also speak of divine chastisement. In Fatima, Our Lady said that the first world war would be followed by an even worse war if humanity did not change its ways. If we could once say, with Our Lady, that the tragedy of the second world war was caused by human sin, can we not also say that a tragedy like Norcia can be traced to human failings? Has it just become too politically incorrect nowadays to associate the Lord’s chastisement with particular behaviour, especially behaviour which is most dear to the cultural establishment, such as homosexual acts?

Of course, there were genuine problems with Father Cavalcoli’s statement. It showed insensitivity to the real victims of the quake - ordinary families who suffered terribly in the aftermath of the disaster. There is no way to justify the claim that God’s chastisement for society’s ills could sensibly be directed at them. To be fair to Father Cavalcoli, it doesn’t seem that he intended to say anything of that sort, but it is clear that some people interpreted his remarks in that fashion. The Dominican could probably have couched his remarks in much more sensitive terms, and, in the process, have said something valuable about the way in which natural disasters of this sort can be instruments of God’s loving formation of his people.

It is also true, surely, that some of the Church authorities that slammed the broadcast expressed their condemnation in terms that are not wholly consistent with the bible nor with tradition. To make a blanket statement that a merciful God does not chastise his people through natural disasters and other means is a tad simplistic, to say the least, but that was often the calibre of reaction that the Dominican priest’s remarks promoted at the highest level.

One of the most informative passages in Scripture that deals with this very issue is found in Luke 13:

“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’

Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, “For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?”

“Sir,” the man replied, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.”’ (Luke 13, 1-8).

The fact is that each one of us experiences the Lord’s chastening hand in various ways. When we are chastened in this way, we are being called to repentance, conversion, life, fruitfulness. We are not being punished for punishment’s sake! The Lord is digging around us and fertilizing us, hoping that we will produce some fruit. To some degree or other, we have all encountered illness, tragedy and bereavement in our families. The ones who suffer the most, should they be considered more guilty or more deserving of God’s “punishment”? No! Sometimes the very opposite seems to be the case. The greatest sinners often have lives of comfort and ease, making people envy them and despair about God’s justice! But maybe it is time for us to stop expecting God’s justice to work in this simplistic way! Like a loving parent, God chastens us. Affliction, suffering, and challenging situations can all be expressions of God’s loving call to place our trust only in him. The lives of the saints are very informative in this regard. Show me a saint who was not afflicted with significant suffering! And when we see that a saint was stricken with tribulation, do we start complaining that such affliction is incompatible with a merciful God? No, or at least we shouldn’t, and neither should church authorities make blanket statements to the effect that natural disasters cannot have their origin in a merciful God. The question of evil and suffering is a complicated one and a sensitive one. Simplistic generalisations are inconsistent with the much more profound and nuanced treatments of this subject found in Scripture and tradition.

What, then, could Father Cavalcoli have said about the Norcia earthquake in 2016? He could have said that natural disasters of this sort have a meaning in God’s plan. They are not the senseless, atheism-prompting events that many people make them out to be. Instead, they are a call to make God the centre of our lives, to no longer trust in the order of this world which is so precarious and fleeting. He should have said that the mystery of human suffering manifested in events such as these has no easy explanation, and we simply do not understand how the Lord can permit innocent people to endure affliction of this sort. Yet we are called to cling on to our faith in a merciful God despite the appearances, just as Abraham continued to believe in the promise even at the moment when he was asked to sacrifice his son. And then at this point, perhaps the Dominican could have gone on to say, as he did, that the destruction of the birthplace of one of the pillars of Western Civilisation is surely a sign from God that we turn our backs on our

The ruins of the Basilica of St Benedict in Norcia (author's photograph, July 27 2019)

Christian roots at our peril. Make no mistake, the October 30th earthquake of 2016 in which Benedict’s house was destroyed was a clear and ominous sign for Christian Europe, a desperate call from our loving God to repentance and conversion. Did the kneejerk reaction of Church authorities to Father Cavalcoli’s broadcast effectively quash this sign in the public eye?