Pope Francis recently met with Chilean victims of sexual abuse by priests as part of his efforts to help heal the deep wounds in that country. But the headlines about this event were dominated, not by the Holy Father’s gesture of outreach, but by a reported remark from the pope to one of the victims, a gay man.
According to Juan Carlos Cruz, Pope Francis said to him, “‘Juan Carlos, that you are gay does not matter. God made you like that and he loves you like that and I do not care. The Pope loves you as you are, you have to be happy with who you are.’”
Some secular news outlets have reported this story and suggested it signals a “new openness” of Pope Francis and the Church toward same-sex attraction. The Vatican has declined to comment as it does with regard to stories about alleged private remarks made by the pope.
Whether these were the pope’s exact words or whether there was some misunderstanding or miscommunication cannot be known; certainly, on its face, it would require some clarification, and would contradict other statements Pope Francis has made on same-sex attraction (for example, his recently reported remarks to the Italian bishops that men with homosexual tendencies should not be admitted to seminary or ordained).
But the quotation, and the way in which it has been interpreted by many, does bring to the fore an idea that is both widely held and deeply flawed: that God causes everything.
People often speak as though God makes every individual thing happen. You missed an appointment because of an accident on the highway? God must have been saving you from some catastrophe that would have occurred otherwise. A horrible tragedy has occurred in your life? God works in mysterious ways, but He’s brought it about for some good. In this way of thinking, every event from the direction the wind blows to the outcome of wars is directly willed and caused by God.
This is an error.
As with all theological errors, this idea contains some element of truth, but that element either gets twisted or blown out of proportion. There are several truths underneath this notion: that God is the creator and thus the cause of all things; that Divine Providence guides all things in a mysterious way toward God’s ultimate will; that “all things work together for good for those who love the Lord” (Rom 8:28). But when these truths are isolated from each other or from other truths, they lead to a false impression: that God both directly wills and causes every event and every detail of life. It leads one to think that God wanted this person to die of a drug overdose or that person to be paralyzed in a random accident. It makes people believe that God willed this person to be blind, or that person to have same-sex attraction.
This is actually a very old theological error, one that has arisen in several forms and taken different names, but remained essentially the same. Perhaps the most useful name for our purposes would be “occasionalism.” This is the belief that God ultimately causes everything—that even when it appears another thing is a cause, really that event is only the “occasion” in which God causes the event to happen.
For example, in a game of billiards, we see one billiard ball strike another, and the other ball set in motion. When we observe this series of events we infer that the cause of the movement of the billiard ball was the impact of the first ball. But the occasionalist would say that this could not be so, for how could any created, contingent, finite being be the cause of a change to any other thing like itself? Surely, just as God is the only one with the power to cause things to be, He is the only one with the power to cause things to happen. Otherwise, if created things could make things happen of their own accord, they would be in competition with God, would they not? Thus, only God can cause things to happen, and the appearance of created things causing events is the mere “occasion” for God’s action.
Occasionalism was a particularly influential school of thought among the medieval Islamic philosophers, especially al-Ghazali, and we can see why. The Islamic conception of God (Allah) is of a being radically beyond all things and supreme over them. Allah is beyond truth, such that He is free to contradict Himself. And Allah’s power is beyond all things. If Allah is truly omnipotent, Allah must be the cause of all things—for how could anything else act as a cause if it is inferior to Allah, receiving its very being from Allah?
This idea found its way via Arabic commentaries on Aristotle into medieval Christian thinking, and the thread of occasionalist thinking can be followed from Nicholas of Autrecourt to the Cartesians right through to David Hume and his famous denial of our ability to know causality. In each these cases, in various ways, thinkers deny or at least question the ability of contingent creations of God to be able to make anything happen in the world by themselves.
The influence of this occasionalist strain of thought has persisted through time and filtered down into the common expression discussed above. Thus, people are led to think that God wills hurricanes to destroy homes and lives and that He intentionally makes people to live with certain temptations.
But this could not be so, and it’s important to keep other truths in mind to help us remember. For if God positively willed someone to have a proclivity toward a certain kind of sin—if He had “made them that way”—then it would be the case that God had intentionally created a person as wanting to commit an act against His will. But this is nonsense. How can God will for someone to want to act against His will?
In order to prevent these notions from taking hold, there are several key ideas we must understand.
First is a proper conception of the relationship between God and creation. As with so many things, we tend toward error on one side or another of the truth. One error is to think that there is no real distinction between God and creatures, that “we’re all part of Him.” This is pantheism, and this is false. The other error is to think of God as differing from us only by degree and not by kind—that is, thinking of God as the biggest being out of all the beings, the one that would take up the most space in a pie chart. But this is equally false (and, as you can see, a similar kind of error—both leave out a crucial distinction between God and creation). In reality, God does not exist in the same way that creatures exist. God is Existence Itself, the one who exists necessarily, whose essence it is to exist. (This was the philosophical interpretation that St. Thomas Aquinas gave us God’s revelation of His name to Moses: “I am who am.”) Creatures, on the other hand, exist only contingently, dependently—we exist because we are granted existence by God. For creatures, existence is a gift granted us by the Creator.
Similarly, God does not cause events in the same way that creatures do. God is the primary cause of all things, because all things receive existence from Him. But along with that gift of existence, God also grants creatures the capacity to act as causes in the material world in a limited way. This is what we call “secondary causality.” God is the primary cause of all things as the origin of their existence, but created things, from billiards balls to your uncle Bill, are secondary causes, truly able to make things happen.
It is because God does not exist in the same way that we exist (necessarily, not contingently) and does not cause in the same way we cause (primarily, not secondarily) that we are not “in competition” with God, as the occasionalists suppose. When I cause the keys on this keyboard to be pressed down and form words on the screen, I am not opposing God in doing so; rather, God has given me the agency to choose to do these things and make them happen. It is part of God’s will that His creatures be able to make things happen of their own accord.
But how could creatures act independently if all happens according to God’s will? Does that not determine their actions? To understand this, we must draw a distinction between God’s permissive will and God’s active will. It is true that nothing happens against the will of God, but it is also true that not everything is willed by God directly; some things are merely allowed for some greater end or purpose. In the case of evils committed by human beings, we can say that the capacity to commit evil acts is a necessary corollary of our capacity to choose to know, love, and serve God. God gifts human beings with free choice, the ability to cooperate with His grace or to reject it—God loves us, but He does not force Himself upon us. So, God permits moral evils as the necessary consequence of the freedom required for the potential to live in a loving relationship with Him.
But in the case of natural evils, of privations of the good not freely chosen, the end or purpose is more mysterious. It is not readily evident in each individual case of a life ended prematurely or a tragic accident why this event was allowed to occur. We can say generally that when humanity fell from grace it took creation along with it, so that both man and the cosmos are in the midst of being renewed in Christ, and that the suffering caused by the dangers of the world plays a part in that renewal. But beyond that, it is difficult to say much more.
We have traveled a long way in trying to answer this question, but this background information is necessary to address the question properly. So: God is the creator of all things, and is the primary cause of all things, creating them good. But everything, even inanimate objects, has its own ability to be a cause, even to make things to be in a way other than God would positively intend them to be, so that genetic abnormalities can cause cancers or brain chemistry abnormalities can cause mental disorders. Likewise, whatever is the cause of sexual orientation, there is no need to posit that “God created that person that way,” as if we were occasionalists, and indeed, doing so would bring about several contradictions, most notably that God would be willing that a person want to violate His will.
It is doubtful that the pope used this phrase, but it is one heard often enough from others. This short saying contains within it a host of theological and philosophical errors. Sometimes it’s the pithiest of phrases that is most dangerous.