Governor Cuomo and God’s Noncompetitive Transcendence

To claim that “God did not do that” because we did it is simply a category mistake.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is seen during a Midnight Mass at St Patrick's Cathedral Dec. 25, 2014, in the Manhattan borough of New York City. (CNS photo/Carlo Allegri, Reuters)

Last week, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, made a rather interesting theological observation. Commenting on the progress that his state has made in fighting the coronavirus, and praising the concrete efforts of medical personnel and ordinary citizens, he said, “The number is down because we brought the number down. God did not do that. Faith did not do that.” I won’t waste a lot of time exploring the hubris of that remark, which should be obvious to anyone. I might recommend, out of pastoral concern, that the governor read the first part of Genesis chapter eleven.

What I will do instead is explain the basic intellectual confusion that undergirds Cuomo’s assertion, one that, I fear, is shared even by many believers. The condition for the possibility of the governor’s declaration is the assumption that God is one competitive cause among many, one actor jostling for position and time upon the stage with a coterie of other actors. On this reading, God does certain things—usually of a rather spectacular nature—and creaturely causes do other things, usually more mundane. Thus, we can clearly parcel out responsibility and credit—some to God and some to finite agents. But this account is deeply unbiblical and alien to the Catholic theological tradition.

To understand the scriptural sense of the play between divine and human causality, it is helpful to consult the cycle of stories dealing with King David in first and second Samuel. What strikes the attentive reader is that nothing obviously “supernatural” takes place in these accounts. Practically everything that happens to David could be adequately accounted for on psychological, historical, military, or political grounds. However, throughout the narrative, God’s activity and involvement are assumed, for the author takes for granted the principle that the true God works not typically in an interruptive way but precisely through a congeries of secondary causes. Mind you, it is not the case that some explanations of David’s story are political or psychological and some properly theological; rather, everything is, at once, natural and supernatural—precisely because God’s causality is operating noncompetitively, on a qualitatively different level than creaturely causality.

If you want a one-liner summary of this distinctively biblical perspective, you could not do better than this, from the prophet Isaiah: “O Lord, it is you who have accomplished all that we have done” (Isa. 26:12).

Now, why should this be true? Here it would be helpful to turn to the Church’s greatest theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas. For Thomas, God is not the supreme being (ens summum in his Latin), but rather ipsum esse subsistens, which means “the sheer act of to be itself.” In a word, God is not one more instance of the genus “being,” one thing, however exalted, among others; instead, he is the self-explaining source of existence as such, that great font of being in and through which all finite things subsist and act. Therefore, God does not compete for space, so to speak, on the same ontological grid as creatures; a zero-sum game does not obtain in regard to God’s activity and creaturely activity—the more we ascribe to one, the less we have to ascribe to the other.

Allow me to ground this rather abstract rhetoric with a very homely example. If one were to ask what is necessary to make a bicycle, the response would be something like this: “tires, brake pads, a chain, a metal frame, the skill of the builder, perhaps a schematic to guide the building process, etc.”  No one would ever be tempted to respond as follows: “tires, brake pads, a chain, God, a metal frame, the skill of the builder, etc.” And yet, a smart religious person, upon finishing the project of constructing that bike, would quite legitimately say, “Thank God!” The prayer would be a humble acknowledgement, not that God in a fussily invasive way interfered with the building process, but that God is responsible for the entire nexus of causes and behaviors that made up the process. The upshot is that the two dimensions of causality—one finite and the other transcendent—operate simultaneously and noncompetitively: “You have accomplished all that we have done.”

All of which brings me back to Governor Cuomo. To claim that “God did not do that” because we did it is simply a category mistake. What brought the coronavirus numbers down?  It is perfectly accurate to say, “The skill of doctors and nurses, the availability of hospital beds, the willingness of so many to shelter in place, etc.” But it is also perfectly valid to say that God brought those numbers down, precisely by grounding the entire complex of creaturely causality just referenced. This relationship holds at the metaphysical level, but it is perhaps even clearer when it comes to the psychological motivation of those dedicated physicians and nurses. Why ultimately were they willing to do what they did? I would be willing to bet a large percentage of them would say that it was a desire to serve others and to be pleasing to God.

So we should thank all of the good people involved in bettering our current situation, and we shouldn’t hesitate, even for a moment, to thank God as well. There is absolutely no need to play the zero-sum game proposed by the governor of New York.


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About Bishop Robert Barron 189 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

29 Comments

    • No, but then neither has “father” James Martin,SCH, so that paints a pretty clear picture of where the church’s leadership stands in relation to these issues.

    • That would be far too much to ask of the average milquetoast post-Vatican II/Novus Ordo Bishop.

      I think one could make a solid canon law case, however, that his ardent pro-abortionism means he is already excommuncated latae sententiae.

    • Ironically, at the time Cuomo legalized abortion for nine months, he stated that any Catholic or other person who objected to New York laws on abortion and the like should leave the state. In effect, he was encouraging self-excommunication from the secular rule of New York.

  1. Although God’s gift of intellect to Man is meant to be utilized freely and in full measure, prior to our existence we were nothing and had nothing. Consequently [as Bishop Barron alludes in reference to King David] we owe God all that we can accomplish. God is First Principle of all things including our free will to use our intellect judiciously and profitably. “See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. And I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, understanding, and ability in all kinds of craftsmanship, to design artistic works in gold, silver, and bronze” (Ex 31:3). We all including Governor Cuomo certainly owe thanks to Him for any good including practical good that we are able to accomplish. I would add Governor Cuomo needs reassess his position on abortion not in context of a presumed existential independence rather in reality of his exigent moral dependence.

    • While the article is intellectually appealing, I think Bishop Barron is missing the point: I believe that Governor Cuomo intended that his message to New Yorkers would reinforce the safe practices of social distancing and quarantining, which are crucial in mitigating the spread of the virus. Remember the adage: “Pray as if everything depended on God, and work as if everything depended on you.” Unfortunately, there are those who believe that their faith alone will protect them from the ravages of this virus. Governor Cuomo is probably praying as hard as the rest of us. Faith and action go hand in hand.

      • Yes, he’s probably praying as hard for his response to the virus as he was just before signing off on the law permitting abortions up until the 9th month. I mean, Cuomo is a Democrat, so I’m sure we should all take his professed Catholicism seriously.

    • Ok! Grand-Trump-Rapids Mike. Governor Cuomo has some moral issues, but once again, a moral judge paints a cynical picture using a very broad brush. As Cuomo offers his hand for communion the Priest may refuse him. However, the Priest should check the moral fiber of the next person in line.

      • As has often been observed, none of us is without sin. What makes figures like Cuomo different is the huge public profile he has. This is an opportunity to promote a positive moral stance or a negative one. Thats quite a different thing for an ordinary member of the public. As such Cuomo has an obligation to set an example. If he chooses not to he should not present himself as a Catholic to the public. Bishops who allow him communion are setting an even worse example. They should be speaking out.

  2. Why do secular authorities feel compelled to make a false comparison? It’s not an either/or dynamic: God or Man. Gov. Cuomo could have simply thanked the wonderful medical professionals for their work, praising their dedication and drive. But to compare their work with God’s design shows an entirely different and revealing agenda.

  3. A couple weeks ago, between downpours on a very stormy day, I looked to the west and saw the flatest rainbow I ever saw. The apex of it couldn’t have been much more than a thousand feet up. It came down to earth (seemingly not too far away) at a VERY shallow angle. Very unusual for a rainbow, which usually seem very distant and go nearly straight up into the sky to a very high arc. I looked at that and imagined the possibility that perhaps God was promising to “flatten the curve” as they say. Of course coronavirus has not disappeared; death rates did not immediately level off after I saw that. But Noah’s rainbow was never asserted as a a promise from God that we would never have severe and destructive weather again. The covenant was recorded as a promise from God that he would never use weather to destroy the whole world again. Unlike Cuomo’s infantile standard for divine intervention, ostensibly a magic want that should make the whole thing go away, I see God’s love and influence in what is happening now, and have hope that the course of this disease, while tragic in many individual instances, will ultimately have limited destructive impact.

    • Mr. Thomas Ryder, like you, I am a contemplative of Nature since I was a little child (long time ago). I am no environmentalist extremist and will never be, because I can see that radicalism as a violent use and abuse of Nature for the very lowest political purposes. Nature was the first to talk to me about God, and THANKS TO HIM, it continues to do so. Alleluia!! You are SO right about Mr. Cuomo! Just like most humanists, socialists, communists, (radical) atheists, Satanists, etc. that are very insecure, childish individuals acting aggressively and brazenly to look like they have “unquestionable moral authority”, only to use that to progressively and totally infantilize those under their influence. Brazen infantilism begets brazen infantilism like an infantile criminal virus and all of Creation suffers (Romans 8:21-23).

      They also call God: “the imaginary friend”, BECAUSE they themselves live as Ideological Fantasy Peddlers. They accuse us of every evil thing to assuage their own dirty consciences and say that we live in triumphalism IN ORDER TO hide the arrogance of their false authority (have you ever seen a Catholic Victory Pride Parade?) so we become submissive to them instead of to JESUS. Constant, vicious Guilt-Trips, Transference and Projection of the unrepentant evil and guilt they carry inside is what they use to attack God and us. The True Catholic Faith is the absolute, unquestionable road to adult human fullness, joy and completeness through the ONE who, summarizing Bishop Barron’s words: “is all in all”!! (1 Corinthians 15:27-28).

    • I absolutely agree, Tucson Joe. That he doesn’t shows a lack of courtesy or consideration, indeed, of any generous thought.

  4. Gov Cuomo has done a pretty good job dealing with the Covid-19 crisis in New York. We all are in need of real leadership But his comments were uncalled for. He clearly doesn’t know what motivates so many nurses:

    Deep love for God spilling over, onto people. Anybody. Everybody. Day in and day out. Years and years of it. God is why most of us do what we do.

    But the persistent lack of charity in CWR’s comment section is painful and maddening. Why would Cuomo or anybody else be motivated to change?

    Sometime, you’re going to be flat on your back and you’re going to feel very vulnerable. Your nurse won’t be interested if you’re a skinhead, a politician, or come armed with prestige, buckets of money or fancy degrees. I can guarantee she won’t want to hear you pontificating. All she will be interested in is your pain and your recovery. Your family.

    God is Father to us all. Jesus excluded no one. There is no point in excommunication here. Cuomo is a slow painful work. I’m certain God hasn’t given up on him. What gives you the right to?

    By the way, I’m fully aware that the Reproductive Health Act passed in New York in January. There is nothing you could say or do that could add one iota to the abhorrence this nurse feels and has experienced on the abortion front. But I still pray for Cuomo. Do you?

    • Stevie, as all True Catholics do, I pray for all those who we expose for their Soul-destroying, Church-destroying, Nation-destroying sins and faults, including our own selves, as we are all sinners (1 John 1:8). We are Catholic Adults and not pretending to be the Soft, Enabling Mother of everyone around, saying to all public sinners, as you say: “God is Father to us all. Jesus excluded no one. There is no point in excommunication here. Cuomo is a slow painful work. I’m certain God hasn’t given up on him. What gives you the right to?”

      Your words assume that God’s patience is always infinite to the unrepentant (it is not) and that His justice is just a child-scaring-but-harmless scarecrow (it is not) and that Cuomo’s public sins harm no one and influence no one (absolutely false). JESUS said very clearly that those who scandalize publicly, influencing children and adults to see sin as a good, harmless thing would pay for it eternally: “If anyone causes one of these little ones–THOSE WHO BELIEVE IN ME–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea”, (Matthew 18:6).

      If that’s too hard for you, you are believing in a false, ultra-soft, Buddha-like Jesus. Like for ALL of us, it’s High Time for your Faith to grow up. It is our obligation to raise ours and also other people’s consciences as it is sleepy, darkened consciences that have remained silent and enabled so much horrific, heinous sin today. What we don’t expose, we become accomplices of: “When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood’, (Ezekiel 3:18).

      All this is cause for great humility, as again, we are ALL sinners. It is TRUE Humility that always raises its voice against evil like all the good Catholics, martyrs, prophets and Saints have done for 2,000 years. What you don’t openly reject, you accept and legitimize and that guilt is also on you. We are called to be Salt (against corruption) and Light (against darkness), (Matthew 5: 13-16). Beware!!

    • Someone needs to tell you that the goal here is not equalizing sin among sinners but exposing darkness in the hopes of sparing some of them from the eternal suffering of hell. The Church excommunicates for the grave sin of abortion and openly supporting abortion for a REASON. Without life, there is nothing. Since all life originates in G-d and man is made in His very image an unjustified taking of innocent life is a kind of indirect attack against the very nature of G-d Himself. To blithely suggest that canon law is beneath your contemplation is an arrogance most undeserving of this effort to educate your spirit but I try anyway. That, dear, is authentic love which doesn’t stand with sinners (as you tried to do) while fulfilling the commandment to “love one another.” Peace.

  5. What Bishop Barron is saying also means that God caused the coronavirus pandemic in the first place. I’ve heard very little about that. More people are prone to say that God is allowing the pandemic than are willing to acknowledge he caused the pandemic.

    • This is not at all a given. Bishop Barron would likely respond with a distinction between the active and permissive will of God, which would easily qualify your statement.

      • You’re making the same category mistake that Bishop Barron says the governor made. Look up the philosophical stances of occasionalism, mere conservationism and concurrentism. Barron is saying that Aquinas holds to concurrentism, according to which God, as first cause, causes all that happens in the world along with created secondary causes (except the immorality of sin). Therefore, according to concurrentism, God causes every physical act and occurrence in the world. So God caused the pandemic. It’s clear logic. The distinction between God’s active and passive will applies only to sin, to moral evil. God must will every physical occurrence in the world because he causes all of them to happen.

        • Christ loves us all, unconditionally, just as we are, in the midst of our SINS & OUR BROKENNESS- but he loves us way too much to leave us that way. We worry so much about our “elderly in the room” (nursing homes), as we should. Why do we not show as much concern for the “children in the womb” ?? God gave us all the sacrament of reconciliation. He also gave us free will to choose. God will not cause Cuomo to go back to reconciliation but by his grace and Cuomos 2:00 a.m. conscience, he will be patiently waiting. Its Andys choice.

  6. Bishop Barron writes that St. Thomas Aquinas says that “God is ipsum esse subsistens, which means “the sheer act of to be itself. In a word, God is not one more instance of the genus “being,” one thing, however exalted, among others; instead, he is the self-explaining source of existence as such, that great font of being in and through which all finite things subsist and act. ” Benedict XVI wrote that “The Trinity is absolute unity insofar as the three divine Persons are pure relationality. The reciprocal transparency among the divine Persons is total and the bond between each of them complete, since they constitute a unique and absolute unity. God desires to incorporate us into this reality of communion as well.” (“Caritas In Veritate”, para. 54) So that sounds as if personal relationship is at the foundation of everything that exists. Very interesting!

  7. Jesus said “Without Me you can do NOTHING ”
    the meaning is very clear
    Everything is GRACE ‘a gift’from God

  8. Cuomo is a wolf in sheeps clothing abortion up to birth, no cpr for cardiac patients, no stockpiled supplies for emergencies in NY during crisis such as this virus and now defies God what more does anybody need to see this man is evil! Dolan needs to excommunicate him!

  9. Tucson Joe
    “I believe that Gov. Coumo should let God speak for Himself.”

    *******
    Exactly.
    Best comment I’ve read today. Thank you!

  10. Sweet talk, Bishop Barron but have you picked up the telephone and asked to speak to Gov Coumo about his remark? No.
    Have you suggested to the Bishop of Albany that he do the same. Politely, fraternally? No.
    So, instead you write articles but will not act.
    If I’m wrong, I humbly stand corrected. Prove me wrong, Bishop Barron.

  11. One would expect that in this strange, and awkward times we live in, when God, through this pandemic, thoroughly humbled human pride; that Cuomo would truly become acutely aware of his own creatureliness and helpless. Rather, he feels proud of his puny achievement. He feels invincible, maybe. But does a rat challenge a lion to a fight?. Cuomo has raised his fist against God. He should be afraid.

5 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Governor Cuomo and God’s Noncompetitive Transcendence - Catholic Mass Search
  2. L.A.'s bishop on New York's governor - California Catholic Daily
  3. Ten Things that Caught My Eye Today: Coronavirus & North Korea, Andrew Cuomo & God + (April 22, 2020) | South Korea Times of News
  4. Some reading material, 22.04.20 – RC Largs and Millport
  5. Some reading material, 27.04.20 – RC Largs and Millport

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