Father John Flader answers an important question, “Are the bushfires God’s punishment?”
Regarding the recent bushfires in Australia, I wonder if God has removed his protection from us in light of the secular and inhumane country that we have become; e.g. abortion of defenceless unborn babies, euthanasia, religious freedom being challenged, etc.
Your question reflects a thought that many have had and some have expressed publicly with regard to the bushfires ravaging the country. Is God punishing us for our sins? Before answering your particular question, we should bear in mind a number of truths.
First, it is of the very nature of the universe that there should be natural “disasters”. Asteroids and comets collide with planets; the shifting of tectonic plates far beneath the earth’s surface gives rise to earthquakes, which in turn may trigger tsunamis; lightning strikes trees, giving rise to bush fires; torrential rains cause floods, etc. In addition, the cycle of global warming and cooling which has been going on from the beginning gives rise to periodic ice ages and times of greater heat, etc.
Second, added to the very nature of the planet is human sin, beginning with the original sin of our first parents. The book of Genesis speaks of it as having an effect even on nature, with thorns and thistles making life harder for man (cf. Gen 3:18). St Paul describes nature as “subjected to futility” and “groaning in travail” (Rom 8:20-22).
Third, in the midst of everything going on in nature and in human affairs, God’s fatherly providence is always present. Nothing happens that he is unaware of or that he could not prevent if he so desired. His providence reaches from end to end, extending to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field (cf. Mt 6:26, 28) and even to the hairs on our head (cf. Mt 10:30).
But aren’t there instances in which God has used natural disasters to punish people for their sins? Yes, there are. At the time of Noah, the Lord “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil” and he sent the great flood to destroy everyone except Noah and his family (cf. Gen 6:5-7:24). Likewise, he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone because their sin was “very grave” (cf. Gen 18:20- 19:25). Like the good Father he is, God sometimes punishes men for their sins to show them the malice of their ways, discourage them from doing it again and bring them to repentance.
In the second book of Chronicles God explains: “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chron 7:13-14).
At the same time God draws great good from natural disasters. People are led to realise how fragile their life is, how uncertain their days on earth are, and they are often moved to repent of their sins and draw closer to God in trustful prayer. Also, when they see that families have lost loved ones and property, they are moved to overlook the petty grievances they harboured in their own families and to cling more tightly to each other. People are moved to pray more and to attend Mass for those who are suffering, and this contributes immensely to their own sanctification. Then too, thousands of people put themselves out as volunteers to fight bushfires or to help in the aftermath, and many more donate money, clothes, blankets or food. These disasters bring out the very best in everyone and they unite nations and communities in solidarity with each other.
As regards whether we can say that the present fires are punishment for Australia’s sinful ways, we can never know. But it is something I would not encourage. There have been devastating fires throughout our history and there is no reason to attribute them to particular human actions at the time. Hardly a week goes by without some natural disaster – earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, cyclones, fires, etc. – occurring somewhere in the world and, again, we cannot say that any one of them is divine retribution.
When these events occur we should pray hard for all those affected and do all we can to help out materially, but not blame our sins for what was going to happen anyway from time to time. And, of course, we should strive to make our own lives and our country more Christian.