“God’s Will,” Thoughts on Providentialism

“It’s God will” is a statement so often heard that when one personally decides s/he no longer accepts it as reasonable, practical, or —  let’s face it — believable, a statement from a high-ranking clergyman in the Catholic Church endorsing such a view, especially with regard to COVID-19, has to be challenged. Which brings me to a recent opinion piece in the National Catholic Reporter.

But first, why is it that so many people of faith, any faith, are firm in their acceptance that any accident, sickness or death is the result of God’s plan for the people He has created and over whose lives He exerts absolute and complete control? So many of us say, “Thank God” when someone has a positive outcome in whatever circumstances they are facing and if the outcome isn’t what’s hoped and prayed for, just as many will announce “Oh well, it was God’s will.” Case closed.

Such practices, Rebecca Bratten Weiss contends in her September 3 NCR piece, border on “providentialism,” the belief that everything that happens is willed and caused by God. To my mind, that means no matter what the situation, no matter what the illness, no matter what happens — not only in our everyday lives but in the famines, wars, poverty and pandemics affecting the broader world — leave it to God and he will handle it. But Weiss counsels that when such statements are in defiance of health practices in place to save lives, like those during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, they must be questioned. I would venture to say that they must be condemned.


Weiss references a March article in the National Catholic Register by Msgr. Charles Pope, a pastor in Washington, D.C. who exhorted his fellow Catholics to “wash your hands, avoid touching your face, respect that some do not want to shake hands now, but above all, do not be afraid and think that God is no longer in control.” That last line pretty much puts the kibosh to all his good advice. And, unfortunately, Msgr. Pope went even further with his call to “Go to Mass and trust God.” He declared the pandemic as a “time for faith, not an unwise abandonment of the liturgy. Run to God! Do not run from Him and His sacraments.”

A handout picture provided by the Vatican Media Press Office, shows a deserted St Peter's Square at the Vatican City due to the Coronavirus emergency lockdown, Vatican City, 12 March 2020

A handout picture provided by the Vatican Media Press Office, shows a deserted St Peter’s Square at the Vatican City due to the Coronavirus emergency lockdown, Vatican City, 12 March 2020

Weiss also refers to a Facebook post by Abby Johnson, a pro-life activist who spoke during the recent Republic National Convention, who states that “closing the churches because of the virus was the most cowardly thing she could think of.” Deacon Ralph Poyo, in his Steubenville, Ohio parish, told his congregants that the rest of the world “believes that if you get COVID you’re gonna die.”

Has he not seen the figures? Has he not watched any coverage of hospitals overrun with pandemic patients on ventilators, fighting for their lives? Apparently not, because he seems to agree, as Weiss notes, with those who “suggest that caution in the face of the pandemic indicates fear and a failure of faith.”  I am not aware of any clergy in this country sharing such views, they seem to have opted for virtual services initially then eased back into actual liturgies with strict protocols in place to protect all those in attendance.


So it all comes back to the idea that for true, God-fearing people, a pandemic will not shorten their lives unless, of course, God decides that their time is up. Deacon Poyo believes in an all-powerful God who controls our lives — no matter who we are, will not live “one day longer or one day less” than God has decreed. I’m not quite sure exactly how God decides who will die today and who will recover and live another 50 years, let alone how he chooses the cause of of death — illness, accident, murder, suicide. (Although as kids, we believed he had a huge ledger in which he kept track of everyone in the world, counted every hair on their heads, chalked up the number of times they disobeyed his commandments, and, of course, put a check mark beside anyone whose time had come).

We were taught that he was a merciful God but reading the Old Testament raised questions. Exodus says it quite bluntly:

The Lord is a warrior, the Lord is his name.
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea.
His picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.
The floods covered them. They went down into the depths.
Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power.
Your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy.
In the greatness of your majesty
you overthrew your adversaries;
You sent out your fury.

I have been told, of course, by those more versed in the Bible than I, that there are many myths involved, and we must keep that in mind as we read. And of course, Christ was the merciful one, forgiving sins, curing the sick, feeding the hungry, teaching a Gospel of love for one another, but there are times when this takes on a sort of Good Cop/Bad Cop scenario with God as the Bad Cop, reading his ledger, counting our sins and making those decisions that show us who’s Boss.

I happened to come across this line in a novel I’ve been reading about a grandmother who attempts to convert her granddaughter to religion, in one instance by explaining the Trinity to her. “Jesus is God’s son, but they are also both the same person.” When the granddaughter asks how “two people can be different people but still the same person,” the grandmother’s answer is “because they’re not people.” The granddaughter is unable to fathom this relationship, but is impressed by what her grandmother tells her about Jesus, and concludes that:

Jesus is nicer than God, a little less likely to kill you if you do something wrong.


But back to COVID, and the question remains, why would any intelligent religious leader encourage his parishioners to do what health authorities advise while at the same time assuring them that if they leave it all in God’s hands they will surely be protected from calamity? And why would people accept such completely off-the-wall advice when so many millions of people have died and continue to die from the virus?  (Mind you, as the long-predicted second wave appears to be underway in Canada, some under-40s are acting as though they have a special arrangement with a higher power, filling the bars, wearing no masks and practicing no self-distancing!)

Leah Rodgers / CC BY Coronavirus-related art on boarded-up bar windows, Austin, TX, May 2020. (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)

Coronavirus-related art on boarded-up bar windows, Austin, TX, May 2020. (Photo by Leah Rodgers / CC BY 4.0 )

Weiss, in her NCR article, also questions providentialism because it has been associated with “movements of oppression” and can be detrimental to those less fortunate people who wonder why their lives of poverty and neglect are part of His master plan. It reminds me of a comment by Lars Osburg, an economics professor at Dalhousie University, who, during a discussion of guaranteed annual income, wondered how the disadvantaged must feel watching TV reno shows that always seem to show decent homes being transformed into outrageously expensive living spaces, far beyond anything they could ever hope to afford. A providentialist would believe, I guess, that God had decided that kitchen required a granite countertop and a stainless steel refrigerator.

Likewise, that same providentialist would conclude that God, in His eternal wisdom, had decided that the time was ripe to drop a pandemic on us, killing, to date, one million of his beloved people.

I, on the other hand, find that hard to believe.



Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.