THE BLOG
01/21/2015 03:06 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2015

Pope Francis' Silent Response to the Filipino Girl: What He Might Have Been Thinking

The most moving moment of Pope Francis' visit to the Philippines was his encounter with Glyzelle Palomar, a 12-year-old former street child. She asked him why God allowed child prostitution, drugs, and homelessness. "The children are not guilty of anything," she said in tears.

Pope Francis responded by gathering her up in his arms. He was speechless. But a few minutes later, addressing the crowd, he gave a kind of answer: "Certain realities of life we only see through eyes cleansed by our tears."

Christian philosophers have been wrestling with Glyzelle's question for centuries, and their answer, the best they can do, is often called the Free Will Defense."

The Defense says that if God intervened every time there was an injustice, nothing of any importance would be left for us to do. Such a policy would demean and enfeeble us. We would be like children who learn quickly that our parents are always ready to solve our problems when we can't. We all know that such a policy, far from protecting us from harm, would start us down the road to becoming narcissistic selfniks. We need to take responsibility for freeing ourselves from the predicaments we find ourselves in -- either those we make ourselves or those thrust on us by a merciless nature.

Most importantly, we need to freely choose good over evil as we deal with these predicaments. In hating and resisting evil and doing our best to remove it, we become good. And becoming good is the one thing God cares most about -- just as good character formation in our children is the one thing that we (if we are wise) care most about.

So God doesn't intervene, not because he fails to recognize an atrocity for what it is, and not because he doesn't love us enough to intervene, but because he knows that nonintervention is the lesser of two evils.

Some Christian philosophers even think God suffers with the victims of injustice; still, in his wisdom and love he resists micromanaging us out of our dilemmas. University of Pittsburgh philosopher Nicholas Rescher goes so far as to defend God's policy of nonintervention as "optimal." He argues that our world, in spite of all its injustices and undeserved suffering, is the best of all possible for character formation -- the one thing, as we've seen, that God most cares about. Rescher takes the line that "physical evil represents the price of an entry ticket into the best arrangement possible within the limits of inevitable consequences."

He might sound radical, but if God hasn't chosen the best of all possible arrangements, the question remains why he hasn't. And if there is no answer to that question, the Free Will Defense fails.

For many Christian thinkers the Defense does fail. It fails not because of a refusal to acknowledge the wisdom of nonintervention in some or even most cases, but because in others intervention seems absolutely required. The Holocaust is the classic example. The Christmas 2004 tsunami and the Haitian earthquake of 2010 are others. The realities that Manila's street children face are still more. The suffering caused by these atrocities was and is enormous. That God did not intervene and prevent these events from happening seems monstrous to many. Back-pew Christians simply refuse to think about the problem, while others learn to dismiss it as "a mystery" and keep faith. Needless to say, the failure of the Defense, and other less popular theodicies, has cost countless fence-sitters any chance of faith and led them into atheism.

But they are missing something crucial. What they fail to consider is God's overriding concern: our moral and spiritual growth. God could have placed us all in heaven from the start and saved us from suffering of any kind, but the lessons that can be learned by suffering -- compassion, courage, unselfishness, prudence, generosity, and other essential virtues--would never have happened. And that would have been a greater evil than all the suffering we endure. We are spirit buds, and in order to flower to our best we must be pruned. And pruning hurts.

The Free Will Defense is basic to Christian theology, and I think the Pope endorsed it by implication with those words about seeing life's tragedies "through eyes cleansed by our tears." Many Christian thinkers go so far as to say that God himself suffers with us. That would not be surprising if we are truly made in his image.

The Defense as developed so far is not complete, for it gives no explanation for lives cut short before the bud can flower. Reincarnation does offer an explanation of sorts, but the Pope would not go there -- although a recent PEW poll (2014) revealed that 34 percent of U.S. Hispanic Catholics believe in reincarnation.

Reincarnation or not, when it comes to particulars, mysteries remain for most of us. A child suffering from Tay-Sachs Disease -- why? A wonderful grandma slowly dying of protracted Alzheimers -- why? A daughter killed in a car crash by a drunk driver -- why?

On the other hand, the general drift of the Defense makes good sense. Philosopher of religion John Hick, whose masterly book Evil and the God of Love is our generation's best expression of the Defense, put it this way: "It would seem, then, that an environment intended to make possible the growth in free beings of the finest characteristics of personal life must have a good deal in common with our present world."

As Rescher puts it, being born on earth is "a package deal." It's not a perfect deal, but it is the best that God -- supremely wise, good, powerful, and loving -- could imagine or bring forth. And we would be wise to play our part.