‘Why did God let this happen?’ People of faith can be people of action

Rite and Reason: The problem of faith in the midst of a plague of biblical proportions

Writing of Albert Camus's great novel La Peste/The Plague (1947) several years ago, Ed Vulliamy suggests that it was "a story for our, and all, times". He writes: "Of all Camus's novels none described man's confrontation – and cohabitation – with death so vividly and on such an epic scale."

Since Camus wrote the work we have had many viral threats, but never so close to us. In terms of scale we must go back so far as the Great Flu of 1918 to find anything like what Covid-19 threatens to be. The confrontation and the cohabitation are now very real.

Among the six leading characters in the Camus novel, led by the pragmatic hero Dr Bernard Rieux, one finds a priest.

Père Paneloux is well-educated, theologically enlightened, and very committed. He is a Jesuit and, one imagines, somewhat in the Pope Francis tradition of the society; marked with faith, fortitude and a complete dedication to "the greater glory of God".


While he could not be described as a liberal, neither is he an obscurantist. In Camus’s view, however, he symbolises the problematic attitude of faith in the presence of what he sees as an evil of biblical proportions.

In his text the strongly laïc and anti-clerical Camus sets the Jesuit up as a foil for the atheistic but courageous and effective Dr Rieux. Camus despises him.

Paneloux’s part in the novel is played out in two sermons. These are understandably marked by his apparent strong faith, but also by growing doubt as he confronts the question that always arises in the face of great tragedy: “Why did God let this happen?”

Divine punishment

Initially he sees the plague with great certainty in terms of a collective divine punishment for sins committed in society. He sees his “brethren” as thrown into a desolation they deserved for their sinfulness; a jeremiad realised. It is a constant theme in parts of the Old Testament for those who oppose the will of God.

In a later sermon, which takes place following the death of a child, Paneloux seems to soften his position somewhat, no doubt in response to the parents’ anguished question: “How could God do this to us? He’s only a child.”

Paneloux doesn’t seek a theological explanation but reverts rather to the traditional response of the believer, “it is the will of God”, even when we don’t really see how or why. Ultimately, he says, whether he quite believes it or not, that it is salutary for their souls.

In terms of the Book of Exodus, he explains: “This very scourge that bruises you, lifts you up and shows you the way. The suffering of children was our bitter bread, but without this bread our soul would perish from its spiritual hunger.”

In the present crisis the existential question is, of course, the same for all. It is a question of survival, but also of how we live the moment

It’s a grim faith which Dr Rieux, the man of action, and Camus find completely reprehensible. Eventually, Paneloux was afflicted with the plague, but, having refused to be cured, he died.

Camus’s novel is no doubt a work for our times in the questions that it raises, not just for priests but for all believers and, indeed, unbelievers.

Philosopher Charles Taylor has written that we have moved "from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option".

In the present crisis the existential question is, of course, the same for all. It is a question of survival, but also of how we live the moment. This is regardless of our faith situation, which often wavers between faith and doubt.

As one Irish author put it when he came back to faith after many years of contented agnosticism, both faith and lack of faith can “run out”. They can certainly be tested.


Over the past days my admiration for such as Dr Rieux, our medical professionals from the top down, has grown exponentially.

So also has my admiration for the people of faith because they are not simply people of faith but, above all right now, people of hope and people of action too.

One elderly parishioner in lockdown writes: “There is always an upside to everything…I read a lot. Julian of Norwich, who as you know self-isolated for 20 years, lived through numerous plagues and wars, and still could say ‘all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’.”