The theological term is "theodicy," and, as I have said before, this concept is woven into many religion-news stories for at least two good reasons. The basic question is this: Where was God? The most common variation is: Why did God allow this to happen? Or, for those who know their publishing history: Why do bad things happen to good people?
This ancient theological puzzle constantly affects news because (1) disaster and tragedy are part of this sinful, fallen world and (2) the word "why" remains part of the whole "who, what, when, where, why and how" equation at the heart of hard-news reporting.
Of course, it is also possible to wrestle with these big eternal questions in first-person, confessional journalism. Click here to see one A1 example from the Los Angeles Times not that long ago and then here to see some of the reaction to it.
I thought of this while reading the latest "Stairway to Heaven" column by Julia Duin at the Washington Times. It takes quite a bit to make me tear up on my commuter train, but "Requiem for Susan" did just that. This is wrenching, highly personal journalism, but it is journalism.
You need to read the whole thing, but know that it focuses on the shocking death of one of Duin's friends -- Susan Shaughnessy, executive assistant to the provost for the John Paul II Institute at Catholic University. What took the life of this young woman?
She'd gone to a doctor, complaining of the flu and headaches, and was sent home to rest. After she went to bed the evening of Oct. 25, she never woke up. Her frantic housemates rushed her to the hospital, where doctors discovered Susan's autoimmune response to a freak virus had wiped clean her brain. The technical name is acute disseminated encephalomyelitis. A neurologist from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., told the family her case was the worst he had seen. None of the doctors held out any hope.
When word went out last Saturday that the family was disconnecting her respirator, I rushed to Fairfax Hospital's neurological intensive care unit. She lay, silent, one hand clasped about a rosary. Her hands were warm as I held them. Her parents, brother and Eduardo sat there, numb.
"God had a reason for this," a friend told me later over the phone.
"No, He didn't," I responded. "This was the devil."
Who was responsible for the fact that Susan, who wore a long, sweepy red dress as maid of honor at a friend's recent nuptials, will never attend her own wedding? Was it her doctor, who could have noticed something was gravely wrong? Was it God or Satan who structured -- or interfered with -- Susan's body so it would attack itself thus?
Read to the last line. Please.
I hope the Times finds a way to get this piece noticed out front on the website, with its spinning cube that displays the top four stories of the day. This is not conventional journalism, but it raises issues that will hit readers right where they live and die.