My question is: Does God give us an exact birthdate and a deathdate? In other words when you die is it because of the natural order of events created by early choices or is it because "God has called you home" as they like to say at funerals? Bluntly put, does God cause our death? I have struggled with this question for most of my adult life and am not sure how the Church answers this question.
Thank you for your profound and far-reaching question; and it is great that you are prepared to wrestle with it. I suspect that many people today, when it occurs to them, just come down on the side of practical explanations of things and leave the other dangling in the air, where over the years it begins to look faded and unreal, before finally disappearing altogether. What you called “the natural order of events” we can call the horizontal approach, for short; and the religious explanation we can call the vertical. Then we have to see whether either one of them makes the other superfluous.
The Flemish theologian Edward Schillebeeckx told of a university student who in a history exam gave “God” as the explanation of everything. I don't think anyone would get an A for that, or even a D. But that student wasn't the only person in history to fall back on the easy answer. Schillebeeckx went on: “In the reign of Philip II in Spain... a suggestion was submitted to the country’s administrators for making the rivers Tajo and Manzanares navigable and thus create greater possibilities for certain isolated groups of the population. This was rejected by the government commission. They admitted that the situation in which these people lived was unsatisfactory and indeed untenable, but ‘if God had so willed that these rivers should be navigable... then he would have made them so with a single word, as he did formerly when he said Fiat lux (‘Let there be light’). It would be a bold infringement of the rights of Divine Providence if human hands were to venture to try to improve what God, for unfathomable reasons, has left unfinished.’”
The vertical explanation, then, is easy not only on the mind but on the body. The problem is that it is too easy: it leaves nothing to be said or done, and it is hardly surprising that it fell out of favour. The current disputes in the US about creationism versus science are a reprise of all this.
Should we leave God out of the picture, then? This is what many people would like to do; and their cause is helped by the religious fanaticism and the mental laziness of many on the other side of the debate.
The difficulty of reconciling the horizontal with the vertical arises because of the way we think about God. If we think of God as being separated from the world (and not just distinct from it), we are left with an image of a God who intervenes from the outside to manipulate events (or sometimes just lets them be). Such a God would only be a world-watcher, not involved in our life’s struggles. Against this, the saints and sages have told us that “God is in everything.” God created the world, we say (using the past tense of the verb); but it would be more correct to say that God is creating the world. “God is creating the whole world now this instant,” said Meister Eckhart. God is intimately involved in everything that happens and in everything that we do.
“How does the Church answer this question?” you asked. You can find a very clear exposition in The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC, for short), which you can find online at www.christusrex.org/www1/CDHN/ccc.html See in particular numbers 279 – 314. You will notice that it gives no indications on what should or shouldn't be done about the rivers Tajo and Manzanares! Nor does it say that God created the species of living things in the form in which we see them today. It says, “[The universe] did not spring forth complete from the hands of the Creator. [It] was created ‘in a state of journeying’ (in statu viae) toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which God has destined it.” Human beings have a hand in that development; we are like children who are taken into the counsels of their parents. To carry out the divine plan “God... makes use of his creatures' co-operation. This is not a sign of weakness [on God’s part], but rather a token of almighty God's greatness and goodness. For God grants his creatures not only their existence, but also the dignity of acting on their own, of being causes and principles for each other, and thus of co-operating in the accomplishment of his plan.” In more technical language it says, “God is the first cause who operates in and through secondary causes.” In other words, “God is at work in all the actions of his creatures.” And again, “To human beings God even gives the power of freely sharing in his providence.”
The CCC expresses no opposition here between the vertical and the horizontal views, no antagonism to science and natural explanations. On the contrary, “The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers.” Creationists should notice that it says “the development of life-forms.”
“Does God give us an exact birthdate and a deathdate?” you asked. As the text said, “To human beings God gives the power of freely sharing in his providence.” We are allowed to co-operate with or fight against God's providence. (But even when we fight against it, God is still able to draw some good out of our struggle; God is an even greater artist than Picasso who was able to make art from things he found in the city dump.) As for my birth, my parents decided the timing of that. And as for my death, if I ruin my health or drive a car recklessly I am hastening the time of its arrival. I am the “secondary cause.” Secondary causality, Aquinas said, is real – not instrumental – causality. My parents were the real cause of my birth, and I am the real cause of my death if I bring it about. If I don't bring it about myself, then old age, or some illness or accident is its real cause. But God is not out of the picture, because “God is at work in all the actions of his creatures.” God is not watching us coldly from a distance. The CCC quotes St. Augustine, “God is higher than my highest and more inward than my innermost self".
The final paragraph of this section in the CCC reads: “We firmly believe that God is master of the world and of its history. But the ways of his providence are often unknown to us. Only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God ‘face to face’, will we fully know the ways by which – even through the dramas of evil and sin – God has guided his creation to that definitive sabbath rest for which he created heaven and earth.”
I hope this gives you some orientation in your thinking about these great questions, Patricia.Donagh