Being that I’m currently working on a college campus, I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised that someone would ask whether or not a Catholic can believe in “karma.” After all, it’s a popular (but often misunderstood) concept, seemingly especially among the young. For some people, they mean nothing more by the term than that “good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people.” But the actual doctrine of karma is bit more nuanced than, say, My Name is Earl. So here’s how Yuvraj Krishan describes it in his book The Doctrine of Karma: Its Origin and Development in Brāhmaṇical, Buddhist, and Jaina Traditions:
There are three essential features of the doctrine of karma:
(i) It is an ethical or moral law: good karmas (punya, sukrta) produce happiness (sukha), and evil karmas (pãpa, duṣkṛta) produce sufferings, duḥkha.
(ii) It is a law of moral responsibility in the soul of ãtmã of a person as the doer of an act is responsible for bearing the consequences of that act. Thus, it is a law of retributive justice.
(iii) Retributive justice is dispensed through punarjanma, rebirth of soul or ãtmã of the doer. In fact rebirth in higher or lower forms of existence, men, animals and plants, etc., and suffering and inequality of beings in those forms is also retributive in character.
What does karma get right? Well, each of the three “essential features” gets at a real truth:
(i) We are happiest, in the long term, when we live morally, and we are unhappiest, in the long term, when we live immorally.
(ii) In justice, good deeds deserve reward and wicked deeds deserve punishment.
(iii) These demands of justice cannot end with our earthly lives: there are too many counterexamples of people who “got away with it,” who did wicked deeds and never saw the horrible consequences. On the other hand, what about all of those innocent people who suffered unjustly and who were never vindicated?
All of this is captured succinctly in St. Paul’s description of the Last Judgment,
For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.
(Ironically, this is from Romans 2:6-11, a Letter often understood by Protestants to say that God does show partiality between those He arbitrarily declared elect and those He arbitrarily declared reprobate, and that works don’t matter in salvation).
So what does karma get wrong? Yuvraj Krishan describes karma as “the most serious challenge to the concept of an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-pervasive Creator and Governor.” Why? Because karma is understood as a sort of mechanical law of the universe, like gravity, operating apart from God. It’s a wholly impersonal force.
As Christians, we realize that “cosmic justice” is ultimately Divine Justice, that it is Jesus Christ who will come to judge the Living and the Dead. This also gets to the deeper and more incredible difference. Karmic justice is cold and impersonal justice. But because Divine justice is personal, it’s also animated by Divine mercy and charity.
Sometimes this is misunderstood as a pitting of God’s mercy against His justice. That’s a mistake, and makes God a sort of moody, imperfect being, rather than the perfect and unchanging God of the Universe. So how can God be both just and merciful?
St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) explored this in his Proslogium, and came to this basic conclusion. Justice is, in the words of Cicero, giving to each their due, or what is owed to them by nature. So it’s just (in a fairly obvious way, I think) how it would be just to punish the wicked. But how can it be just for God to spare the wicked? Because mercy is acting in accordance with God’s own nature. In other words, God’s mercy is His justice to Himself. Mercy is what is due to His all-good nature, and so it’s God’s justice to Himself to be merciful. Here’s how Anselm puts it:
God, in sparing the wicked, is just, according to his own nature because he does what is consistent with his goodness; but he is not just, according to our nature, because he does not inflict the punishment deserved.
BUT it is also just that you should punish the wicked. For what is more just than that the good should receive goods, and the evil, evils? How, then, is it just that you should punish the wicked, and, at the same time, spare the wicked? Or, in one way, do you justly punish, and, in another, justly spare them? For, when you punish the wicked, it is just, because it is consistent with their deserts; and when, on the other hand, you sparest the wicked, it is just, not because it is compatible with their deserts, but because it is compatible with your goodness.
For, in sparing the wicked, you are as just, according to your nature, but not according to ours, as you are compassionate, according to our nature, and not according to yours; seeing that, as in saving us, whom it would be just for you to destroy, you are compassionate, not because you feel an affection (affectum), but because we feel the effect (effectum); so you are just, not because you requite us as we deserve, but because you do that which becomes you as the supremely good Being. In this way, therefore, without contradiction you do justly punish and justly spare.
So the Christian revelation is better than karma, because it’s personal, and thus, there’s room for Divine mercy and for human repentance. In the Face of Jesus Christ, the merciful Judge of the living and the dead, we see the fulfillment of everything karma longs for… and more.