Fall 2012

Singulariter in Spe Constituisti Me: On the Christian Attitude Towards Death

Adrian J. Walker

Christ’s victory over death is the foundation of the Church’s entire proclamation, which is just vain talk unless the Lord has truly been raised from the dead (cf. 1 Cor 15:17). By the same token, the Church must turn to the Risen One in order to unmask the shadowy “world-rulers of this present darkness” (Eph 6:12), to reveal the hidden unity underlying the (apparently) contradictory behavior of our secularized societies, which flee death by seeking it (cf. euthanasia) and seek death by fleeing it (cf. “aggressive treatment” designed to prolong life at all costs). Of course, since the Church is called to unmask these contradictions only in order to heal them, she must always be ready to give an account of “the reason of the hope” (1 Pt 3:15) that is in her. Her very confidence in Christ’s victory requires that (in the person of her theologians and philosophers) she think about death, and that she do so with no less seriousness and no less humor than Socrates in the Phaedo.Can hope truly stand the test of death, or does death put an end to all hope?2



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1. In order to see death as it is (and is not), we need a lucidity that neither banalizes it nor solemnizes it, and that, above all, refuses to bend the knee to it in any way. We can learn this lucidity above all from the saints who kept their sense of humor to the very end, such as Thomas More: “Assuredly there is nothing of the hysterical patient there. He shows the clearest proof of sanity, the capacity for seeing a joke, and indeed for seeing a joke against himself”—even when mounting the gallows. The citation is from the second sermon on Saint Thomas More in Ronald Knox. Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, ed. Philip Caraman, S.J. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), 747.

2. Though I will be focusing on human death, we should not forget that man shares mortality with all non-human living creatures. Meditation on the analogia mortis—on the simultaneous similarity and dissimilarity between human and nonhuman death—will have to wait for another occasion.