Remembering Lives of Consequence

All lives are consequential, for every human being is an idea of God’s, and everyone is a someone for whom the Son of God, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, entered history, suffered, died – and was raised from the dead to display within history a new, glorified humanity. Thus to every life, as Mrs. Loman noted in Death of a Salesman, “attention must be paid.” Or as C.S. Lewis reminded us in The Weight of Glory, “there are no ordinary people,” for everyone you meet has an eternal destiny. 

Still, while every life is fascinating, some lives leave a deeper impress on history than others, and they’re all the more fascinating for it. Over seven decades, it’s been my privilege to know many such men and women. Some, I’ve worked with closely; others, including more casual acquaintances, I’ve admired from a greater distance. During my early years as a practitioner of the weekly newspaper column, I’d occasionally recollect a consequential life by way of obituary tributes (or laments). Time moves far more rapidly as life goes on, however. And as time seems to accelerate, so do the number of deaths in one’s circle of acquaintances, colleagues, and friends. 

In any event, earlier this year it occurred to me that I’d been writing rather a lot of obituary columns in recent years and that a collection of them, suitably edited, might make an interesting book when combined with similar pieces written in the more distant past. My friends at Ignatius Press agreed, and the result has just been published: Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences, of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable. 

The 68 small essays in the book cover a lot of territory, geographically and in terms of human personalities. There are saints I’ve known (John Paul II) and martyrs whose beatification causes I’ve tried to help advance (Franz Jägerstätter and Francis X. Ford, M.M.). There are politicians and statesmen who bent the course of history in one direction or another (Lindy Boggs, Václav Havel, Henry Hyde, Scoop Jackson, Max Kampelman, Pat Moynihan, Anwar Sadat, and Sargent Shriver). There are men whose books I once read in college and graduate school who later became friends and colleagues (Peter Berger, James Billington, Avery Dulles, SJ, Leszek Kołakowski, Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and James Schall, SJ). There are rock’n’roll legends (Denny Doherty and Cass Elliott of The Mamas and The Papas), one longtime communist and master of the five-string banjo (Pete Seeger), and three heroes in the National Baseball Hall of Fame (Frank Robinson, Jackie Robinson, and Earl Weaver). There are princes of the Church (Bernardin Gantin, Francis George, OMI, Lubomyr Husar, MSU, and Aaron Jean-Marie Lustiger). There is a man I once loathed and then came to love (Chuck Colson). There are fellow scribblers, far more talented than I (Fouad Ajami, Bill Buckley, Charles Krauthammer, Tom Wolfe, and Herman Wouk). And then there are my parents and my late son-in-law. 

I deliberately chose the word “diverse” in my subtitle because “diversity” is getting a lot of attention these days. And I must confess that much of the “diversity” talk I hear strikes me as ideologically intoxicated: “diversity” means the preemptive and presumptuous categorization – better, pigeon-holing – of people by race, sex, nature of desire, or that fanciful and dangerous chimera, “gender.”  By contrast, virtually all the consequential lives remembered (and in most instances celebrated) in Not Forgotten manifest “diversity” in a far nobler way. For most of those in my cast of characters embody, quite diversely, the creative, purposeful, vocational living that is possible for everyone, irrespective of what boxes we happen to tick on a census form. 

We are not pre-programmed creatures, like the artificially fabricated humans of Brave New World whose earthly destiny is pre-determined in a test tube. No: in the biblical view of things, anyone can live the virtues with the help of grace, and wickedness is an ever-present temptation to us all. That is the human condition and to suggest otherwise is to demean human dignity.

For all their differences, the men and women in my album of elegies and reminiscences all teach important lessons about what it means to live a worthy life. Some, admittedly, teach it along the old via negativa, the road we ought not travel. But that is another reason why they, like those who are Lewis’s “immortal splendors,” should not be forgotten.

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.