Catholicism


In Roman Catholicism, death has been understood primarily in terms of an issue of justice. Having turned away from God, humans are deprived of the life-giving energy that they need and which is to be found solely in God. Death, then, is both a sign of and an effect of human estrangement from God. The radical character of this consequence mirrors the radical character of human (intended) dependence upon God for identity and existence. For some Catholic theologians in the past, death is the most symmetrical consequence of a desire for ontological independence, as death reveals the fundamental limitation of that very ontology. In the very early Church, Catholics were encouraged to reject any fear of death, as it seemed to express too great an attachment to the life of "this world." But by the end of the fourth century, fear of death was understood as an internal sign that something about the way things were—the cosmic order— was indeed wrong. As a pedagogic device, then, the fact of death should teach humility; fear of death is the beginning of a wise appreciation of human fragility. "Death" became an ascetic metaphor for selflessness and the end of pride.

If death is the greatest sign of human dislocation, it is the punishment for the act of will that produced the fundamental dislocation—sin. Traditional Catholic theology emphasized the just character of the punishment, in part to explain why the sentence of human mortality could not be simply overturned. Human explanation of the efficacy of the incarnation—God becoming human—and crucifixion has been that the unjust death of Jesus, the Son of God, ended the just claim death had upon humanity. In his resurrection, Jesus was thus the physician who dispensed the "medicine of immortality." The incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection reveal something about God as well, namely that the old punishment was overturned "not through power," as St. Augustine put it, "but through humility."

As a community, Catholics live and die with the ambivalence typical of the modern world: A loved one's death is a great loss and an occasion of intense trauma, and must be acknowledged as such. Death is also a great transition for the deceased, who exchanges penalty for reward, replacing estrangement from God with fellowship. To deny grief is to deny what the experience of death teaches; to deny hope is to deny what the resurrection offers.

See also: Christian Death Rites, History of ; Heaven ; Hell ; Jesus ; Protestantism ; Purgatory

MICHEL RENE BARNES

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