Daily Archives: August 21, 2010

How Vatican II changed the perception of death, Part One

"Lamentation", Hans Memling, Galleria Pamphili, Rome

After Vatican II there have been several changes in attitude toward death. They once again enlighten the superficiality and avoidance of the difficult concepts of the faith that are so typical of everything which has happened after that fateful Council. I say here on purpose that “Vatican II” changed the attitude because this change (strictly speaking never wanted or encouraged by Vatican II documents) was made possible by the unhealthy climate of “aggiornamento” created by V II in the first place.

Once again, let us remember that the changes were in attitude, not in doctrine. The Doctrine will never change, but the clergy in charge of transmitting it will do a good or bad (or very bad) job of it. A mediocre History teacher does not change History, but he will surely transmit his mediocrity to his pupils and as a result many of them are going to fail to pass the relevant exams.

I have identified six changes that I consider most significant: three of them are going to be dealt with today, the other three tomorrow.

1) Loss of death as the all-decisive moment. You will not often hear a priest saying that the last moment before death is the moment in which our eternal destiny is irrevocably decided. More probably, you will hear some easy-to-digest words about the transition from earthly to eternal life. The possibility of damnation is very often wilfully left aside. This is in striking contrast not only with Catholic doctrine (I mean here not that the priest doesn’t know Catholic doctrine; just that he considers inappropriate to say the whole truth about it) but with a long tradition of being reminded every day of the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. In his will not to upset the faithful (or rather: in his cowardice) the priest all too often skips the uncomfortable parts (that is: judgment and hell) and leaves only the convenient two: the transition from death to a heaven considered – bar genocide or the like – the obvious destination.

2) Loss of proper mourning. Death is supposed to be a moment of mourning for the relatives and friends of the death. They are supposed to stand in awe in front of the mystery of death, feel the sufferance of separation and use this sufferance to both reflect on their own caducity and be inspired to pray for the soul of the deceased. The trend, particularly in Anglo-Saxon (and therefore, vastly protestantised) Countries seems to be going in the contrary direction. The funeral is an occasion (here too, adopting a Protestant custom) to “celebrate the life” of the deceased. “Celebrate”? What is this? As the Ecclesiastes says there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh. A time to mourn, and a time to dance”” and death is the epitome of the time to weep and to mourn. To attempt to substitute mourning with “celebration” is, if you ask me, a clear indication of the removal of the fear of death so typical of our societies and of the lack of awe in front of death. Death is therefore treated just as a moment one tries to let pass as soon as possible with the least amount of discomfort, mentality further encouraged by the practical removal of the possibility of damnation examined above.

3) Loss of modesty. Apparently (I refer to Romano Amerio here) the fashion is spreading among Catholics to hold laudatory speeches of the deceased at the funeral mass. This is another custom taken from the Protestants and still another very questionable habit. The Church has never prescribed or even encouraged such a practice. The reason of that is, in my eyes, twofold: a) to stress that in front of death we are all equal: the rich and the poor, the obscure and the famed; b) to stress the abandonment of every vanity in front of death.
Panegyrics during a funeral mass smell of gratification of the family and friends of the deceased (that is: vanity) as the deceased (particularly if a person with a prestigious earthly station) is considered not in his quality of poor sinner, unworthy of the mercy of the Lord he still hopes to see extended to him, but in his earthly qualities. His social achievements will be extolled, the honours received acknowledged or failing that, the fact that he was such a good and worthy chap. Again, death is the moment in which we stop to consider that what we need is not earthly acknowledgment, but Divine mercy.

Tomorrow I will deal with the other three elements I have isolated: the loss of courage, the loss of honesty and the loss of proper tradition and symbolism.


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