The Fall, 2012 issue of Communio is dedicated to the theme of “Death.” In his book Eschatology, Joseph Ratzinger points out a “remarkably contradictory” attitude toward death prevalent in modern society: “On the one hand,” he writes, “death is placed under a taboo. It is unseemly. So far as possible, it must be hidden away, the thought of it repressed. . . . On the other hand, one is also aware of a tendency to put death on show, which corresponds to the general pulling down of shame barriers everywhere.” Both tendencies abstract death from life, and these attempts to either push death away or sensationalize it to the point of unreality ultimately accomplish a dehumanization of death. But when death is dehumanized, Ratzinger argues, life is inevitably dehumanized as well, for one does not exist without the other.
The articles in the present issue each, through different lenses, ask with Ratzinger, whence such a contradiction in the modern understanding of death comes, and, in their exploration of the question, begin to point the way to a recovery of what we might call a “Christian attitude towards death.”
In “Singulariter in spe constituisti me: On the Christian Attitude Towards Death,” Adrian J. Walker acknowledges that death is primarily a punishment for sin, but also points to what it reveals about creatureliness. Death, Walker writes, “conceals a medicinal mercy, an opportunity to come to our senses, to wake up from the perverse illusion of godlike autonomy without God.” Though death is in some sense the horror of all creaturely horrors, “Christ’s supernatural conversion of death into the sacrament of eternal life . . . includes its transformation into a confessio by which we fulfill our nature through the self-return into the hands of the Creator that we once refused him in Paradise.”
David S. Crawford, in “The Gospel of Life and the Integrity of Death” discusses the contradiction in modern culture’s attitude toward death pointed out above by Ratzinger. The so-called death with dignity movement and the trend to treat aging as a disease are paradigms of the simultaneous tendencies to relativize and absolutize the importance of life. Crawford identifies the common roots of each of these seemingly opposed movements as modernity’s turn to mechanism. He goes on to contrast this attitude with the analogous Christian absolutization and relativization of life, according to which life needs to experience “something like death” in order to be a life founded in love. The technical attempts to dominate life and death, Crawford argues, are not wrong in their tendency to absolutize or relativize life; rather, these attempts go astray because they turn a proper absolutization and relativization upside down, fervently denying that there should ever be anything ‘death-like’ in love.
In “The Gift of the Dying Person,” Ruth Ashfield invites us to stop and consider the experience of those who are suffering and dying, and shows how in doing so we discover truths of the human condition that enrich and are necessary to our understanding of life. Drawing on the work of Dr. Cicely Saunders, founder of the modern hospice movement, and John Paul II, Ashfield explores a language of the suffering and dying body. In this exploration the dying person emerges as not only a witness to the dynamism of gift which lies at the heart of reality, but also as one who calls those who stay with him to true communion through genuine compassion.
Patricia Snow also explores the meaning of the body in terms of death, in “The Body and Christian Burial: The Question of Cremation.” Snow asks why cremation has again become an attractive option for many Christians, and explains that while the Church has relaxed its ban on cremation, the profound significance of funeral and burial is not to be passed over easily or quickly. “In the synthesis that was effected when the whole Christ rose from the dead,” Snow writes, “it was the supernatural affirmation of the body that was definitively new.” A casual attitude towards cremation or burial, she argues, betrays a culture-wide apathy to the mystery of the Incarnation, which effects “a marriage of flesh and spirit, heaven and earth, God and human race.”
The present issue also continues a discussion of brain death begun in the Summer, 2011 issue of Communio. Two articles were then published on whether brain death is the death of human person. Now we present Nicholas Tonti-Filippini’s reply to Robert Spaemann in “‘Bodily Integration’: A Response to Spaemann.” Tonti-Filippini argues that the brain is necessary for true bodily integration “because without the brain the integration that remains is only between parts of the body rather than the body as a whole.” D. Alan Shewmon, to whom much of Tonti-Filippini’s criticism is leveled, also weighs in on the debate, in a reply to Tonti-Filippini. Shewmon argues that “there is absolutely no compelling philosophical or scientific reason to suppose that brain death, however total and irreversible, is ipso facto the death of a human being as such.” In his article, “You Only Die Once: Why Brain Death is Not the Death of a Human Being,” Shewmon draws on his medical experience and research, as well as the hylemorphism Tonti-Filippini wishes to defend, in order to demonstrate that it is not the brain, but the soul, which constitutes bodily integration, and therefore, life.
Lastly, we include the final installment of a decade long series on The Mysteries of the Life of Jesus. Begun in Spring, 2002, we now close the series with an article on “The Return of Christ.” In “The End of History: The Parousia of Christ as Cosmic Liturgy,” Luis Granados asks what meaning the Parousia holds for us, and what its relevance is for the path Christ walked in the mysteries of the flesh. Granados examines the Parousia’s relationship to the other mysteries of the life of Jesus in order to shed light on the meaning of the time that unfolds between the Resurrection and the Final Judgment. If Christ is truly the end of history, it will be his life that should reveal to us the meaning of the ages. Between the coming in poverty and the coming in glory, time dilates and opens up to the action of the Spirit in man. This divine work is actualized in the mystery of the liturgy, which is a foretaste of the end of human history and that of the whole cosmos. In liturgy, Granados argues, we discover the bridge between present life and definitive life, and thus also the meaning that the mystery of the Parousia has in the divine plan.
Finally, Communio is pleased to welcome Katherine G. Quan as our new managing editor, and we extend our profound gratitude to Emily Lyon neé Rielley, who leaves the managing editor’s position she so capably filled for the past ten years. We wish her abundant joy and fruitfulness in her new way of life, and we cherish the memories of the time she spent with us. —The Editors