On celebrity deaths and the Spiritual Works of Mercy

Generally speaking, my view of how the media, and society in general, handle celebrity deaths (or any deaths) can be understood by Fr. George Rutler’s “Speaking Well of the Dead” from the November 1997 Crisis, which addresses the problem of insta-canonizations and eulogies, particularly of people who do not seem deserving of it. Or, as Crisis co-founder Ralph McInerny once quipped in his own column, “We cannot be certain of the fates of anyone but the Saints and our mothers.”

Plus, I have never been comfortable with getting emotional over celebrities, whether living or dead. I pray for them, either way, and leave it at that. Somehow, even before I knew the details, however, the death of Robin Williams kind of hit me, and when the details came out, it hit even closer to home. The subsequent media frenzy has touched on a number of issues that I have been wanting to write about, anyway.

Some people have been condemned, rightly or wrongly, for calling for caution in how the issue is being handled, especially given the circumstances, and I’d like to address those two main areas of concern *in general*.

Again, there is generally a reaction in these situations to the true neo-Pelagianism of “he was a ‘good man.'” As the cartoon that accompanies Fr. Rutler’s piece reminds us, Our Lord, and Bl. Teresa of Calcutta (whose death was one of the events that inspired it) have both cautioned “No one is good but God.” “Judge not” works both ways. Salvation is not a game of mathematics, where good deeds win points and bad deeds take them away. Nor is it a magic formula of sacramental grace or saying, “I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior” being a “Get out of Hell free card.” Salvation is about relationship, and again I’ll address that later, perhaps.

Right now, I wanted to focus on what I think is the problem when dealing with death from a pastoral theology standpoint, and the major worry regarding suicide.

While they may or may not have phrased it badly, and often the harshest critics have been those who’ve faced this temptation itself, one of the biggest problems some people are having is language like the now-infamous, “Genie, you’re free” meme, or saying things like, “He’s in a better place.” These words may seem consoling, but they can, as Rush Limbaugh, Matt Walsh, Todd Bridges and others have attempted to warn, be severely tempting to someone in the grip of despair. If such language is problematic with a natural death, it’s dangerous in this case.

When I was seven years old, and first became aware of how different I was from other children, I first thought about jumping out a window because I’d heard about reincarnation on TV and thought I could come back with a better body. “I didn’t break any mirrors. Why have I had seven years of bad luck?” I cried on my birthday. What saved me then was my parents telling me there was no such thing, and that if I did that, I would go to Hell.
Just last year, when I was on a respirator and feeding tube, and sedated, and hearing the ICU nurses debating questions of Obamacare regulations, organ donation, and “why don’t they just pull the plug,” and for a time (time at that point was irrelevant, but that’s another story), I became convinced that everything I believed as a Catholic was wrong, and that it would be better to pull the plug. Thankfully, they didn’t take the new “living will” I attempted to draft seriously. They *did* take it seriously in assigning my a psychiatrist, but again that’s another story. I just bring it up here to say that, attempts to console one person might bring another to despair.

That brings me to my other main thought. These “insta-canonizations,” as they’re referred to, whether of celebrities or the fellow down the road, are often well-meaning attempts to practice two of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy at the expense of others. It is a corporate work of mercy to bury the dead. It is a spiritual work to comfort the sorrowful. However, in comforting the sorrowful, we must be cautious not to use language that discourages praying for the dead.

Purgatory is temporary, and the holy souls in Purgatory know they’re going to see Jesus, but that no one imperfect can stand in the presence of God. They can intercede for us, but not for themselves. However, they still suffer, and our prayers and sacrifices on their behalf can alleviate their suffering if not free them, so well meaning attempts to say that someone “is in a better place” and presume that he or she went straight to Heaven is failing in one of the spiritual works and discouraging others from practicing it.

The traditional Requiem prayers are all about the awesome judgement of God, and in addition to praying for the deceased, reminding those in mourning that we, too, are mortal. That’s where admonishing sinners, instructing the ignorant, and counseling the doubtful come into play.

We’ve covered 5 of the 7 spiritual works of mercy, and the other two provide the last guidepost in these situations: bearing wrongs patiently and forgiving willingly.

Whatever wrongs a deceased person has done must be forgiven by us if we are to show mercy. We must always forgive as we would be forgiven, so even if the person hasn’t asked God’s forgiveness that we know of, and while we must not commit the sin of presumption ourselves, we may and should offer forgiveness to the dead–though, again, forgiveness requires acknowledging something to forgive. We can talk about a person’s good qualities and the signs of hope while acknowledging the things that need forgiveness.

Thus, when we look at the various arguments surrounding the Williams suicide, there have sadly been many offenses against Mercy, but we should forgive each other.

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