U.S. Catholics don’t think much about life after death. Here’s why we should.

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Last month, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, published his “Manifesto of Faith.” The four-page text reiterated certain basic Catholic doctrines he considers imperiled in the current confused state of the church.

The brevity of the document did not prevent a firestorm erupting in the Catholic blogosphere. Although neither the person nor the words nor the actions of Pope Francis are cited in the manifesto, the commentaries seized on the text as an implicit criticism of the current pontiff. Admirers of the pope condemned the manifesto as unbalanced, unbiblical, disloyal, reactionary, nostalgic, rigid, legalistic, sexist and otiose. Critics of the pope praised the declaration as prophetic, courageous, salutary, illuminating, crusading, necessary, groundbreaking, breathtaking and even miraculous. Predictably, the U.S. debate pivoted around the questions of sexuality lurking in the manifesto’s discussion of priestly ordination and access to the sacraments.

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Too often, we reduce Christian hope to psychological optimism or to yet another five-year plan for establishing the kingdom of God on earth. 

Overlooked in this controversy is a quieter part of the manifesto, the section (No. 5) dealing with eternal life. It touches a problem in church life rather different from our usual kerfuffle over ethics: the reduction of Christian hope to psychological optimism or to yet another five-year plan for establishing the kingdom of God on earth or to the banal assertion that dawn will follow the night.

The manifesto concisely summarizes the Catholic conception of eternal life in a lapidary paragraph:

Every human being has an immortal soul, which in death is separated from the body, hoping for the resurrection of the dead. Death makes the human person’s decision for or against God definitive. Everyone has to face the particular judgment immediately after death. Either a purification is necessary, or the person goes directly to heavenly bliss and is allowed to see God face to face. There is also the dreadful possibility that a person will remain opposed to God to the very end…. The punishment of hell is a terrible reality.

This reiteration of the Catholic belief in heaven, hell and purgatory might appear a recitation of the obvious, a reminder of simple truths learned in grade-school catechism classes. But it is no longer obvious in the contemporary approach to death and judgment operative in American Catholicism and elsewhere.

The church’s doctrine of the last things underscores the mystery we face as we ponder death.

Catholic funeral services increasingly have little to say of the judgment the human person faces at the moment of death and at the end of time. It is as if the free choices we make in this life no longer have eternal consequences. We certainly pray for the deceased in thanksgiving for his or her life, but our prayer often lacks the quality of a suffrage for the salvation of the soul of the deceased.

Despite the content of the appointed prayers for the funeral liturgy, our services increasingly imitate the “life celebration” ceremonies of mainstream secular America. In more solemn versions, the deceased is remembered for his or her major achievements. In more jocular versions, friends and relatives recall the deceased’s funniest moments or favorite jokes. Some resemble more of an instant canonization, with the assurance that the deceased is already in glory or, more modestly, “in a better place.” Generations of clergy, nuns and lay catechists taught their charges to face the mystery of death with sober hope, eschewing the extremes of despair or presumption. In our flattened version of Christian hope, the last things endure but they seem of little moment.

The church’s doctrine of the last things underscores the mystery we face as we ponder death. This eschatological vision rests on paradoxes: divine justice and divine mercy, purgation and glorification, judgment and pardon, divine sovereignty and human freedom. Both the “Dies Irae” and the “In Paradisum” are intertwined in the mystery. Dante’s Divine Comedy remains the supreme literary icon of a vision that, for all of its complexity, remains veiled in opacity.

In every chapter of their journey toward the end of time, the church’s members both remember and forget the Gospel. Our current American way of death, to which the church in our culture is not immune, often involves a forgetting of the last things. As valuable as they are to a family plunged into mourning, memorials and condolences alone fall far short of the hope that springs from the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Müller’s summary of basic Catholic doctrine on eternal life is an antidote to this forgetting. It is a reminder of the glory we ultimately seek as Christians, of the majesty of God in exercising both justice and mercy and of the eternal import of our own exercise of personal freedom. It is a simple sketch of the sober hope of glory that should mark the Christian soul and of the source of that ultimate hope, the paschal mystery. We forget this at our peril.

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J Cosgrove
4 months 3 weeks ago

There is almost no discussion of salvation on this site. In fact it seems that the objective for Catholics is to create a heaven on earth. The irony of this objective is that the recommendations put forward on how to do this will almost assuredly create a hell on earth.

JOHN GRONDELSKI
4 months 3 weeks ago

Fr Conley recognizes rightly the problem of ecclesiastical Bobby McFerrin's with their funeral message of "don't worry, be happy!" But I would also suggest that the explosion of cremation has a role to play. Cremation has undermined the traditional wake and funeral. Once upon a time, death interrupted life, but now we do not let life be inconvenienced, rescheduling funerals to the convenience of the "mourners" rather than the decaying of the deceased.

Ernie Sherretta
4 months 3 weeks ago

Cemeteries and Funeral directors are a scam to make money. Ever notice how funeral homes are next to Catholic churches. Scripture says: " in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." Gen 3:19 Expensive coffins, embalming, dressing the corpse for what???? More superstitious behavior that empowers the clergy with magical rituals to control peasants who knew no better. It won't fly today! Jesus said- "Let the dead bury the dead"! Celebrate life! "Heaven" is a state of being with the Divine LOVE that created the universe- the whole message of Jesus was about that. The clerical culture uses power, fame, and fortune to control people and instill fear in them instead of love. This is how the abuse of children and women was able to happen for the last 2000 years. Enough is enough! The young people know better.

Frank Bergen
4 months 3 weeks ago

The young people have always known better. Then they grow older. And at the time some of the practices you decry came into use, I suspect the clergy had as much faith in them as did the laity.

Stanley Kopacz
4 months 3 weeks ago

I paraphrase something I read decades ago somewhere:
In the dank, dark places down below,
Where nary a joyous word is uttered,
Are the souls of all those people,
Who knew on which side their bread was buttered.

Edward Gallagher
4 months 3 weeks ago

Little wonder contemporary Catholics don’t take the idea of “ death, judgment, heaven or hell” as seriously as Fr Conely would like. The very idea of condemning someone to hell for eternity—that’s a long time—for having eaten meat on Friday or for masturbating or for missing Mass on Sunday strikes many as utterly ridiculous. Why is a loving God so concerned with such trivia? The never ending story of clerical sexual abuse and the cover-up of such offenses by bishops has so weakened the moral authority of the Catholic Church that preaching hell fire for ordinary, normal people with normal human desires and failings is the height of hypocrisy.

Paul Hierholzer
4 months 3 weeks ago

Agreed, and Gerhard Muller is a horrible minister.

Ernie Sherretta
4 months 3 weeks ago

Exactly! Jesus said- "Let the dead bury the dead"! Jesus says, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you”. Love God, neighbor, self- agape, philia, eros. Each type of love created by God for humans to live by and with. Cemeteries and Funeral directors are a scam to make money. Ever notice how funeral homes are next to Catholic churces. " in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." Gen 3:19 Expensive coffin, embalming, dressing the corpse for what????

Frank Bergen
4 months 3 weeks ago

Perhaps as Fr. Conley insists we American -- and doubtless many other -- Catholics give insufficient consideration to the afterlife. However, as Mr. Gallagher would remind him, it's a tad difficult to belief that eternal punishment awaits the Onanist or Mass-misser. I don't know Mr.G but I was brought up in a church that preached such strange things, not to mention French kissing as the slippery road and therefore inherently grave.

Edward Gallagher
4 months 3 weeks ago

Little wonder contemporary Catholics don’t take the idea of “ death, judgment, heaven or hell” as seriously as Fr Conely would like. The very idea of condemning someone to hell for eternity—that’s a long time—for having eaten meat on Friday or for masturbating or for missing Mass on Sunday strikes many as utterly ridiculous. Why is a loving God so concerned with such trivia? The never ending story of clerical sexual abuse and the cover-up of such offenses by bishops has so weakened the moral authority of the Catholic Church that preaching hell fire for ordinary, normal people with normal human desires and failings is the height of hypocrisy.

Paul Hierholzer
4 months 3 weeks ago

"Catholic funeral services increasingly have little to say of the judgment the human person faces at the moment of death and at the end of time."
So you think that a funeral service is the appropriate place to cite the Catholic Church's position on eternal damnation? What is wrong with you?

MJ Painter
4 months 3 weeks ago

"Catholic funeral services increasingly have little to say of the judgment the human person faces at the moment of death and at the end of time."

It's kind of late to be thinking about that at the funeral, it seems to me.

John Mack
4 months 3 weeks ago

Lol, I grew up with parents born and raised in Ireland (in a community not at all deValera pious but faithful without showiness). Death was simply there, and the dead were in"the other room," nearby but not often accessible. But sometimes they were, especially in dreams. For instance I attended my grandmther's house wake with my grandmother and witnessed my mother's anger at her mother for dying in the circumstances she died in. My mother, dressed all in black, was the only one there who could see (and argue with) her mother's ghost, but she could not see me. I have many dreams about dead relatives and ancestors, some of whom (like my grandmother) I have never met. One very complex dream turned out to be accurate. And in that dream my father''s father telling me that, "In the language of mathematics 525 means He Lives." I bet that number and won. But the dream was about a specific way my grandfather was cheated out of his inheritance by two brothers. My father told my oldest brother about this and no one else. So that brother was shocked when I went into accurate detail about what had happened. I've learned not to tell any Americans about my premonition of my own death. It seems to upset them when, to me, it's simply a fact. Now that my siblings, with whom I was not really close, keep showing up in my vivid dreams, I know that that the countdown is minus 10. P.S. The dead seem to enjoy themselves, laughing deeply and a lot. My mother in these dreams has made it clear that these appearances are only manifestations, shadows created by them as roles in a play, and not really themselves. The transfigured, as she calls them, are, according to what she says, in another reality but not out of touch with this one. Mother, being herself, often says, "You could all do a lot better." By this she means all of her family but also the people who govern the world.

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