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Death or life?

13 April 2018

THE wages of sin is death, the Epistle to the Romans teaches. This is not only about an eternal destiny. It is a statement about the here-and-now. This Eastertide, while Christians continue to celebrate what the Apostle Paul goes on to call God’s gift of “eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”, it is death that keeps breaking in to remind them of the intractability of fallen human nature and its inability to save itself.

There are deaths that illustrate St Paul’s point like a parable: the burglar who died after being stabbed by a householder in south-east London would not, a couple of generations ago, when England still had the death penalty, have been considered to merit it. But crime that the criminal, if not others, considers minor often has disproportionate consequences. This case has been notable for the burglar’s friends’ and relations’ articulation of grief and indignation that the way of life in which he was caught up should have so rebounded upon him, and indeed upon his family.

So often, however, the wages are not paid individually to those who might appear to have done something conspicuous towards earning them, but collectively: as in our society’s discovering how far its sins of omission are being paid for in the lives of young people, still in school or barely out of it, thanks to the violent urban gang culture that has been allowed to develop. Then there is the chemical massacre in Syria. Blame for it could be complacently attributed to the specific internal affairs of that country, but lies no less with the culture of death developed in the relations between the great powers in the 20th century. Those nations still have a duty to mitigate it as far as possible.

It is in the midst of all this that the Apostolic Exhortation on holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate, is salutary. Commentators on Rome may distract us by seeking to identify ecclesiastical targets that Pope Francis has in his sights: who today’s Gnostics and Pelagians are, for example. But that is to miss its value; for what the Pope does, while tackling some perennial errors, is to set out in timely fashion something of the relationship between the individual and the communal, “the complex fabric of interpersonal relationships present in a human community”, with regard to today’s ills and demands, and offer the hope that, though sinful human beings cannot pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, they can, amid all their present limitations, receive grace through union with God and his Church to take whatever initial step is needful.

Among the Pope’s telling quotations is one from St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross: “The greatest figures of prophecy and sanctity step forth out of the darkest night. But for the most part, the formative stream of the mystical life remains invisible. . . We will only find out about those souls to whom we owe the decisive turning-points in our personal lives on the day when all that is hidden is revealed.”

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