the good death

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Feb 20, 2005

In 1960, Evelyn Waugh wrote a letter to the editor of the (UK) Spectator on the controversy surrounding the death penalty, which, he said

reveals a sharp division between the heathen, who believe that physical survival, even in conditions of degradation, is preferable to extinction, and Christians who regard life on earth as a time of probation leading to an eternity of heaven or hell. [quoting Dr. Johnson:] 'Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.'

It would be a great convenience to know well in advance the hour of one's death so as to be able to 'concentrate' on practical and spiritual matters. Most of us have the irksome and discouraging duty of living each hour as though it were our last. Only to the very wicked does a merciful society grant this final boon. The issue has been muddled in the last hundred years by the supposition that only murderers are so wicked as to deserve this final chance to 'concentrate'. There are few of us who would not benefit from a fortnight's 'concentration' ending on the gallows.

The sentencing of ex-priest Paul Shanley for child rape has surfaced concerns about his safety as a prisoner, especially in view of the recent death of Fr. John Geoghan at the hands of fellow inmate Joseph Druce, who caught Geoghan alone and strangled him with a twisted bedsheet. The discussion brought to mind Waugh's well-targeted growling.

Suppose Shanley should die unexpectedly while serving his sentence -- whether the occasion be a heart attack, or a stroke, or a steel shiv punched through the brain. What is the likelihood that he would be in the state of grace at the point of death? Are the prison chaplains who minister to him likely to be concerned about traditional moral doctrine and confessional practice? Is Shanley himself?

It's horrible to contemplate Druce tightening his home-made garrotte around Geoghan's neck -- "No more kids for you, pal!" -- while his struggling peaked, slackened, and ceased. But I wonder if Druce wasn't Geoghan's Gollum -- i.e., the hostile creature whose hostility turns out to be not a curse but a supreme blessing, a wholly unforeseeable condition of salvation. In those twenty or thirty seconds in which Geoghan knew he was being killed, he would have the chance to make an act of contrition, to die the death we all pray for: contrite, and in the state of grace. "Twixt the stirrup and the ground, he mercy sought and mercy found."

I'm not concerned here to argue for the morality of the death penalty, still less that Shanley deserved it. But I'd like to hear, in the midst of all the hand-wringing about the physical safety of prisoners, a Christian voice addressing an infinitely more important danger. In the end, concern for eternal life is the only love that will matter. Listen to St. Thomas More, addressing the judges who have just condemned him to death (July 1st, 1535):

"More have I not to say, my Lords, but like as the blessed Apostle St. Paul, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was present and consented to the death of St. Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now both twain holy saints in heaven, and shall continue there friends forever, so I verily trust, and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your Lordships have now here in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together, to our everlasting salvation."

There speaks a Christian. He knows that the temporal injuries he received, like those he dealt, will lose their power to do harm. He fears him who can destroy both body and soul in hell. He prays, not for his enemies' safety, but for their contrition, that "we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together."

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