Excerpts from “Humanae Mortis.”
Originally published in Triumph magazine in 1970
By: Lorenzo Albacete. Lorenzo was a young physicist from Puerto Rico and who later found a priestly vocation.
It is the policy of Sky View to keep the material in the posts as simple as possible. I try to mirror the simplicity of the Gospel and the writings of the Saints. Nevertheless, there are mysteries of our salvation that are complex; the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the doctrine of indulgences, just to name two. This particular piece by Fr. Albacete is a bit academic and philosophical. But if you can stomach an elevated presentation of life, love, death and sacrifice, it will make for a wonderful Lenten reflection! And if you find it difficult to read at times, I encourage you to keep reading. As such, you will understand the fundamental difference between the Culture of Life and the Culture of Death.
“[T]o avoid the confrontation with death is a refusal to live life to its fullest…
This is the truth of life: to be a man every man must surrender his self. To be a man every man must die. Death is the ultimate obstacle to the society that has, all along, not allowed man to be a man. The flight from death is thus a hatred for life.
Death is, first of all, an intensely personal act involving the whole man. Gone are the social supports, the laws, the public myths. Alone with his self perhaps for the first time, the individual at the moment of death is poor in that poverty which all the other poverties only suggest. And taking command of his self in a way never possible to him before, the individual acts: he takes a stand. Out of the personal center of his being, terminating his own life from within, the man dies, he surrenders his self to the root of his personhood, to the Person who called him to be.
Death is also a threat to this society because it is a personal act, and personal acts are free acts, and death is the totally free act. Death, that is, is not totally passive. In its external circumstances, in its inevitability, it is indeed independent of the individual; but ironically, it is precisely in this that death provides the opportunity for an act of freedom…Free to do what? Free to accept or affirm the value of his life; or free to reject it, to judge it valueless. Free, in short, to decide. Death reveals man as a being capable of and called to make a decision. As an extremely personal event, death goes to the heart of the person to elicit the perfect act of the one who is called: a definite response. At last, after all the evasions and partial commitments of life, the individual is compelled to take a stand through which his inner existence is to attain its irrevocable form. Death is man’s highest act, in which he consummates his existence in freedom.
At bottom, every moral decision has this cast. So it is that the ultimate decision, the determining, final stand can be an impossible challenge to the man who has refused throughout life to make a moral decision, or who has seen morality as relative, situational, with no effects on his deepest being. Because the anti-life society is peopled by such men, it must avoid, postpone, and ignore death…
The paradox of death as both the ultimate misfortune and the supreme culmination of life may be clarified in two ways.
First of all, some things can be unfortunate and at the same time necessary and indispensable for us in our fallen human existence. For example, a loss can be healing, a bad experience can be good for us for the very reason that it torments us. It is in this spirit that Christians see in death a just punishment for sin.
The notion of punishment, like the notion of sin, is anathema to the society that cannot understand life. These are the requirements for true appreciation of punishment: a sense of sin, and a sense of having offended Someone. A sense of sin is essential to the understanding of punishment for without punishment appears as an arbitrary oppression, an unavoidable consequence of an unfortunate act. A sense of sin allows a man to realize that he had the capacity to turn away, in clear consciousness and on the basis of a free decision, from what he knows to be the true purpose of life; while if true and false are relative, then of course there can be no such thing as a true punishment…So the anti-life society, which knows nothing about sin, nothing about authority, must see death as a natural catastrophe, as another obstacle to the self-supremacy of man which must be overcome by man’s liberator; technology.
But herein lies the tragedy: punishment is actually liberation, as long as it is accepted freely. To the extent that it is resisted, misunderstood, rejected- to that extent punishment is enslaving. But once it is accepted out of a sense of sin and justice, then it becomes liberating. And it is precisely in the nature of death to require man to decide his attitude with respect to punishment. To the extent that it represents a separation that should not be, to that extent death can be purifying.
The healthy man (the Christian man) knows all of this. His sense of justice enables him to have a latent experience of this “unfortunate” but necessary aspect of death. A latent experience is that unspoken awareness which becomes conscious when a particular occurrence, though unexpected, does not surprise us. It is that feeling, difficult to express, that you should have known all along that things would turn out this way. So it is with death. Our own sense of sin demands it. In this way death, though a misfortune, appears as expected to the man who has tasted life; while to the man or society that has never known life, that exists in an artificial inhuman environment. death appears as a challenge to be avoided…
Man’s most personal act is a response to the call that gives him his personal identity. And the fundamental response between persons, the most central relation between persons, is love. Man’s most personal act must therefore be an act of love.
But in what does an act of love consist? Underlying every act of love is giving, a surrendering of self to the other. The most perfect and total act of love is therefore the total self-giving of one person to another. The life of love is consummated when this self-giving is reciprocated, when it is entirely mutual…The link between love and life is sacrifice. Sacrifice is self-giving, the surrender which manifests love and renders it fruitful in abundance. The Gospel confirms this: the only way for man to gain his life is to lose it, to give it up, to sacrifice it. Sacrifice is an act central to man. The personal act performed by man at the moment of death is sacrifice.
As a sacrifice which fulfills and completes life, death is central to man. And to the extent as a result of sin all sacrifices are painful and difficult and even “destructive” to fallen man so is the ultimate sacrifice, death. At the same time, death, as we have seen, is a culmination, a maturing from within. But the point is that this maturing process is a sacrificial process and therefore for fallen man it is in every one of its stages painful, difficult, “destructive.” But at all costs, the fundamental link between love and life which is this sacrifice and which accomplishes this maturing process, this loving conversation between the person and the Personal Origin of his identity- at all costs must be maintained if man is to be a man.
Here is the overall cohesiveness of the anti-life mentality: It must conquer death, it must destroy death, because the fundamental drive of the anti-life mentality is to destroy the link between love and life wherever it appears.
Before conception: denial of the sacrifice of total self-giving between husband and wife; after conception: denial of the sacrifice of surrendering the needs of the new life; through out life: denial of the sacrifice of living it on its own terms, refusal to accept the gifts of the earth which the Creator has given man, rejection of his invitation to share his life. Now, as a logical extension of this spirit, if science and technology permit, there is to be the rejection of the sacrifice of consummation in the arms of the One who called us.
But this will not succeed. For the Caller became the called, and in the one supreme Sacrifice of the Cross, he sealed permanently the link between love and life, between human love and supernatural life, between man and God.
There is a terrifying possibility. At the moment of death the person himself may choose to break the link between love and life forever, he may refuse to sacrifice. He will damn himself. To the extent that the anti-life society has broken this link, it is already damned.
1. To end on a more positive note: To the extent that the Catholic Church restores this link between life and love- the link being sacrifice -to that extent will souls and America itself be saved. But death has to be accepted as a punishment from God which is but the penalty of sin. If we do accept it as such, Christ, who died on the Cross for us, transforms death into the greatest of all blessings as a passage way to eternal happiness. And in affirming the value of our live at the moment of death, it can be our greatest gift to the One Who created us; that is, if we imitate God's only begotten Son by offering ourselves as a sacrifice to Him.
2. However, the refusal to confront death prevents us from living life to the full. Indeed, the fear of death keeps us in a perpetual state of slavery. “Now since the children share in blood and flesh, he likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.” (Hebrews 2:14-15) Always in a hurry to accumulate as many pleasurable experiences as possible before our time is up, we fail to see life as it really is and we fail to live this life to the full. Why? Because we are relunctant to sacrifice ourselves in our love for others and especially in our love for God.