The Scandal of Death


Yesterday’s violence in Boston was senselessness enough; in the context of the last months and years, it feels like piling on. We are weary now in a way we weren’t on, say, September 10, 2001 (not to over-stretch comparisons). Some days it seems like a great levee is about to break and all the darkness that civilization has hitherto kept at bay will come surging in and swallow us up. How powerless, helpless, hopeless we are before that deluge! Perhaps we’ve had more such days than usual, lately. Still, one needn’t believe the Apocalypse is upon us to feel the press of that darkness.

Speaking of the Second Coming, that would be preferable to our current plight—terrible yes, but decisive. That’s why the Church prays, as she always has, Maranatha! Until then, death lingers among us. Wickedness consumes us. Violence plagues us. Civilizations fall, and nations are ground to dust. Yet we continue to sow hatred, spite, malevolence, and cultivate them, only to weep at the harvest. No, for all our afflictions, this is not the end of the world; it’s just the way of things. Which is worse.

Only the powerful feel like they’re losing control, like things are slipping away. Maybe that’s why our world is so startled and shaken by death, though we encounter death less than ever before. Death has become a scandal to us, an affront to our sense of power and control. We have driven death from our homes and hidden it away in hospitals and hospices. We rarely see it visited upon the young, mercifully. Our culture is saturated in death, but we don’t see it.

Until we do. Anger often attends the loss of life, especially the taking of life. So it should. The death of the young is especially upsetting because it offends our sense of justice.  But life is also a gift—undeserved and un-owed—and death displays both God’s justice and mercy: justice, because the wages of sin are death; mercy, because, through His love, death is become the necessary condition of our salvation.

Death separates us from this life, opening up the possibility that, through the merits of the Cross, we may find new life, far greater than this life. As St. Paul says, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” The Cross is always a scandal to the world precisely because it does not know Him. Let it not be so for us. As the Gospel of John proclaims:

What came to be through him was life,

and this life was the light of the human race;

the light shines in the darkness,

and the darkness has not overcome it.

As we grieve, let us take comfort that a light still shines in the darkness. Let us take steadfast courage knowing that, against the light of the Resurrection, the darkness doesn’t stand a chance.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His work focuses on the application of Catholic social teaching to a broad spectrum of contemporary political and cultural issues. Since 2005, Mr. White has been coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society: a three week seminar on Catholic social teaching, with an emphasis on the thought of Blessed John Paul II, which takes place every summer in Kraków, Poland. He studied politics at the University of Dallas and philosophy at the Catholic University of America. He is a graduate of the St. Patrick's Evangelisation School in London, England.

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