When I attended UMKC Law School back in the early 1980s, I had a classmate named Barry (not his real name). At the time, I was not practicing the faith and by no means was a paragon of virtuous living. Despite my own low standards, I thought Barry’s carousing lifestyle crossed the bounds of propriety. He even confided to me that while he was home one weekend he made his girlfriend procure an abortion, because he was not willing to take responsibility for his actions.
One day, months later, Barry out of the blue told me, “It’s time for a revival.” It was only then that I learned that he was a part-time preacher who from time to time would go barnstorming through Missouri and Arkansas, inviting people to become “saved.”
I was shocked. I admitted that I had no room to talk, since in my estimation I was no longer a Catholic or even a Christian. Even so, the disparity between Barry’s faith and his ongoing debauchery confused and scandalized me. He eventually explained that I had to learn to separate faith from daily life. I told him–with less refinement and charity than I’d use today–what I thought of a religion I could test drive but not take home. My burning intuition was that a religion that did not affect who I was and how I lived was not worth my time.
An analogous situation arises today in the context of funerals. As many of us know, the dominant mindset is that the deceased is “in a better place,” and thus the funeral rite itself becomes nothing other than a mini-canonization.
Assuredly we entrust the deceased to the mercy of God, who alone judges hearts. We also must console those who are mourning, offering them solid grounds for hope that their departed loved one is indeed with the Lord. In this regard, it is entirely fitting to recall the good deeds and accomplishments of the deceased to buoy our hope in his or her resurrection.
Yet the current trend goes even further. Our contemporaries assume the deceased is in heaven, so the only real concern is helping friends and family cope with the temporal loss. This approach effectively does away with the need to pray and offer sacrifice for the deceased, which Scripture describes as a “very excellent and noble” practice (see 2 Mac. 12:43; Catechism, no. 1032).
It also derails a teachable moment: The reality of death affords all of us the opportunity to consider our own mortality and thus seek to be in right relationship with God. A casual observer at many funerals today could easily conclude that it really doesn’t matter how one lives, because everyone’s eternal fate seems to be the same.
Both my encounter with Barry and the experience at many funerals today reflect the error of presumption, which takes many forms (see Catechism, no. 2092). One form of presumption is the timeless heresy of Pelagianism, which holds that happiness is attainable by merely human effort, without the necessity of grace. This is manifested today by those who place all their hope in technological progress. Another example of presumption, commonly seen at funerals, is the attitude that in the end God will forgive us irrespective of our cooperation with grace. Following this view, heaven is the inevitable and more or less universal sequel to this life.
Christian fundamentalism is yet another form of presumption. Granted, Barry’s case is an extreme example of the “once saved, always saved” mentality. Most Bible Christians would be aghast at Barry’s lifestyle. Further, they rightly affirm in the midst of our largely secular and indifferent society the centrality of faith in Jesus Christ (see Acts 4:12; 1 Cor. 3:11). Even so, the necessity of a “born again” experience is often presented and understood in a way that leaves no room for human freedom. Once “saved,” the individual can’t “lose” his salvation, even through mortal sin.
The corrective to every form of presumption is Christian hope, which acknowledges both God’s unwavering fidelity to His promises and our responsibility as Christian disciples to lead lives worthy of our heavenly calling (see Eph. 4:1).
This post originally appeared, in modified form, in Lay Witness magazine.