Speaking back in 1988 about the crisis of religion in many parts of the West,

Dominican brother Jozef Bochenski, a logician and a philosopher, attributed religion's irrelevance in the lives of some people to the failure of moderns to ask themselves “existential questions.”

“If someone never poses those questions to himself,” he said, “then to him religion [becomes] unnecessary.” What are those “existential questions?” They are the stuff Catholics have asked themselves for generations. Why am I here? What is the purpose of life? Where are we going? If God is good, why do good people suffer?

In the wake of terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and faced with the subsequent anthrax scares, Americans have again started asking themselves such questions. Our national tragedy has at least momentarily changed some of the terms of the culture of life vs. culture of death debate. A few observations seem in order.

E Death Has Regained Its Sting. Christians, of course, believe that Jesus Christ conquered sin and that the defeat of death is but a matter of time. In the fulfillment of the eschaton, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more” (Revelation 21:4).

Secularized modernity, of course, has attempted its own de-fanging of death. That “conquest,” however, has involved nothing less than making peace with death — regarding it as a goal, even a friend. The euthanasia movement has hawked that notion of death, although the antiseptic notion of extermination-as-solution really finds it taproot in the abortion-on-demand regime of Roe v. Wade. Death looked a lot better when dealt by lab-coated physicians (in violation of their Hippocratic Oaths). Medicine itself has become distorted as the philosophy of death-as-enemy has been increasingly supplanted by the new ideology of death-as-cure. Remember, Dr. Kevorkian's do-it-yourself suicide machine was set up in such a way as to administer an anesthetic knockout prior to delivering the fatal dose.

With terrible suddenness, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center showed death for what it is: cold, cruel and frightening. A culture whose etiquette called for a queasy dance around discussing death directly suddenly watched as hundreds of innocent people were obliterated, in a matter of seconds, on TV. It wasn't quiet, it wasn't pretty and it wasn't anticipated. In other words, it was death as most of mankind has contended with it throughout most of human history.

E The Thief of Death Is Back. For centuries, the Church's litanies prayed for protection “against a sudden and unprovidedfor death.” People today hear of sudden deaths less often. Various factors account for this change. Technology, for one, sometimes prolongs the process of dying, blurring the line between assisting breathing and ventilating a corpse. “Pulling the plug” gives some the feeling of being able to “mark” the moment of death. Long-term debilitating illnesses like Alzheimer's or even AIDS give sufferers advance notice that death is on the way, and some (through the euthanasia movement) even try to hasten its arrival. Endless appeals habituate even condemned criminals to think of death in terms of decades. Abortion-on-demand fosters the “planning” mentality: “2:15 Thursday — appointment to kill my baby.”

Now, however, a “sudden and unprovided-for death” sometimes seems as close as the mailbox. Atomized individuals are further enclosed in their isolation when opening a letter can be a lethal act. Nor is death just proximate; it is random. The illusion of human control over one's demise was brutally cut away Sept. 11, when death came with no forewarning to thousands going about the mundane business of the day.

E Religion Is Back in Style. As the Register has reported, people have started finding their ways back to church and synagogue. The World Trade Center attacks starkly re-posed fundamental existential questions before people's eyes. In a world where death has suddenly become unexpected, up-close and personal, eschatological agnosticism is suddenly out of fashion: There really are no atheists in fox-holes.

People have begun again asking themselves: And then what? The prevailing ideology of strict “separation of church and state,” which has resulted in isolating the culture from religion, suddenly does-n't seem all that compelling when people are confronted with a search for meaning in the face of death-on-the-way-to-the-office. Some wire services reported that even the usual atheist litigants ready to sue at the least sign of public religious expression were restraining themselves. “Is that all there is, or is there more?” Face to face with this searing question of faith and existence, people instinctively recognize they cannot be condemned to an exclusively private search for answers.

E Just War Theory May Make a Comeback. In the wake of the Persian Gulf War, George Weigel and James Turner Johnson wrote a highly critical analysis of the public positions taken by American religious leaders. By and large, the authors said, the American religious establishment — both Catholic and Protestant — had become “functionally pacifist,” effectively jettisoning the theory of just war. That outcome, they argued, was unfortunate because in the post-Cold War era, just-war theory might be more, rather than less, useful.

The threat of nuclear warfare between the erstwhile Soviet Union and the United States, Weigel and Johnson maintained, has distorted the whole view of war. Low-grade, localized conflicts have been far more commonplace throughout history. Just-war theory could provide an effective tool for dealing with them.

Since it does not appear that beating swords into plowshares is likely to happen anytime soon, and when weapons of mass destruction can readily fall into the hands of belligerent states and terrorist bands, the need for a principled ethical approach to address these threats is more acute than ever. The Russian Orthodox patriarch, for example, was crystal-clear in declaring: America has a right to defend itself against aggression. That defense, I would argue theologically, can be both prophylactic and punitive. And that's where the theory of just war can provide an essential service today.

The attack on the World Trade Center was a heinous crime. What happened Sept. 11 and in the weeks since has been a tremendous shock for our country. Those events have, however, stimulated a period of national thought and reflection about questions to which the Church has real answers. Will we seize the moment?

John M. Grondelski, a moral theologian, writes from Warsaw.

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