With Dictators And Some Others, Death Can Be a Boon

Everyone grouses about death. Maybe we should take a look at the human condition and be grateful that God has provided us with an “out.” We should be grateful that, at the Fall, human nature fell sufficiently far. It's bad enough to find our reason impaired and our passions largely outside of our control. It would have been inconceivably worse, I suspect, to find ourselves unreasonable, impassioned, and immortal. Yes, it's unpleasant to be under an inescapable penalty of death. But the sum total of human misery would have been compounded if God had granted fallen man freedom from death or even just a far longer, though still finite, life. Consider the latter.

Modern medicine and hygiene haven't succeeded in stretching the biblical three score and ten by much, and it is unlikely that any degree of scientific manipulation of our bodies will ever permit the average to go much beyond four score. Some people look at this as a horrible limitation. They dread the prospect of medical progress approaching, a limit. They secretly hope for some breakthrough that will add decades to the average life. But I look at the eventual end to biological fine-tuning as a liberation-from ourselves.

Imagine the misery the world would suffer if life expectancy were five score and 10.

Assuming he would take power in his fourth decade, a dictator could remain in control for seventy or eighty years. Thirty years of Stalin were bad enough; an extra forty might have meant World War III several times over. As it is, the current life expectancy of seventy years gives most who rise to power only half a lifetime of active “public service"–which, often enough, is already more than their subjects can take. Twice that would be unbearable. Had Hitler not died in the bunker but at the biblical age, his passing would have occurred in 1959-an extra fourteen years of sorrows. Under the alternate scheme of longevity, he still would be going strong today, not due to expire until next year.

Dictatorial heads of state keep their positions because they act resolutely and-dictatorially. (Wimps do not become dictators.) Once in power, always in power, or so it seems to those at the receiving end of a dictator's ministrations. He thinks he deserves to remain in power because he already is in power. He would stay there roughly forever if the Grim Reaper didn't intervene. Of course, the dictatorial attitude is not confined to the world of politics. It's found also within the Church, which suffers from dictatorships of its own at times. Unlike in politics, these dictatorships are almost always toward the bottom, not toward the top. Or so it seems, perhaps because the bottom-feeding dictators are the ones that snap at our heels.

Imagine the misery the world would suffer if life expectancy were five score and 10.

I have a friend who edited a diocesan newspaper. A competent writer and a believer, he was brought in by a good bishop who gave him sufficient authority to transform the paper into something a Catholic could read without damage to his faith. The editor took to his job with alacrity, but there was persistent opposition from a clique of priests, mainly men ordained in the ‘60s and ‘70s and anxious to keep control of the diocese.

Their opposition to the new regime at the paper was not a personal thing with them. The editor always treated them well, giving their parishes a fair share of the publicity. No, the opposition was ideological, and the priests put on the pressure. They acted as little dictators, working around the periphery, undercutting the editor whenever they could, complaining to the bishop about imaginary faults, insisting that the editor get sacked or they'd take their toys and go home. At length they prevailed, and the editor was given a severance package. The bishop, the editor told me, didn't know what else to do; the dictatorial priests were dictating to him, subtly threatening to subvert the diocese unless they got their way. The rebellious sons were pushing their father around .

Complain about the bishop, if you will. Admittedly, his backbone was not as strong as his intentions. But the real problem was the dictatorship of the priests. What to do about them? Even a good bishop is limited. He can give early retirement to a priest here, a priest there, but what if many (or, God forbid, nearly all) of his priests are unwilling to comply with basic Church law? What if they have a united agenda that undercuts his? Sometimes, all a bishop can do is wait them out-or, at least, wait until death takes some of them and he is able to ordain new men, thus shifting the balance of power and loyalty in his favor. If it weren't for the biological hourglass running out, some dioceses would never be straightened out.

It's a sad thing to see death take a good bishop or a good priest or a good statesman (yes, there still are a few of those). But, on the whole, I think we're fortunate that time will effect a clean slate no matter what, thus saving us from perpetually living under the worst manifestations of the Fall.

Karl Keating is founding director of Catholic Answers.