The Catholic Church’s Gallows Humor

The now-late Avery Cardinal Dulles penned a brilliant essay on the death penalty. I’d say it’s the single best summation of the history and theological implications of the death penalty I’ve ever read – I sent it to my dad (who favors the death penalty) and my brother (who opposes it), and both attempted to use it to prove their position, which I found both funny and very telling. He’s not particularly advocating a specific position, as much as setting the record straight. Nevertheless, this prompted a number of reactions from other prominent Catholics, including Justice Antonin Scalia (in which he admits to rejecting the Catechism position on the death penalty), and add some much needed addenda to the conversation at times. Scalia’s response inspired responses of its own, including from Cdl. Dulles.

I mention all of this because there’s one theme which I noticed in both Dulles’ essay and Scalia’s response. Dulles wrote that:

The mounting opposition to the death penalty in Europe since the Enlightenment has gone hand in hand with a decline of faith in eternal life. In the nineteenth century the most consistent supporters of capital punishment were the Christian churches, and its most consistent opponents were groups hostile to the churches. When death came to be understood as the ultimate evil rather than as a stage on the way to eternal life, utilitarian philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham found it easy to dismiss capital punishment as “useless annihilation.”

In other words, if there is no God, the death penalty is a much more terrible punishment, since it’s the absolute worst thing which can happen to a person (moving to non-existence). Scalia made the same point, more glibly:

Indeed, it seems to me that the more Christian a country is the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral. Abolition has taken its firmest hold in post–Christian Europe, and has least support in the church–going United States. I attribute that to the fact that, for the believing Christian, death is no big deal.

While “no big deal” may not be the most accurate statement (I mean, the Holocaust doesn’t seem like “no big deal” to us even without considering the impacts upon the souls of those who supported it), there’s an element of truth to it, inasmuch as Christianity has long stuck Her tongue out at death. How else to explain these hilarious choices for patron saints?

1. St. Lawrence

St. Lawrence was a third century deacon who refused to renounce the faith. In fact, one of his torturers asked to be baptized by him after seeing angels ministering to his wounds. Eventually, Lawrence was placed upon gridirons to be roasted to death. Midway through being roasted alive, he cried out,

“Now you may turn me over, my body is roasted enough on this side.” Shortly after this had been done, he cried again: “At last I am finished; you may now take from me and eat.”

If this wasn’t enough gallows humor, the Catholic Church responded by making him the patron saint of cooks. I suppose a man who can give cooking tips during his own execution richly deserves it, but the idea of a cook praying to a saint whose most famous culinary contribution was his own cooked human flesh is … unusual.

2. St. Sebastian

St. Sebastian (died c. 288 A.D.), whose optional feast day was earlier this week, is said to have been tied to a pole and shot full of arrows until he was (wrongly) assumed dead. How does the Church respond? Oh, She made him the patron saint of archers. Sebastian wasn’t an archer, himself – his only known interaction with arrows is being on the receiving end of a whole lot of them, and living through it. So I imagine that those prayers were awkward: “St. Sebastian, let me be a better shot than the guys who tried to kill you…”

3. St. William of Rochester

Also known as St. William of Perth, he was a layman with a big heart: “A baker by trade, he was accustomed to set aside every tenth loaf for the poor. He went to Mass daily, and one morning, before it was light, found on the threshold of the church an abandoned child, whom he adopted and to whom he taught his trade.” This adopted son was called “‘Cockermay Doucri’, which is said to be Scots for ‘David the Foundling.'” St. William took David on a pilgrimage, but never made it. Or more specifically, David slit his throat. And the Catholic Church responded (you might be noticing a theme) by naming him … patron saint of adopted children. I’m not sure if parents of adopted children would be more likely to find St. William’s martyrdom a source of comfort (“things may be bad with my kid, but at least they’re not that bad) or just a terrifying cautionary tale.

I’m sure there are more along these same lines: since death is “no big deal” for saints, there’s nothing wrong with a little gallows humor reminding these saints how they crossed over in the first place.


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