On Aug. 15, Catholics honored the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven, body and soul. The Assumption is a doctrine proclaimed officially in relatively recent times, but it has been celebrated and believed since the Church’s earliest days.
The Assumption has a special meaning for my family and myself. It marks the anniversary of the death of my wife’s mother. Every Aug. 15, we remember what a happy death she had, surrounded at home by her family, singing and praying the rosary.
This was fitting. The chief appeal we make in the rosary (53 times) is for a happy death: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” When he proclaimed the feast of the Assumption, Pope Pius XII explained in “Munificentissimus Deus” that because Mary was conceived without sin, “she was not subject to the law of remaining in the corruption of the grave, and she did not have to wait until the end of time for the redemption of her body.”
People who regularly repeat such prayers — who think like this about the end of life — are bound to disagree with some of our unhappiest cultural trends.
Assisted suicide, which the law allows in Oregon and Washington, is on the ballot in Massachusetts this November. We all know the occasional case where someone, sadly depressed and mentally unstable, tragically takes his own life. But the modern campaign wants to make suicide a right for everyone.
The arguments for it are simple enough. A consistent materialist might assert that we are only lumps of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, and when the electricity stops, we’re done. If that’s the case, there is no moral harm in turning off one’s own switch, is there? Light is useful, but if the light is painful, why not extinguish it?
Others might reach the same conclusion from an opposite and more spiritualist perspective. A modern Manichean might hold that the soul shares in God’s life, but death is only a matter of shuffling off this mortal coil. Why should there be any more harm in that than in a snake shedding its skin?
Catholics think differently than modern culture does about bodies. We believe God created us in body and soul, and saved us entirely. We believe that the Word was made flesh and not just spirit, that eternal life is about bodies no less than souls.
We who hold that we are equally body and soul — that both are essential to us, both in our own view and in God’s — cannot imagine destroying either. The act of suicide is an explicit denial of what the Assumption affirms, that Christ has already triumphed over sin and death.
Suicide repudiates all of God’s goodness and the entire world he made, as G.K. Chesterton wrote, “the man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned, he wipes out the world. When a man hangs himself on a tree, the leaves might fall off in anger and the birds fly away in fury: for each has received a personal affront.”
“Now and at the hour of our death,” we pray.
Mary’s trust in God throughout her life was so great that to this day, Muslim pilgrims visit and revere the Ephesian home from which some believe she was assumed. She did not presume to choose the hour God chose for her. It is one of the few things in life that none of us has a right to choose.
Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington.