Blessed are the bad?

Charles Cowling

There’s an interesting piece (if you find this sort of thing interesting) in the Australian magazine Eureka Street, a very interesting looking publication promoted by the Australian Jesuits, but remarkably non-doctrinaire and broadminded in its treatment of things.

The piece, by Andrew Hamilton, a theologian from Melbourne, debates the sort of funeral appropriate for child abusers and for criminals like Carl Williams. He begins:

In the last month Catholic funerals have led to controversy. Many Catholics complained that Carl Williams was allowed burial in a Catholic Church. And some victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church expressed anger that bishops and priests in robes glorified the funeral of a priest who had been charged with sexual abuse of minors, but who died before the case could be brought.

We are all sinners, but where, if anywhere, should a line be drawn, especially now that most religious funerals will contain an element of life celebration?

The focus on the life of the dead person makes funerals of notorious malefactors problematic. When all involved in the funeral see themselves as sinners, brought together to pray for God’s mercy upon another sinner, it will seem natural that public sinners should have a church funeral which is widely attended.

But if funerals are seen only to commemorate the life of the dead, to praise their virtues, and to commend them to shared memory, those who attend may be seen to endorse the quality of the dead person’s life. They come, not just to bury the dead, but to praise them. If the funeral evokes the virtues of a scoundrel whose life was publicly scandalous, those who take part may seem to be complicit in a lie. Church officers who celebrate the funeral or make the church building available may also be seen as reprehensible.

Hamilton concludes:

Within the Christian community splendid ceremonies with processions of robed bishops and priests may heighten the sense that the dead person is precious in God’s eyes and may evoke God’s mercy. But those whom a dead priest has abused and the wider society are as likely to see in the celebration an enactment of power and defiance.

In such funerals it may be better to draw on the resources of Catholic liturgy that allow people to gather to seek forgiveness, express grief and pray for conversion. Plain dress, an unornamented church, honest prayers and periods of silence can express respect for the dead person and our shared need of God’s mercy. A one-style liturgy does not fit all circumstances.

Read it all here.

One thought on “Blessed are the bad?

  1. Charles Cowling
    Jonathan

    At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, this article highlights some of the hoops you have to jump through to justify your own beliefs when you’re not prepared or qualified to change them in the light of evidence because god knows best.

    Frankly, I can feel little sympathy for the plight of anyone who insists on a religious funeral that dictates the terms and conditions of the ceremony in an unflexing way. The highest and lowest qualities demonstrated by any human being are there inside each of us – there but for personal choice go I – and if we are to commemorate the life of someone who stooped so low as to damage others, let’s say so without judgement but with candour. The only problem I can see in conducting a funeral for someone whose behaviour was completely unacceptable would be if the family wanted me to hide the fact, when I suppose I would break my rule of ‘family knows best’ (with their permission) in light of personal misgivings, or decline to conduct the funeral.

    I’ve conducted funerals for the unloved, without equivocation and with the gratitude of the families. Okay, none of them sexually abused helpless victims or murdered anyone, but the difference is only of degree, and I thanked god that he didn’t exist to prevent the truth from being acknowledged and thereby dealt with.


    Charles Cowling

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