Sacrament in Medieval and Modern World

A former professor once commented to me that she thought she really only learned something well when she had to teach it.  I understood what she meant when I taught my own course on the Middle Ages.  One of the key ideas in which I was interested was that of “worldview”: how did people of the past see the world and how did their world-view differ from the modern one?  What did the world mean to them as opposed to the moderns.  I knew about some aspects of this going into the class, but one that struck me part of the way through the class was the concept of “sacrament” in the medieval mindset.

The seven sacraments familiar to Catholics today were clearly summarized and discussed by the twelfth-century theologian Peter Lombard, whose discussion became the textbook to which all later medieval theologians would refer and which was never really disputed.  The sacraments also became the object of so much popular enthusiasm that in some places crowds would rush from one Church to another in order to see the key moment when the priest raised the host and proclaimed “hoc est corpus domini.

Much of the reason Peter Lombard’s discussion of the sacraments was never really challenged until the Protestant Reformation, and much of the reason for this popular acceptance is that the notion of sacrament must have simply seemed natural to medieval people given their world-view.  To them the material world was the sign or symbol of a higher spiritual one.  The material world was thus a meaningful place, a place that had its meaning written into it by its maker.  Matter concealed a higher spiritual meaning.  One example in this lay in how people read scripture.

Medieval Catholics considered several different senses of scripture.  Scripture had its literal sense- the plain meaning of the words, but it also had three symbolic senses.  The literal sense hid below it a more spiritual meaning; the literal became a sign of the spiritual.  Hence, the story of Jonah was not merely the story of a man swallowed by a whale,  regurgitated by said whale on a beach, and who then successfully (and unsurprisingly) called the people of the local city to penance.  Rather, the literal sense was the sign of, or pointed to, a higher spiritual one: that is, the death of Christ, His lying in a tomb for three days, and His subsequent Resurrection.

To a medieval this was natural: scripture, though written by human authors, was inspired by God, so it made sense that a higher spiritual meaning should be concealed by the literal words.  The same was true of the world.  The world was made by the hand of God, so it was not surprising that matter might conceal a higher spiritual reality.  The Incarnation must have seemed perfectly proper to men with such a view.

Also unsurprising would have been the notion of sacrament.  To them, a sacrament was a material sign with a hidden spiritual reality; it looked back to Christ’s Passion and conferred grace.  To a medieval, with the view of the world having its meaning written into it by God, it would have been perfectly normal that matter should conceal sanctity, that unleavened bread might conceal (below its accidents) divinity.  This view would have been natural to them, not in the sense that they probably consciously thought about it much, but in the sense that they swam in it like a fish in water.  This was why they ran from church to church, in a rush to see matter become divine.

Not so in the modern world.  In a world that is “disenchanted,” in belief if not in fact, there is little room for sacrament.  Matter cannot be a sign of higher realities if there are no higher realities.  Even many Catholics struggle to appreciate it; where the medievals were fish in water, the modern Catholic is more like a land animal learning to swim.  Even if his conscious beliefs are different, the background he swims in is too often that of the secular worldview with which he is continually bombarded.  If sacrament is to make sense to a modern world, then something of the older medieval world-view must be recaptured and the culture changed.

The Sanity of Theology

Years ago, (If my memory is not mistaken) the late Fr. Andrew Greeley mentioned, in a column I am unable to find, about his distaste for theology.  Theology, acknowledged, might have been necessary, it might even be a “necessary evil.”  Many progressives today agree and even go further, dropping the adjective and keeping the noun.  Joining forces with the antinomians and enemies of canon law,they would say that it is time to “progress” past medieval theology into the modern world.  Yet, there is more of regress than progress in their views- for the rejection of theology takes one only forward to a modernity that is as backward as pagan antiquity.  No one developed a theology of Zeus or the pagan gods.  And so, the “progress” of the modern progressive Catholic becomes nothing but the regression of the ancient pagan, who was more backward than the Middle Ages that developed so much of theology.  

In the early centuries of Christianity, theology was largely in the hands of the bishops, the main (though not only) defenders of Catholic orthodoxy against the intellectual attacks of the pagan.  Men like Augustine of Hippo and Ambrose of Milan explicated Early Christianity to a pagan world, defending it against heathen attacks, developing Christian thought, and applying Christian principles to new issues.  After the fall of Rome, for several hundred years, there was little done in the way of serious theology.  From 500 to 1000 AD, Christian thought, in a sense, shrunk, undergoing what one historian (Robert Markus) called an “epistemological excision,” responding to crisis by purging itself of most thought outside of the Bible.  Little else was read or considered.  In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, this was reversed.  Latin Europe recovered the science and philosophy of Aristotle and other pagan authors, applying the rules of logic and philosophy to theological questions, leading to the development of schools and universities, where a broad theological tradition developed.  

For many moderns, one senses that this development was a regrettable one- at best a necessary evil, and perhaps worse.  These dislike what they see as the limitations of (good) theology.  They see theology as something that limits, restricts, and holds back.  The theologians (the good ones at least) say, for instance, that a man may not marry another woman while his first wife is still living; they impose other limitations even less popular.  They, like lawyers, make distinctions, draw lines, and put up fences.  The modern man would rather blur the lines and, in his contempt for theology, tear down the fences.  But, as Chesterton has said, a man should be cautious about tearing down a fence until he knows why it was put up in the first place.  If a man, imagining he was to break free of limits and boundaries, and strike a blow for progress and liberty, should blow a hole in a dam, he would find at least one boundary that even he might regret crossing.  

In a real sense, theology does limit.  It limits in the same sense in which a dam limits.  It places a boundary not to limit individual freedom, but to guard it, for a man who broke the boundary of the dam would quickly find himself less free and not more.   And so the medieval theologians did limit.  They drew lines and made distinctions.  They were the lines that separated truth from falsehood, and inside the Christian faith from without.  To be more precise, perhaps, they did not draw the lines, so much as recognize the lines that were there.  If the marriage of a husband and wife is the image of the relationship between Christ and the Church, then a line exists between that man and any other women he would wish to marry while his first wife is still living. The line defends not only the man’s wife from abandonment, but the man from sacrilege.  The divisions between truth and falsehood are not made by the theologians, but only recognized by them, for they are in the gospel also.  They are there when Christ declared that he came not to bring peace into the world, but division.  They are in the gospel when He told of those within the wedding feast and those without.  When the Light came into the world, He divides the light from the darkness, which some prefer because their works are evil.  And when the Truth comes into the world, there will be a line between Him and falsehood, though some will prefer the falsehood.  

Yet, theology does not only limit- it expands.  It sees the world as a part of a larger world.  Theology is the “study of God,” yet, in his theology, Thomas Aquinas, wrote not only of God, but much on man.  This was because theology studies also the whole of creation, seen in light of God.  And seen in light of God, that is, by theology, the world expands and grows larger.  Flatland becomes a three-dimensional world.  A higher and larger floor is added to a poor and rude hovel.  Seen in light of God, a sunrise becomes not only a sunrise, but a sign of God’s majesty, and a storm, a sign of his splendor.  Marriage becomes not only marriage, but a sign of the union between Christ and the Church, a union that man cannot break, but may break himself upon.  This was the world of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas, this larger world of which the material was only a sign or symbol.  

This at any rate, is the task of good theology.  There is also bad theology.  This sees not the world in light of God, but rather, sees God in light of the world.  Feminist theologies that see the gospel in terms of secular feminism and liberation theologies that see it in terms of marxism are only two such examples.  This sort of theology, which is not really theology, is not necessary, though it may be evil.  But theology, real theology, as long as there is truth in the world, will draw lines.  As long as there is light in the world, it will recognize the darkness.  And God help those who try to pull the fence down, lest they learn the hard way why it was put up in the first place.  


Kill All the Lawyers? The Place of Law and the Gospel (I)

The first of a two post series on canon law and some current issues in the Church

The great playwright, William Shakespeare, once had one of his characters in Henry VI say: “the first thing we do, let us kill all the lawyers.” The sentiment is one that one suspects would find a sympathetic audience today. Attacking lawyers is certainly fashionable today, both within the Catholic Church and without it, though it is the former that concerns us here. The great canonist Ed Peter’s has recently complained about the spirit of anti-nomianism that seems pervasive today as people reject the law, some in the name of mercy or the gospel, and some simply in the name of their own desires. Defend the law and one risks being labeled a Pharisee, a legalist, one who cares more for law than people.

But we cannot so easily do without canon law. Canon law, that is, the law of the Church, grew to maturity in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the same time that saw the founding of the universities and major reform movements in the medieval Church to free it from secular control. This was not mere coincidence. One strength of the law was its ability to draw distinctions, the same skill developed by the scholastic theologians. For instance, throughout Aquinas, when he takes on a problem, he often points out the much lies in how one makes fine distinctions. When discussing whether it was necessary that Christ become man, Aquinas explains that in an absolute sense it was not necessary, but in another sense, it was (because it was the most fitting and efficient way to work salvation). He distinguished sense, he drew lines.

Lawyer did the same things. The also drew lines. Those lines included the line between the sacred and the secular, as the drew a line around the Church as firm as the walls of Constantinople and said that no secular ruler might cross it. Drawing lines between the secular and sacred meant that, free of secular influence (in theory if not always in practice), the Church was free to reform and to grow in holiness.

The law had another advantage. It is said today that “the law is reason free from passion.” Certainly, this saying fits with the attitude of the medieval Church lawyers. Men are too easily given to passion, they find it too easy to put reason aside out of anger, greed, or even compassion. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, once said that “most men live by sense rather than reason.” It was not said as an insult, but a realistic account of human nature. But the men of the Middle Ages knew that passion was no safeguard. Their’s was, in a sense, the first real Age of Reason, for they believed in the power of reason to understand the world in a way few had before. Reason, the rules of logic, would take them to a just and true outcome regardless the personal feelings or preferences or those involved. By reason, man escaped prejudice, and moved away from the animals and toward the angels. Hence, one task of law, reason free from passion, was the justice and fairness that came from truth. This was the purpose of law, to discover justice, regardless the feelings of those involved.

This was important when, in the early thirteenth-century, King Phillip Augustus of France, the most powerful ruler in Europe asked (demanded) that the Pope, Innocent III, grant him a divorce of his wife. Pope Innocent III, however, was not a mere sentimentalist, rather, he was a canon lawyer. Hence, was able to look past the personal preference of himself (he would have preferred not to anger the king) and the king, and tell the king that the law found no justification to put aside the plain words of Christ in the gospel: when a man divorces his wife and marries another, he commits adultery. By the law, the Pope tried defend the innocent wife of a powerful king who had begun to find her inconvenient.

This is why it is so unfortunate today when some in the Church set the law against the gospel and try to claim that we must put aside the law in the name of the gospel. Nonsense, if the law, reason free from passion, is not allowed not draw out the implications of the gospel and to consider its application to particular situations, then the decision will be unjust. If reason cannot decide, then unreason will. And when two passions collide, the passion of the stronger person usually prevails. Hence Henry VIII, who also demanded a divorce, rejected the advice of his lawyer, Thomas More, who told him that he had no grounds to break up his marriage. Henry ignored him; since his reason would not rule, his passion did and the first thing Henry did, was to kill the lawyer.

One final thought. In Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons, Thomas More’s son-in-law told him that he would cut down every law in England to achieve a desired end. More’s reply was biting: “And when the last law was down, and the devil turned round on you– where would you hide Roper, the laws all being flat… if you cut them down– and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then…?” Kill the lawyers, put aside the law, but who, as Bolt’s More says, could stand upright in ensuing storm.

Marriage Symbolism and the Question of Women Priests

I have suggested before that people in the Middle Ages simply did not see the same world that the modern man sees. Or to be more precise, they saw the same facts, but those facts had a different meaning. The world may have looked the same, but it did not mean the same thing. It did not mean the same because man in the Middle Ages looked out on a world made by God, a world with its meaning written into it by its Maker. And because the material world was not all there was, it could represent higher spiritual realities. Hence, St. Francis of Assisi loved the world, not as some neo-pagan nature worshiper, but (as the historian C.H. Lawrence put it), but because he saw it as a sign-book of its Creator’s love.

The modern world does not see the world this way, for the modern world has forgotten God, and so matter appears as little more than matter and symbolism- the use of matter to represent higher spiritual realities- is seen as something vague, arbitrary or subjective. To the Middle Ages, the marriage of a man and women was sign of a higher spiritual reality, the union of Christ and the Church, and so divorce was simply unthinkable. A man could no more divorce his wife than Christ could leave His Church. Yet, because the modern world does not see a marriage as having this higher symbolism, divorce is very natural to it and it cannot understand the Catholic world-view.

The same is true of the Catholic priesthood. The modern world sometimes asks why women cannot be priests, as if the priesthood were a right and all that was lacking was the permission of some overly backward pontiff. Yet, it is not so. The priesthood, like marriage, is based on certain symbolism, symbolism that defines its nature and makes it what it is. The symbolism is this: the relationship between God and his people, from Old Testament times, is described as a marriage. So too, the relationship between Christ and His Church. Jesus often spoke of Himself the bridegroom (“can the wedding guests fast when the bridegroom is with them?”), while heaven is described as the wedding feast of the lamb.

Hence, the physical reality of marriage represents the higher spiritual reality of the union of Christ and His bride, the Church. Yet, from this follow certain facts about the nature of the priesthood; for Jesus is Himself a priest (Hebrews 4:14- “A great High Priest”). And the job of the priest was to stand between God and the people and to offer sacrifice. This the priest does today as well, standing in the place of the Great High Priest, Jesus Himself. Standing in the place of Christ, the priest stands in His place in relation to the people. And Christ is the Bridegroom of his bride, the Church. Hence, standing in the place of Christ, the priest, as Christ, stands as the bridegroom in relation to the Church. For this reason, the priesthood was seen as the vocation of men, not by virtue of their worth, for they have none sufficient, but by virtue of spiritual reality.

The priesthood was thus not a matter of rights, but of the nature of reality. The marriage of a man and woman reflected the union of Christ and the Church, and the priest stood in the place of Christ. A female priesthood was simply impossible, perhaps even a contradiction in terms. The meaning did not work. And the meaning was not arbitrary, but objective, written into matter by the God that made it, and reflecting God’s own nature.

But the modern world cannot see this; it cannot see the material world as a sign of higher spiritual realities- for there are none. Symbolism thus becomes wholly arbitrary and subjective- something man made and something he might make otherwise if so wished. The American flag is a symbol of America with 50 stars and 13 stripes. But it need not have had those numbers of stars or stripes or, indeed, any stars and stripes at all. It might have had squares, or deus avertit, butterflies. In the Catholic world-view, some symbols were like that- a knight’s crest perhaps- but not all were. Some symbols had an objective meaning, a meaning because it was written into matter by matter’s maker. Marriage and the priesthood were among these and no one had the power to make it otherwise.

Breeding Like Rabbits? Procreation in the Medieval and Modern View

In the early Sixteenth Century, Henry VIII of England was a man with a very old and very normal problem: he wanted to change his woman. In the view of marriage common to the European nobility, the purpose of wives was to produce heirs and useful political alliances– not much better than the crude language of one of Thomas Kyd’s characters, “wives are made but to bed and feed.” Unfortunately, Henry’s first wife, who was really his only wife, had proved unable to produce any heirs. Since she had failed to serve her purpose, Henry tried to dismiss her and find a wife who could give him the heir he wanted. For him and his aristocratic brethren, this was the purpose of marriage: the production of children (and useful alliances). Since this was the overriding purpose of marriage, if a marriage failed to produce children, they tried to take this as sufficient reason to end the marriage.

The medieval Church, which supposedly thought the sole purpose of marriage was children might have been expected to agree with Henry and countless other similar nobles who also sought divorces for dynastic reasons. Yet, strangely, they did not, even when it was clearly in their political interest to do so. Hence, Pope Innocent III refused a divorce to King Phillip Augustus (II) of France, even thought Phillip was easily the most powerful monarch in early thirteenth-century Europe and Innocent was desperate for his support. As Henry VIII was refused his divorce, so was Phillip refused his.

This is of more than historical interest. It is often charged against the Catholic Church today that it considers the sole point of marriage to be children, hence contraception is forbidden and the Church expects people to, as the crude saying goes, “breed like rabbits.” While the modern world has moved on, the Church stays behind, convinced that the main purpose of marriage is to have as many children as possible.

Yet if this is so, it is strange that it be so. Strange that the same Church that is said to be obsessed with procreation still forbids divorce even if no children are possible. And it is strange too that the same Church forbids artificial reproductive technologies (though not natural ones), which are designed to increase the likelihood that a marriage produce children. Why should this be so, if it regards children as the sole point? Why should the medieval Church have forbidden childless couples to divorce if children were the key point of marriage?

There are two answers of course. The first is that it was never the Church that was obsessed with children, but the secular world. Pope Clement VII was not obsessed with children, but Henry VIII was: so obsessed, in fact, that he started his own church, declaring himself “supreme head of the Church in England” in order to give himself a divorce in an attempt to have the heirs he sought.

The second reason is this: the Church does not regard children as the main purpose of marriage. Rather, in the Middle Ages, as now, it saw the main purpose of marriage as the holiness of the spouses. Marriage was a sacrament, a physical sign of spiritual realities and channel of divine grace. In particular, marriage was as sign of the union between God, Jesus Christ, and His Church. Hence, while the purpose of marriage was not children, marriage was to be open to children; if either spouse was infertile, this was unfortunate, but it did not justify ending the marriage since its primary purpose, the sanctification of the spouses, remained. Hence, while a Catholic marriage will welcome children and not act actively against them, it will not be obsessed with them and may have many or few as circumstances allow.

The secular world, however, is obsessed with children either getting them (as was Henry VIII) through artificial means, or avoiding them through artificial means (whether contraception or abortion). This obsession reflects not a great love of children, but a great love of self, since the children become either tools of adult gratification or else obstacles to it. Where marriage can reflect no higher spiritual realities, people become their own gods and their own centers. If marriage cannot have a higher purpose, it must have a lower one. Fulton Sheen said that if love burns not upward in ascent, then it burns downward to destroy. The destruction falls on all society, the consequences evident in the world today.

The Medieval Worldview: The Gothic Cathedral

One summer I was doing my dissertation research in Europe and ran into a young Norwegian woman in Bologna, Italy. She asked me how I liked my travels and I mentioned especially my love of the great Medieval Cathedrals. She dismissively waved a hand and replied, “eh, you’ve seen one old Church, you’ve seen them all.” I was able to resist the urge to call her a viking barbarian and tell her that this was why her ancestors had pillaged Europe for 150 years—but it was a near thing. At any rate, I’ve since come to realize more and more the dependence of architecture on one’s world-view. As I wrote in an earlier post, man in the Middle Ages looked out at the same universe that modern man does, but it meant something different to him. The Cathedrals reflected a certain world-view, a world-view that modern man does not share and hence may struggle to understand.

The Medieval Cathedrals, Gothic architecture, were enormously expensive. Henry III spent 45,000 pounds on one, nine times the annual income of his whole realm. They could take hundreds of year to complete, an architect who began one could have no expectation that he would live to see his work finished. Furthermore challenges of transporting material and other technical challenges were tremendous. It is hard to imagine anyone going through similar effort for a building today. Why do it then? How the Cathedrals were built and what they looked like is one question. The “skyscrapers of their day,” as one art historian called them, were committed to as much height as possible. Hence, they made use of flying buttresses (except the Italians, who considered the flying buttress ugly) and the pointed arch, to allow greater height. With greater height, taller stained glass windows could be built, sometimes costing as much at the rest of the cathedral combined. The purpose: to flood the Cathedral with as much light as possible. What was the point and what did it mean?


The point was that the Cathedral represented an image of heaven. The Cathedral had its meaning built in by its makers and that meaning was to stand as an image of heaven. Hence the height and the stained glass to let in as much light as possible. John has said that God was light, “in Him is no darkness,” and so light, while natural, was seen as the most noble of natural phenomena because it represented the divine light and grace of God. As one looked up in a Cathedral, God’s grace, in the form of sunlight, streamed down from heaven on those within (1), just as in the Eucharist, God’s grace descended on all the faithful and turned mere matter into God himself.

This was possible because of the medieval mindset: matter could symbolize the divine. The material world was not all there was; rather it was the sign of a higher, more real spiritual world. Just as the universe was an objectively meaningful place because it had its meaning built in by its maker, so too a cathedral, in a lesser way, had its meaning built it by its maker and matter, because made by God, could represent divinity, both in the Universe and in a cathedral. The theologian John Scotus Erigena, for instance, remarked that “we understand a piece of wood or a stone, only when we see God in it.” To a mindset where meaning permeated the universe, a meaning built into it by its maker, the great Cathedrals were almost inevitable..


This was the age of the great medieval cathedrals and the great universities, dedicated to the task of harmonizing faith and reason. The two, cathedral and university were twins- growing up together at the same time and even same place (1). The universities were dedicated to the work of reason, but reason was not enough. Not all men had the time or ability to be philosophers, but all men needed to be saved. Hence, the task of the cathedral was to make the faith clearer by an appeal to reason, but to make reason clearer by appeal to imagination, and finally, to make imagination clearer by appeal to the senses. In a world where matter had its meaning built in and could represent the divine, the Gothic Cathedrals were simply natural. For this reason G.K. Chesterton wrote of the Gothic enterprise:

Christ prophesied the whole of Gothic architecture in that hour when nervous and respectable people (such as now object to barrel-organs) objected to the gutter-snipes of Jerusalem. He said, “If these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Under the impulse of His spirit arose a clamorous like chorus the facades of the medieval cathedrals, thronged with shouting faces and open mouths. The prophecy has fulfilled itself: the very stones cry out.

In the modern world, whose materialism denies the existence of a spiritual world, the universe has no meaning built in and so matter cannot represent any higher, holier, or more interesting world. Beauty in art or architecture is a pointless exercise and so all that is left is the utilitarian or the weird. The universe might be larger, but the world is smaller, a dimension dropped as modernity lives in the flatland of the materialist.

(1). Panofsky, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism.

(2). Further reading on Cathedrals see Scott’s, The Gothic Enterprise. An imperfect book in its history, but one that still captures well the meaning of the Gothic Cathedral.

Suicide in History and the Question of Dignity

As an undergraduate, I once attended a lecture by a visiting classicist who made the interesting remark that he considered classical antiquity to be the first modern age and the period from roughly 1700 to present as the second modern age. Over the course of my own studies of the Middle Ages, I have come to find his suggestion more and more plausible. On too many issues modernity and antiquity agree, while the Middle Ages differ with both. One wonders how modernists would feel to be told that they are even more backward than the Middle Ages on matters of religion, reason, homosexuality, abortion, birth control, and suicide.

The last of these concerns us here as the push for normalizing suicide, euphemistically called “death with dignity,” continues to gain traction in the modern world. In classical antiquity, suicide as a dignified death was accepted as a given. Often it was seen as the only dignified or honorable response to personal failure or tragedy. Hence Nero committed suicide (though he needed help) when the proximity of his overthrow became clear. Socrates committed suicide rather than flee or accept a lesser sentence when he was found guilty. Suicide for no reason at all was typically looked down on but, in general, suicide was seen as a noble and dignified response when the occasion called for it.

The Middle Ages rejected this. That backward writer Dante placed suicides in the 6th circle of his Inferno, a sin more serious than heresy and violence against others, bordering (literally) on blasphemy, but less serious than the sins of deception (since they involved greater malice). Suicide rates were far lower in the Middle Ages than today (1) (antiquity being difficult to measure). The reasons for this probably vary and are many, but several possibilities stand out.

First, suicide typically implies a negative view of the word. In pagan Antiquity most world-views tended to be fairly pessimistic. To Plato, the material world was a lesser shadow of the better, truer world of forms, and the body the mere prison of the soul. Philosophies like Epicureanism or Skepticism rested on the view that life was painful; at best, one could get by either by minimizing discomfort or taking no strong position on anything.Suicide itself rests on a strong hatred of the world. In the end, it is the refusal to see anything in the world worth living for, a refusal to love anything in the world enough to live for its sake. In a pessimistic world-view like pagan antiquity this was possible; in the Middle Ages, much less so.

Second, suicide differed in the pagan and medieval world because of how those societies dealt with suffering. In the ancient world the best to hope for was to get by minimizing pain, but nothing more. In the Middle Ages, the world was a meaningful place, the product of a divine mindand more, a place where that divine mind had actually shared in human suffering.Hence the explanation of one Franciscan preacher that this was why images of Christ were placed in Churches: that as people saw how their Captain and Lord had suffered for them, they would not hesitate to suffer for him as well. In the ancient world, no one would have thought of Zeus as having loved mankind enough to suffer for them.

Finally, the medieval world was convinced of the intrinsic moral worth of the human individual, made in the image and likeness of God. To say that his worth was intrinsic was to say that a man’s moral worth was not dependent on accidentals like his station in life, wealth, political success or failure. Hence, if he failed, he need not kill himself to maintain his dignity, nor would this be expected of him. His dignity was his not by his own merits, but by gift of his nature. Maybe this was why Dante put suicides as bordering on blasphemy– it was the ultimate denial of the goodness of the world, the command to love self and neighbor, and the rejection of the intrinsic dignity and value of human life.

In a pagan world, whether ancient or modern, when dignity depends on a human action, when a person must invent their own meaning in an objectively meaningless life, and especially when one has no basis for finding meaning in the midst of suffering, then suicide begins to look like a realistic option. And so suicide is increasingly looked at today not only as a realistic option, but even one to celebrate. It could scarce be otherwise to a modern world that cannot find meaning in the world or in suffering and that rejects the intrinsic dignity of every human being. In this sense, at least, the modern world is even more backward than the medieval.

(1) For a more strictly scholarly look on suicide in the Middle Ages, Alexander Murray has written extensively on the subject. For a brief article by him see,