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On September 10, 2023, Pope Francis beatified Józef and Wiktoria Ulma, along with their seven children. The entire family was executed by the Germans on March 24, 1944; their crime was hiding a family of eight Jews. When the Germans discovered the hiding place, they murdered all the Jews on the spot, then killed Józef and Wiktoria in front of their children. Finally, they slaughtered the kids, the eldest of whom was eight. Wiktoria was nine months pregnant with her seventh child.

When reporting on these beatifications, commentators in both the Polish and international media have focused on anti-Semitism, the upcoming general elections in Poland, even abortion––everything except the important point, namely the strange fact that the Catholic Church has officially declared that people who died in 1944 are still alive, so intensely alive that we can receive help from them. 

Of course, no journalist seems interested in these things, because even those who profess their belief in the immortality of the soul are not supposed to mention this too often, or make too much of it in their daily lives. We are supposed to immerse ourselves in the spirit of the early Iron Age, believing with the archaic Greeks that the only life we have is this brief time on earth. After that, our “feeble heads” (amenēna karēna, as Homer beautifully calls them in the Odyssey) fade away into the perpetual gloom of emptiness. 

However, Plato and his disciples have been telling us for more than two thousand years that after death we become not less but more alive, and that our souls then receive the judgment we deserve. In the fourth book of the Republic, Plato says that the purpose of education should be to teach the young what they should and shouldn’t be afraid of. The virtue of courage is a disposition to fear only what should be feared. And a well-educated (that is, spiritually well-formed) person will not consider death to be the worst thing that can happen to him. Of course, this has also been the doctrine of Christianity since the very beginning.

But the modern West has used all its resources to convince us that we should be afraid of death more than anything. Atheists and even many of the faithful have come to live as though bare existence—mere biological survival—is the most important thing. This campaign to make death the worst thing that can happen to us alienates us from the deeper layers of our own being––and of reality itself. In Human Condition (1958), Hannah Arendt described the care for the preservation of our life and the satisfaction of our biological needs as “labor”—the lowest level of the active life (vita activa). If we sink any lower, we become animals or machines. But generations of young people are now trained to think it preposterous that there might be things worth dying for, and that any sacrifice of our life is beyond the pale.

The philosophy behind many Covid policies seemed to be that the purpose of human life is to live as long as possible. At the same time, today's euthanasia laws indicate that the one thing more sacred than our biological existence is our comfort, described by the phrase “quality of life.” If we suffer, we can have ourselves killed. Since most of those who choose assisted suicide don’t believe in their immortality, they view the highest freedom of the self as the freedom to negate itself and stop existing. (Though curiously, these people don't actually kill themselves; they hire health care professionals to do it for them.)

Ultimately, this ideology makes us zealous worshippers of the self, which in turn makes us worshippers of the state, which Hobbes called “that great Leviathan, or rather (to speak more reverently) of that Mortall God.” When we come to see death as the worst thing that can happen to us, and the state has the privilege to kill, we begin to crawl in the dust before this “Mortall God.”

The beatification process publicly defies our culture's fear of death and denial of immortality. It declares that Blessed Józef and Wiktoria Ulma were alive and free even as they sacrificed their lives for others. It is much harder to control those who are certain of their immortality in Christ. As the Polish Platonist philosopher Wincenty Lutosławski pointed out in his book The World of Souls, if men were vividly convinced of their immortality, they “would accept death in very great numbers as soon as the conditions of life were opposed to their moral convictions, and the rule of evil would be limited at every step, while divine rule would necessarily grow. It is the fear of death that actually keeps millions alive under oppression and persecution of different kinds. Resist fearlessly every oppressor and he will soon be powerless.” 

Mateusz Stróżyński is an associate professor of classics and philosophy at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań.

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Image by Polish Catholic Heritage licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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