Music, Philosophy ’15
New visions of moral community have arisen in recent years. These views, which often include a troubling redefinition of the person, identify moral community as the collection of thinking, reasoning, problem solving and independently acting persons. At the heart of these views lies a curious assertion: If you are not currently a person and thus a community member, the moral community has no responsibility for you.  Many problems, not worth enumerating here, immediately ensue.
One problem that is worth mentioning: no one would dare implement this consistently. For instance, when we talk about environmental policy, we talk about conserving the earth not only because it is valuable in itself but because we have a responsibility to leave future generations a healthy environment. We’re aware that if we don’t care for the earth, we perpetrate a grave crime on our descendants. Our descendants can’t be persons now. They don’t even exist. Yet we intuitively recognize our responsibility to them.
The communion of saints even better belies the modern pretend about what makes moral community. The saints provide a framework for considering what the scholar of the law asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” For whom am I responsible? The saints’ lives and our relationship to the saints show us how responsibility stretches throughout time.
The saints strove for holiness out of love for Christ, not to inspire us, but in following after Christ they passed Him on to those who came after them. Intentionally or not, they left a witness that time and distance cannot efface. They were doing what Christ did first and did in the highest degree: “leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.” (1 Peter 2:21)
Some saints, like Francis of Assisi and Mother Theodore Guerin, lived lives of obvious service. They manifested their life’s goal of loving Christ and handing on what they had received. This often took the form of service to and solidarity with the poor. Others like St. Bruno of Cologne left less apparent examples. St. Bruno founded the Carthusians, one of the strictest monastic orders. He spent much of his life in silence and solitude and generally is remembered for, well, very little.
The Church recently celebrated all these saints’ feasts. Whatever these saints did, the Church receives their fruits. Their charity, sacrifice, prayer and tending the deposit of faith enable our Christian life today. We’re told the blood the martyrs is the seed of Christians. Plants cannot grow without seeds, so the saying suggests that without the martyrs’ blood, you and I might not be Christians. There might not be Christians. If the martyrs didn’t die but we still became Christians, we wouldn’t be the same Christians. This goes for all the saints. Over time their charity became charity toward us. Their prayer didn’t benefit only those around them but us too. Their sacrifices likely bear small, unnoticed fruits even today. By living and dying well, the saints cared for us.
We might even say if these saints had not lived their lives of holiness, they would have been derelict not only to their contemporaries but to anyone who came after them. Living their vocation, while foremost an act of loving God, also turns out to be a kind of responsibility to their present and future neighbors. In his Meditations on Christian Doctrine, Blessed John Henry Newman hints at this:
I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes…if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another…Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.
In God’s providence He can raise another, but it is awfully difficult to replace a link in a chain that’s already taut.
By fulfilling their vocations, the saints were kind to us. We shouldn’t give our descendants any less. But the people we call “saints” were humans first, people with loves, frustrations and faults. They became saints. The only way to give the future Church what the saints gave us is to become saints. They show on an ecclesial level what is true globally, that community is not confined to our lifetimes. The saints show that when I act my action does not pertain to me alone. Nor do I influence only the person next to me. What I do, the way I live, may bear a fruit I never see or could never know.
The saints gave something to us. We must give something to our descendants. Then can we ask if we must do something for the saints? What is the relationship between our generation and the ones that preceded us?
None other than Friedrich Nietzsche, whose time in a Rome hotel once overlapped with Thérèse of Lisieux’s, provides helpful thoughts on this topic. His second essay in On the Genealogy of Morals calls the relationship between the present generation and its forefathers one “where we modern men have perhaps have the greatest difficulty in grasping its relevance.” (trans. Douglas Smith) He posits the present generation always sees its relationship to ancestors as that of debtor to creditor, except that the debtor can never fully repay the debt. He dislikes this. “A debt is recognized,” he says, “which gnaws incessantly by virtue of the fact that these forefathers, in their continued existence as powerful spirits, never cease to grant the race new advantages and advances in strength.”
It’s an idea you could take too far. Seeing the saints this way would mean seeing them as dominating, menacing forces but there’s a relationship between Nietzsche’s point and the saints. The saints’ lives did not end at their deaths. By their heavenly intercession with
God, their lives continue now with even greater efficacy. Their power is the kind Nietzsche despises most — the power of the God who becomes weak and dies on a tree — but he is still right that we have to reckon with our relationship to them, what they have done and still do for us. We might wonder, Should we be trying to repay the saints? Do we have an obligation to them?
We might as well ask if we should try to repay God. Indeed, that is what we should do. Our relationship to the saints is more like our relationship to God than to our descendants: What we do now may can be an act of kindness to our descendants. But our responsibility, if any, to the saints and to God can be one only of responding in thanksgiving. We’re not the first to ask whether we should try to repay God. The Psalmist did when he inquired, “How can I make a return to the Lord for his goodness to me?” (Psalm 116:12) The question is in part rhetorical. Making this return is impossible, for what God has given is infinite and infinitely more than we could ever give.
But the Psalmist continues. “I will raise high the cup of salvation and call on the Lord’s name.” Of ourselves, there is no adequate repayment we can give to God. His gifts of love are not loans requiring repayment. But we can render Him the thanksgiving He Himself enables. The Roman Missal says, “although you have no need of our praise, yet our thanksgiving is itself your gift” (Common Preface IV). We can offer Him the Eucharist, the bread of life and cup of salvation, but this gift we offer is not ours at all. What we can give Him only what is His already.
So with the saints. If there is any payment we can render them, it is our small participation in the liturgy of heaven, where contemplation and charity are entirely one. “Repaying” the saints, if such a thing is real, is this: living our vocations, receiving and giving life as members of Christ’s Church. If we do this we serve the entire Church, the Bride who is universal over the earth, across time and in heaven. For we are in communion, Christ the Son of the living God.
Yet she on earth hath union
With God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won,
O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we
Like them, the meek and lowly,
On high may dwell with Thee.
 see, for instance, Mary Ann Warren, On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion or Peter Singer, Practical Ethics