Honour thy father and mother

“When the elderly are not honoured, there is not future for the young. A society where the elderly are discarded carries within it the virus of death.”

From The Economist:

The pope and the elderly
Honour thy father and mother

Mar 6th 2015,

POPE FRANCIS made some remarks this week about a big contemporary problem—the neglect of older people by their children and younger relatives—that bore all his hallmarks. The tone of his comments was at once humane, almost folksy, somewhat politically radical, quite traditional and quite shocking.

Failing to look after old folk was not just a bad habit, he told an “audience” of 20,000 people in Rome, it was a mortal transgression: in other words the sort of sin that can consign you to hell, eternal punishment, if you fail to repent for it before you die. He made the point in both an anecdotal way, and in a more theological way. He knew of a case where an old lady in a care home had received no visits from her offspring between December and August: “Eight months without a visit from her children, that is a mortal sin.” On a more cerebral note, he also said: “When the elderly are not honoured, there is not future for the young. A society where the elderly are discarded carries within it the virus of death.” But the problem did not merely reflect individual sinfulness: old people who suffer sickness, poverty and solitude “experience the shortcomings of a society programmed for efficiency which consequently ignores the elderly.”

Lots of people, including those who admire the pope but don’t much like Catholicism in general, will have a rather mixed response to those remarks. Nobody could deny that care for the elderly is an acute problem in Western societies when longevity is increasing and the economically active often have busy lives, far from their parents. But is it really necessary or appropriate to use the old-fashioned language of sin, especially at a time the church is widely perceived as having covered up some pretty terrible sins within its own ranks? And to the point about efficiency, one could counter that a great deal of efficiency, in the sense of rational management of resources, will be needed to generate enough wealth to look after an ever-increasing cohort of pensioners. The fate of the elderly in the final years of the Soviet Union, when the planned economy was collapsing under the weight of its own inefficiency, was pretty dreadful.

On the other hand, the pope is technically right, in the sense that he is reading his own rule-book correctly. The catechism of the Catholic church doesn’t offer a precise list of mortal sins, but it does approvingly recall a dialogue between Jesus and a young man in the New Testament which features a broadly accurate summary of the ten commandments: do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not lie or cheat, and “honour your father and mother”. So on the face of things, neglect of one’s parents does count as a mortal sin if there are no extenuating circumstances. Nor is the catechism naively individualistic in the way it diagnoses the problem: there are “social situations and institutions that are contrary to divine goodness”. So it wouldn’t be fair to accuse Francis of coming up with new doctrines, whether theological or political, off the top of his head.

One way to read his sub-text is something like this: when you hear the voice of the church on the subject of sin, you probably expect to hear old-fashioned talk about sexual transgression or temptation…but here’s a real sin that lots of people fall into, and has real human consequences, that you probably haven’t thought about much.

His argument about the “virus of death” is a much heavier and more paradoxical one; people may either agree or disagree but it is not a trivial or a secondary point. In modern culture, there are people at the height of their health and strength who shy away from contact with those who are frail, vulnerable and close to mortality; such people might think that by living that way, they are staying vibrantly alive, but really they are spiritually dead. A provocative way of looking at things.

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