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Death Rather than Sin
St. Louis IX, crusader king of France during the 13th century, surely represented one of the greatest French kings. He was the only crusader ever formally canonized, recognized and declared by the Church as a saint. Interestingly, he was not recognized as a saint for his substantial efforts to regain the Holy Land for Christendom, but for his just rule as king when he returned home from crusade. St. Louis was a deeply pious man and brought that piety to his life and his rule as king. As such, he gave the lie to every modern Catholic politician who has ever said, “I’m Catholic but…” He was simply Catholic. He was concerned to do justice, care for the poor. Once, when one of his advisors told him that he had accidentally accepted a bribe, the saint was horrified.
Louis IX was also fond of a teaching from his pious mother. One one occasion he asked John of Joinville, one of his close friends, fellow crusader, and chronicler whether he would prefer to commit a sin or be stricken with leprosy. When Joinville replied that he would prefer to sin rather than be a leper, St. Louis scolded him for his answer. Louis was fond of recalling a teaching from his mother who told him, apparently, more than once, that she would rather see him dead than commit a mortal sin. That firmness seems to have made a significant impact on the young king that remained with him all his life.
The idea is a striking one to modern ears and minds. What kind of parents tell their children that they would rather see them dead than sin? Is that not overly intolerant, rigid, and narrow-minded?
And the answer, of course, is yes. It is all of those things, intolerant, rigid, and narrow-minded. But then, there are some things of which we should be intolerant, there are some things that should be firm and rigid (the truth itself, is, after all), and there are some to which our minds should be closed. And if sin is not one of those things, then nothing is.
The issue comes up because the Church in Poland has been criticized recently because of a textbook used for first communion preparation that quoted from another young saint that holds it is better to die than to sin.
The idea, though obviously, perfectly sound, has provoked a great deal of hand wringing in online circles about how mean it is to tell children that it is better to die than to sin. Supposedly, it could encourage children to think that God won’t love them if they are not perfect or could encourage them to suicide.
Of course, that is absurd for the quotation does no more than harken to the same attitude of King Louis IX who held that a radical love of and obedience to God must come first. And death would indeed be preferable than to act against this love. For a person who dies in a state of love and obedience to God, death is no evil. Hence, the many martyrs throughout Church history who died rather than transgress the faith. These included saints from the early Christians who allowed themselves to be killed by Rome rather than worship Roman idols to the Carmelite martyrs of Compiègne and many others.
The modern distaste for this idea simply reflects the old pagan roman idea that religion isn’t really that serious. Certainly, it was nothing to die for. Secondly, it probably reflects the modern idea that virtue is not really possible. How can one not sin? Unfortunately, this view has sometimes even infected people in the Church as it may reflect a push in some quarters to normalize divorce and same-sex relations by offering blessings for those relationships or letting those in them receive Holy Communion. This is, however, directly contrary to St. Paul’s injunction that one who eats and drinks unworthily of the body and blood of Christ brings only condemnation upon himself.
Against this, we must hold firmly that virtue is possible, even if, in our fallen states, it is not easy and that St. Louis and St. Dominic Savio were right: “death rather than sin.”