De mortuis nil nisi bonum. Don’t speak ill of the dead.
Why are we supposed to extend this courtesy? If the deceased was significantly more sinner than saint, why not be honest about it? Well, for one, it’s a form of injustice. The dead can’t defend themselves. Neither do they have the chance to explain themselves or make amends. Speaking ill becomes castigation for its own sake. This leads us right to another reason we de mortise nil nice bonum. Titus 3: 1-7, which is today’s first reading.
Titus is encouraged to remind his flock that they are to slander no one, to be peaceable, considerate, exercising all graciousness toward everyone. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, deluded, slaves to various desires and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful ourselves and hating one another. We all were dead in sin at one point. Rather than castigate us, Christ gave us grace. Grace, so we could defend ourselves through the Cross. This is what we call mercy.
Mercy is our defense. As much mercy Christ showed us, we must show others the same. When we don’t, when we are not peaceable or gracious, we turn our back on the Cross, and our own gift of grace and mercy. Nine of the ten lepers healed by Jesus in today’s Gospel were not saved because they took Jesus’ mercy but walked away without looking back. The Cross is our salvation, but we risk death when we put it in our rearview. This is the message under the message Titus is encouraged to share.
Even though the dead have their just judgement already, it still matters that we de mortuis nil nice bonum. Mercy is not limited to the living, and the Church recognizes this by Her doctrine on purgatory and encouraging the faithful to pray for the dead. It’s not a coincidence that praying for the dead is called a spiritual work of mercy.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum is also relevant for the living. If we don’t believe that mercy extends to the dead, then it’s possible to limit mercy for the living. If you spend more than 30 seconds reading comments on anything put on the internet, you know that this possibility has moved far into ugly reality. The value of a person is predicated on their ideologies, and mercy is the reward for homogeny. ISIS takes this to the extreme, but it is just as present in politics and social issues (“Mommy Wars”, anyone?).
People can be awful. They have been, and will continue to be until the end of time. There are times when an honest account of our faults, and the faults of others, need to be made. But if all we have is this honest accounting, we are condemned to death. Our life is ransomed by the mercy of the Cross. When people are awful in our sight, remember the Cross, and be merciful.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum.