It’s not helpful when someone like a public figure dies, and the criticism starts, to say De mortuis nil nisi bonum. Speak only good things about the dead, yes, usually.
When the dead one is the neighbor who yelled “Get off my lawn” when the neighborhood children weren’t on his lawn. Or the sour woman whose every word was a complaint or a criticism. People whose sins and failings were pedestrian, typical, local. Speaking ill of them might hurt the family, and it does no good anyway to pick at someone who has passed beyond this life into the next world.
But not always.
Sometimes we need to speak ill of the dead. We may need to speak critically when the dead is a public figure whose memory his ideological allies use to promote their cause. When political people memorialize him in a way that establishes their favored political narrative. When “speak no ill of the dead” means “Let us have the floor.” We must try to establish the truth. And as Catholics, we should be critical for another reason.
Someone like Rush Limbaugh
I’m thinking of someone like Rush Limbaugh. I realize this is not a universal judgment, but if you admire Limbaugh, you will have other examples of public figures whose memories their ideological peers use to change the public debate.
I do not admire Limbaugh. I don’t see any reason anyone should. Was he wise, courageous, generous, did he sacrifice himself for others, did he do the right thing when it might hurt him? Was he virtuous, saintly? Was he admirable? It appears not, judging from what his friends and admirers said about him.
Suggestively, even his greatest fans didn’t speak of his character. Many called him courageous, the one virtue with which he was generally credited, for taking political positions that only brought him fortune and fame. A couple fans I saw mentioned private acts of kindness, but doing nice things for your allies doesn’t count. Even the tax collectors do that (see Matthew 5:46 for the criterion).
When his fans spoke of him as a great man, they spoke not of his character, but of his work, praising him for his extraordinary ability to articulate a particular political position. As the most gifted and most influential preacher of hard conservatism. For that, admirer after admirer declared him a great man. A great man, not — as would have been fair — a great, innovative radio host or great propagandist or even a great journalist.
These are typical judgments: The conservative writer David Klinghoffer declared, “The loss of Rush Limbaugh is the loss of a great man.” One of my former students, now a minister, wrote “Rush Limbaugh was without question one of the greatest persons of our generation.” I mention them because they think seriously about religion and character, are not men swayed merely by politics. And yet even they, who know what “great man” should mean, declared Limbaugh a great man.
That, of course, leaves out the question of how admirable was his work. Not his gifts, but what he did with them. I don’t admire the contempt for people who disagree, the scoffing and the caricatures, the exploitation of cheap political stunts like Trump’s birtherism, the instinct for division, the reduction of every position he disagreed with to its simplest, dumbest form. A man of real character could not have done the show as Limbaugh did it.
A Political Contention
We must sometimes speak ill of the dead to make sure they’re not remembered wrongly. The memories of public figures like Limbaugh are political statements. They indicate that the cause is good because he was good, and that the way he served his cause was good too.
Conservatives remarked on how unseemly it was that so many liberal writers criticized him right after he died. They claimed the right to praise him to the skies, and to criticize his liberal enemies, but demanded they have the floor to themselves. Some used the platitude that we should not speak ill of the dead a way of controlling the narrative and establishing a history. Thus they made his memory a politically contested one. They pushed people with what I think a more realistic idea of Limbaugh to speak critically, when they might well have said nothing.
That’s the general reason we sometimes have to speak ill of the dead. We need to try to help establish the truth, when people fight to establish a myth useful to their side. This also means that sometimes we have to speak well of the dead, or speak ill of them but more judiciously than their ideologically motivated critics. It’s complicated, establishing the true memories. Difficult, but necessary.
The World’s Saints and the Church’s
Catholics have another reason for speaking ill of the dead when the dead are being wrongly praised. The world eagerly tries to establish its own saints, its own moral exemplars, its own models for the rest of us to emulate and by whose work to judge our lives. The world tries to sell us its idea of the good life. It also tries to make us aspire to its idea of the good man.
To that the Church opposes the saints, as our exemplars and models. (And helpers, too.) And not just our saints. We should admire and emulate great men and women, whoever they are and whatever they believe. But to see the saints and the heroes, we sometimes have to expose the villains. We have to speak ill of the recently dead.
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