Four reasons given by Blessed Duns Scotus on the danger of deathbed conversions

December 11, 2021 • 7 min

From The Sinner’s Guide, page 254
By Venerable Louis of Granada

You now know the sentiments of these great Doctors of the Church on death-bed repentance. See, then, what folly it would be in you to contemplate without fear a passage of which the most skilful pilots speak with terror.

A life-time is not too long to learn how to die well. At the hour of death our time is sufficiently occupied in dying. We have then no leisure to learn the lesson of dying well.

The teaching of the Fathers which we have just given is also the teaching of the doctors of the schools.

Among the many authorities whom we could quote we shall select Scotus, one of the most eminent, who, after treating this subject at great length, concludes that conversion at the hour of death is so difficult that it is rarely true repentance. He supports his conclusion by these four reasons:

First, because the physical pains and weakness which precede death prevent a man from elevating his heart to God or fulfilling the duties of true repentance.

To understand this you must know that uncontrolled passions lead man’s free-will where they please. Now, philosophers teach that the passions which excite sorrow are much stronger than those which cause joy.

Hence it follows that no passions, no sentiments exceed in intensity the passions and sentiments awakened by the approach of death; for, as Aristotle tells us, death is the most terrible of all terrible things. To sufferings of body it unites anguish of soul awakened by parting from loved ones and from all that bind our affections to this world.

When, therefore, the passions are so strong and turbulent, whither can man’s will and thoughts turn but to those things to which these violent emotions draw them? We see how difficult it is even for a man exercised in virtue to turn his thoughts to God or spiritual things when his body is racked with pain. How much more difficult will it be for the sinner to turn his thoughts from his body, which he has always preferred to his soul!

I myself knew a man who enjoyed a reputation for virtue, but who, when told that his last hour was at hand, was so terrified that he could think of nothing but applying remedies to ward off the terrible moment. A priest who was present exhorted him to turn his thoughts; to his soul’s interests; but he impatiently repelled his counsels, and in these disedifying dispositions soon after expired. Judge by this example the trouble which the presence of death excites in those who have an inordinate love for this life, if one who loves it in moderation cling to it so tenaciously regardless of the interests of the life to come.

The second reason given by Scotus is that repentance should be voluntary, not forced. Hence St. Augustine tells us that a man must not only fear but love his Judge. We cannot think that one who has refused to repent during life, and only has recourse to this remedy at the hour of death, seeks it freely and voluntarily.

Such was the repentance of Semei for his outrage against David when he fled from his son Absalom. When King David returned in triumph Semei went forth to meet him with tears and supplications; but though David then spared his life, on his death-bed he enjoined his son Solomon to deal with the traitor according to his deserts. [2 Kings xvi. and xix. and 3 Kings ii.]

Similar is the repentance of Christians who, after outraging God with impunity during life, piteously claim His mercy at the hour of death. We may judge of the sincerity of such repentance by the conduct of many who have been restored to health, for they are no sooner released from the imminent fear of death than they relapse into the same disorders. The salutary sentiments excited by fear, and not by virtue, vanish when the danger is past.

The third reason is that a habit of sin confirmed by long indulgence accompanies man as inseparably as the shadow does the body, even to the tomb. It becomes, as we have said, a second nature which it is almost impossible to conquer.

How often do we see old men on the verge of the grave as hardened to good, and as eager for honors and wealth, which they know they cannot take with them, as if they were at the beginning of their career!

This is a punishment, says St. Gregory, which God frequently inflicts upon sin, permitting it to accompany its author even to the tomb; for the sinner, who has forgotten God during life, too often forgets his own eternal interests at this terrible hour.

We have frequent and striking proof of this, for how often do we hear of persons who refuse to be separated from the objects of their sinful love even at their last hour, and, by a just judgment of God, expire wholly forgetful of what is due to their Maker and their own souls!

The fourth reason given by Scotus is taken from the value of actions done at such a time; for it is manifest to all who have any knowledge of God that He is much less pleased with services offered at this hour than with the same services offered under different circumstances. “What merit is there,” says the virgin and martyr St. Lucy, “in giving up what you are forced to leave,” in pardoning an injury which it would be a dishonor to avenge, or in breaking sinful bonds which you can no longer maintain?

From these reasons this doctor concludes that repentance at the hour of death is a dangerous and difficult matter. He goes even farther, and affirms that the act by which a Christian deliberately resolves to defer his conversion till the hour of death is in itself a mortal sin, because of the injury he thereby inflicts on his soul, and because of the peril to which he exposes his salvation.

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