At any Christian funeral, we give thanks for “God’s inexplicable mercy to a sinner”

February 26, 2016

The following is from a letter that the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote to the Presbyterian pastor who presided at the funeral of Justice Lewis Powell back in 1998. Scalia refers to “encomiums”—what we Methodists might call eulogies—which, Scalia says, are forbidden at Catholic funerals, in principle if not practice. I didn’t realize until too recently—I say to my shame—that the funerals I presided at were mostly encomiums.

For the past four or five years, however, I’ve shared Scalia’s conviction that the primary purpose of funerals is to proclaim the gospel and our resurrection hope.

Of course, if Scalia is right—and I’m sure he is in this case—I also need to proclaim the gospel at weddings!

Good heavens, if I received any such letter from a sitting Supreme Court justice, I’m afraid my head wouldn’t fit through the door! I hope the Rev. Dr. Goodloe is more humble than I am!

Supreme Court of the United States
Washington, D. C. 20543


September 1, 1998

Dr. James C. Goodloe
Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church
1627 Monument Avenue
Richmond, Virginia 23220-2925

Dear Dr. Goodloe:

I looked for you unsuccessfully at the luncheon following the funeral yesterday. I wanted to tell you how reverent and inspiring I found the service that you conducted.

In my aging years, I have attended so many funerals of prominent people that I consider myself a connoisseur of the genre. When the deceased and his family are nonbelievers, of course, there is not much to be said except praise for the departed who is no more. But even in Christian services conducted for deceased Christians , I am surprised at how often eulogy is the centerpiece of the service, rather than (as it was in your church) the Resurrection of Christ, and the eternal life which follows from that. I am told that, in Roman Catholic canon law, encomiums at funeral Masses are not permitted—though if that is the rule, I have never seen it observed except in the breach. I have always thought there is much to be said for such a prohibition, not only because it spares from embarrassment or dissembling those of us about whom little good can truthfully be said, but also because, even when the deceased was an admirable person—indeed, especially when the deceased was an admirable person—praise for his virtues can cause us to forget that we are praying for, and giving thanks for, God’s inexplicable mercy to a sinner. (My goodness, that seems more like a Presbyterian thought than a Catholic one!)

Perhaps the clergymen who conduct relatively secular services are moved by a desire not to offend the nonbelievers in attendance—whose numbers tend to increase in proportion to the prominence of the deceased. What a great mistake. Weddings and funerals (but especially funerals) are the principal occasions left in modern America when you can preach the Good News not just to the faithful, but to those who have never really heard it.

Many thanks, Dr. Goodloe, for a service that did honor to Lewis and homage to God. It was a privilege to sit with your congregation. Best regards.


Antonin Scalia

4 Responses to “At any Christian funeral, we give thanks for “God’s inexplicable mercy to a sinner””

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    The more I learn of Scalia, the more I morn his passing (for our sakes), although it’s good to know that he is home with the Lord.

  2. bthomas Says:

    Very useful and helpful post. Scalia was a hard pill for many to swallow. His commitment to the COTUS and his personal faith in Christ produced extremely wise decisions for this nation. Such appointments have not been the pattern of the last seven years. Our country is the worse for it.

    • Grant Essex Says:

      That is an extremely interesting way of putting it: “a hard pill for many to swallow.”

      If we unpack that, we find the very roots of the culture war in this country. One side that believes that our behavior is to be regulated by the rules and standards of a higher authority, and the other side, who want for everyone to “be free to do their own thing”.

      The second way sounds very liberated and open minded, but it’s nothing less than the very root of man’s rebellion against God. It’s sad that we are institutionalizing that rebellion, by removing the standards. I certainly would not have raised any of my children that way. But, it’s what a lot of parents, and the schools, are teaching.

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