The Theology of Death in Rahner and Ratzinger

In his masterwork, The Silmarillion, the mythological ground of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien has this to say concerning death in his imagined world:

“But to [men] I will give a new gift.” Therefore [God] willed that the hearts of Men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein; but they should have a virtue to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world . . . [b]ut the sons of Men die indeed, and leave the world; . . . . Death is their fate, the gift of [God], which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy.[1]

In his words, one finds a satisfying, though simple, reflection on death itself. Not with death as a doorway or passage, but with death as death. Tolkien faces down the dark specter of death and sees there the light of a gift. Such engagement is precisely what is needed in a culture that is so afraid of death that it either hides it or banalizes it.[2]

In the following short study, we will turn to the work of two major twentieth-century theologians, Joseph Ratzinger (1927–2022) and Karl Rahner (1904–1984), who strive to do something similar, to articulate a theology of death itself. Analyzing their own particular approaches to death, we will gain a new perspective on classic dogmatic teachings, consider their own specific methodologies, and develop a keener ability to face the reality of death, as death, in the Church and our own contemporary life.

In consideration of the large oeuvre of these two men and with full recognition that their views developed over time, we will take as our primary texts, Joseph Ratzinger’s Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life,[3] and Karl Rahner’s 1972 edition of On the Theology of Death.[4] Other sources may be referenced, but the views of each theologian will be read through the lens of these particular works.

Ratzinger’s Theology of Death in Eschatology

Ratzinger’s theology of death proceeds in an exegetical style. He first considers the state of the question, then the biblical data, and finally proposes some thoughts of his own.[5]

The State of the Question

Ratzinger laments modern society’s presentation of death, or rather, its “repression” of death.[6] He claims that this happens in a two-fold way, either we (1) hide death away; or we engage in the (2) “materialistic trivialization of death.”[7] In the first way we reduce sickness and death to “technological problems.” We ship the dying and the dead out of close proximity to us and hide them in hospitals, nursing homes, and morgues. One recalls here the older tradition of the “wake” occurring in the home, rather than in a funeral parlor. Now death is sanitized and kept from the living. In the second way, we flood the airwaves, radio, television (now videogames), with images of death that make it “just another thing” in the common flow of life.

Neither of these positions pays proper respect to the “metaphysical character”[8] of death, to its deep and abiding importance in the life of man. Death is reduced to the mere cessation of brain or heart functionality, a spectacle to be watched in boredom, but not a challenge of dramatic weight to be faced each day. Modern culture wants death quickly and without much ado, with no pain and no encounter on our part.[9] This technical objectifying of death and its reduction from metaphysical reality to natural byproduct has attempted to alleviate our fear of the end, but has unwittingly encouraged us to try and take control of the “fundamentally uncontrollable.”[10] Thus, we come to the real problem, “the dehumanizing of death necessarily brings with it the dehumanizing of life.”[11] To risk death is to be human. Removing the “risk” of death affects how we act as human beings toward death and life. Thus, a consideration of death in its fundamental metaphysical character is needed.

Following this, Ratzinger turns to the philosophical tradition in an attempt to revive a proper respect for “taking death seriously,” as the ancients did.[12] Alongside a well-structured tour of Hellenic thought in which he rescues Plato from misconceptions that paint him as an individualistic and dualistic philosopher,[13] Ratzinger points out that pre-Christian cultures often had some conception of death, or at least semi-death, in which the spirit descended to the underworld and lived a type of “shade” existence.[14] This shade existence is not far from the early reflections in scripture of the shade-existence of those who had died and were residing in Sheol.

The Biblical Data

Articulating a theology of death must begin with scriptural reflection for Ratzinger. Thus, he turns to the early Israelite conceptions of death which matched their cultural peers. However, a turn to monotheistic, unified, Yahwistic, worship brought about a radical change.

In the early manifestations of Israelite faith, the fullness of life is in children and long life. Death is the natural end of God’s justice, i.e., sin. Death is not annihilation; souls go to Sheol, where they live an “unlife” as shades.[15] In Sheol, the soul is cut off from the land of the living. Sheol does not have the presence of Yahweh; thus he is not praised there.[16] Sheol is a place of no communication. Death is seen as “unending imprisonment.”[17] Death is the breaking of communication between the Israelite and Israel’s God. This breaking of communication, this death, which also happens in sickness (a living death, or rather death reaching into the living world), is a type of nonlife and this nonlife, though extended in Sheol is certainly not the dream of immortality. It is a type of torturous continuation.[18]

Enter Yahwistic faith. In the earlier concept, the sphere of death is still an area in which God has limited or no power, a sphere devoid of his presence. This is similar to other cultural myths. However, the “all-encompassing” power of Yahweh in Israelite monotheism cannot tolerate such a division. Accepting Yahweh’s power over all things, including Sheol and death, becomes the only tenable way to continue to embrace Yahwistic faith.[19]

The Wisdom texts offer powerful critiques under which the ancient world’s assumptions collapse. Job and Qoheleth represent a crisis in Israelite thought; they propose a series of despairing questions about life, destiny, justice, and God.[20] The Prophets offer the tonic to this despair of the Wisdom books. Isaiah’s suffering servant shows that suffering and even death can be a means of following God’s will as well as vicarious redemption of others. One need not despair. In the Prophets, sickness, death, and suffering, become the lot which, instead of rendering one cut off from God, result in the “mercy of vicarious service.”[21] It is possible to see in some of these prophetic texts, the early hints of the resurrection. Ratzinger looks to the texts of the Psalms that also hold out the hope of Yahweh “pulling us out beyond death.”[22]

Lastly, Ratzinger turns to the martyr literature, specifically Daniel. The experience of death in these texts brings the promise of new life. He cites specifically Daniel 12:2, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Thus, he finishes his Old Testament review with the “clearest formulation of resurrection faith in the Old Testament.”[23] In the Old Testament, “it was suffering, endured and spiritually borne, which became that hermeneutical vantage point where real and unreal could be distinguished, and communion with God came to light as the locus of true life.”[24]

The New Testament, Ratzinger tells us, bears in itself a “new fact,” the martyrdom and resurrection of Jesus. His resurrection affirms the hopes of the Old Testament and opens a new horizon for viewing death.

“Internally,” the New Testament follows the Old in its assessment of death as antithetical to God, an unlife or enemy of full life, all the way down to the book of Revelation, where death has been vanquished and banished and “only life remains.”[25] The “basic Christian attitude to death is thus in continuity with the Old Testament.”[26] The inward desire, “thirst,” for life in our nature drives us toward the God in whom we can achieve everlasting life and joy. The Harrowing of Hell (Sheol) demonstrates God’s power ultimately over the land of shades. “In Christ, God himself entered that realm of death, transforming the space of noncommunication into the place of his own presence. This is no apotheosis of death. Rather, has God canceled out and overcome death in entering it through Christ.”[27] In Christ, death which was the ultimate enemy of life becomes the means of life. It is a total “inversion.”

At this point, we come to the key of Ratzinger’s approach to death, what Andrew Kaethler calls his “relational ontology.”[28] Namely, we find ourselves caught between the humdrum monotony of daily life in which we would not want to continue into eternity and the “primordial” desire to maintain those vital moments of joy into forever. The desire for immortality, Ratzinger says,

Does not arise from the fundamentally unsatisfying enclosed existence of the isolated self, but from the experience of love, of communion, of the Thou. It issues from that call which the Thou makes upon the I, and which the I returns. The discovery of life entails going beyond the I, leaving it behind.[29]

If death is, at its core, a rupture of communion and communication, then it is precisely that communion and communication we really desire in immortality. It is a communion and communication which, particularly in the Harrowing, has been shown possible for God, even in the abyss of death. This is the lesson of the Cross, the total self-giving, which moves beyond a merely “biological” death.[30]

Here, Ratzinger sums up his preceding reflections into three points, three dimensions in which “death makes itself known:” (1) “In the nothingness of an empty existence . . . a mere semblance of living;” (2) in “the physical process of disintegration which accompanies life;” and (3) “in the giving of self to another, dying to self, to another. This is the death of “abandonment of [oneself] for the sake of [the other].”[31]

Relating these three points together is what opens up the precisely Christian view of death for Ratzinger. He begins with physical death. Pain and disease can hurt us, but they also serve as a clarifying agent. We encounter in pain and disease the existential reality that we are not our own. In this encounter, our attitude matters. One can rage against the suffering, thus having an attitude of anger, or we one can walk with it “by the hand.” This approach to the death of the body merges, for Ratzinger, our own “attitude with that of love.”[32] We choose, he says, between the “pattern of power,” in which we seek control, or the “pattern of love” in which we surrender ourselves.[33]

This is the fundamentally Christological angle of his theology of death. Only in imitation of the pattern of Christ can we embrace a death that will not consume us. It is a pure and total act of hope in which we hand over ourselves to the merciful God in sure faith that his love will overcome the maw of death. This surrender knits together his three dimensions of death at the very Cross of the One who has overcome death.[34]

Rahner’s Theology of Death in On the Theology of Death

Rahner, unlike Ratzinger, will not proceed on a purely exegetical track. While he takes magisterial and biblical teaching seriously, a great deal of his work is the product of philosophical and theological reflection on the data of faith.[35] As his starting point, Rahner takes the variety of scriptural angles on death for use as a structural schema. He treats of 1) general death; 2) the death of the sinner; and 3) death in Christ.[36]

General Death: “Death as an Event Concerning Man as a Whole”

The anthropology Rahner sets out early in this work is of vital importance for the whole.[37] Specifically, he recognizes man as a creature with a dialectical constitution.[38] Namely, he has received his existence from elsewhere and yet may “dispose” of himself by his own will and become that which he wills himself to be.[39]

Death, Rahner says, “strikes at the totality of man,” that is, at both of these angles.[40] As such, death must be considered from both of these angles. The classic formulation, “separation of the soul from the body” as a definition for death only reflects the natural angle; the other angle involves “the definitive end of our state of pilgrimage” on earth.[41]

Since the fate of man to die is part of divine revelation, Rahner proposes that death must take on a character beyond the physical and biological. As a spiritual being fated to die, death must touch in some way the reality of his spiritual embodiedness.[42] We do not know why things die rather than not (that is, fundamentally, not proximately). The answer available to us indicates that this fate is rooted in the “moral catastrophe” of our first parents.[43] Even were we to discover the scientific root of entropy, Rahner suggests that we must still reckon with the idea that in their paradisal state, the first parents would have been spared such material decay. He says, “Though its execution occurs through natural processes, the death of man, in actual human history, has an ultimate, special cause.”[44]

Classical theology has held up the separation of soul and body as the proper description of death. Rahner accepts this as it says several important things about death: 1) the spiritual principle of man, in death, takes on a new relationship to the body; 2) it no longer maintains the structure of the body as a whole; 3) the body no longer lives, and thus the soul is separated, in a way, from it; and 4) this definition also recognizes the living reality of soul outside materiality.[45] However, Rahner does not believe this speaks to the existential experience of death by man.[46]

What is missing is the fundamental nature of death as the self-ratification of man upon his own life. Death is a seal upon his life which ratifies those choices and elections he has made. In death itself, not “after death,” he completes the work of self, made throughout his own life and that totality is laid bare and final before the Lord of Judgment.[47]

Here Rahner will take a detour into his concept of the pan-cosmic soul. Specifically, he questions whether the term separation indicates a removal of the soul to an acosmic state or a new relationality with the material world. He entertains the idea that the soul, rather than leaving the universe takes on a new relationship to it. He roots this in Thomistic metaphysics which propose the soul as the form of the body, not something else which has, as a power, the informing of the body. The soul, then, in this schema, is essentially materially oriented. Thus, only in the soul’s destruction can this relationship to matter cease.[48] This discussion of the soul is important for a developed theology of the resurrection of the body and the judgment, but it is secondary to our discussion of death itself.

The final ratification of the life in death is, in the author’s view, the primary contribution Rahner makes in the theology of death proper. That death ratifies the decision for or against God which is made in the choices of this life by the individual, provides an active principle to death which will be important for the final estimation of Rahner.[49] This ratification means that this life is of radically serious importance, “it is truly historical, that is, unique, unrepeatable, of inalienable and irrevocable significance.”[50]

One can hear the Heideggerian cant of “being-toward-death,” but without the existentialist despair. For Rahner, the end of our pilgrimage here on earth is brought about through our positive act of freedom in willing ourselves as we are. Death does happen to us from without, but it is also something we do, we prepare for, toward which we orient ourselves.[51]

The Death of the Sinner: “Death as a Consequence of Sin”

In his second section, Rahner looks to the question of death as a consequence for our own sinfulness. From this vantage point, death is a manifestation of the “disharmony” between God, fomented in Adam, and man.[52]

At the outset, Rahner makes an interesting claim, specifically, “If death is a consequence of the fall, then death was not the original end of man.” He still believes man would have endured some form of death, a moment of radicality in which Adam’s life would have been consummated and presented to God, but after which he would have been spared the dissolution of the body which now intervenes between this state and glorification.[53] This is important because not every aspect of death is a consequence of sin.

Rahner reinforces this conclusion by pointing out that death is a natural event and, thereby, must contain in itself some form of positivity inherent in all natural phenomena. Thus, death is a result of sin and a natural event. Here we see the first presentation of what will ultimately be the dialectical nature of death itself. Namely, will one die into the death of Adam, that death consequent to sin, or will one die into a different type of death, a death in Christ, which possesses an entirely different ontological reality?[54] In this way, death will always contain either a salvific or damnatory end.[55] Keeping in mind the quote from Tolkien above, we might ask whether we will embrace death as gift or death as destruction?

After Adam, death has an obscure character about it; it is hidden. As such it hides the ultimate destiny of man to the good or the evil. Death, as that which drives a true wedge between body and soul, is a true outward manifestation of the “disharmony” caused by sin. It is a proper and right consequence to that first sin, the original sin, committed in Adam. Death is the fact that the body is no longer completely “permeated by grace.”[56] This state “ought not to be” and came about through our own sin, and contradicts our real destiny to God.[57] Thus, it is a punishment for sin—a natural consequence of what we have done.

Viewing death as a consequence of “personal mortal sin,” Rahner recognizes that the good still die, but their engagement with death after the fall represents an active consummation of their lives and presentation of such to God. Thus, though it is unclear to us, the virtuous can die a death in Christ of total consummation, rather than the death of the sinner to destruction and decay.[58]

Death in Christ: “Dying as Dying with Christ”

As was said above, death can be a manifestation either of the sinful life or the virtuous life, the damned or the saved. In his own death, Christ becomes like us. He endures a death like ours. His descent, following upon his death in the body, is an essential element in his solidarity with our death, as that descent was considered essential for all who died in the prior “economy of salvation” (we should rightly hear hints of what Ratzinger laid out in his approach to this topic).[59]

Rahner rejects as insufficient the Anselmian theory of satisfaction. It does not, in his view, do full justice to the death of Christ. It does not make it clear why his death is the important thing rather than any other moral act of his life. Scripture seems to see something special in his death as the redemptive act and not merely as an arbitrary act among the many morally valuable acts of his life.[60] For Rahner, the theory of satisfaction leaves open precisely the problem of why it is the death that is redeeming. The theory also fails in that it sees death as something merely passive, to be received. However, as we saw above, death involves a positive and active element as well.[61]

Rahner accepts what he believes is positive in the Anselmian theory but adds the following: in so much as Christ takes on our flesh, he enters life in which death and the obscurity of death is the capstone of existence. He willingly took on the darkness of death that human nature has and its bereftness of consummation in that the body dies. He redeems sin, yes, but he also enters and engages death, which, as we saw above, is the testimony in the body of sin itself. He did this in complete liberty and grace, free from all concupiscence and was able to transfer his whole self to God. Thus, what was once a manifestation of sin has become its opposite. The ratification of a total “yes” to God.[62] In so far as above we indicated that death is present in each decision of man’s life, so too in the life of Christ and his death, all his deeds are shown to be bound up together and presented to God definitively.[63]

For the Christian, Rahner wants a positive approach to death in light of Christ.[64] In view of the New Testament, the death of the just one here on earth, the death of one whose life has ratified his choice for Christ, is a dying in Christ. It is a saving and not a disintegrating event. Death is the culmination of and effecting of salvation in that death “gathers up the whole personal act of human life into one fulfillment.”[65]All the sacraments of life, in which we lived and ratified our death in Christ are brought to fulfillment and completion in the moment of death.[66]

In summary, death means remoteness from God, not unlike Ratzinger’s view. Christ obliterates this definition in that those who die in him receive not death but life. In death, we offer to God this “flesh of sin” which is exchanged for the “flesh of grace.”[67] Death itself becomes the highest act of “believing, hoping, and loving,” because we have “faith in the mercy of God, hope in the life of God, and love for him who is so far from us.”[68] With this hope, the darkness and judgment that death appears to be becomes instead the “falling into” the hands of a God who loves us.[69]

Thoughts on Comparing the Two Theologies

In many ways, these two theologies provide helpful and compatible approaches to a nuanced theology of death. Both approaches are eminently personal,[70] and they both reject, as a matter of course, the problematic of the contemporary approach to death. In each of these theologies, the metaphysical depth of man’s death as a moment of paramount importance in his life is made clear. Abundantly so in Rahner and even in Ratzinger, the idea of the “prolixitas mortis,” the “long-duration of death,” shines through.[71] From birth until the final breath, the specter or, perhaps, the gift, of death, stands as the moment to which the whole of life is ordered.

A second point, where Ratzinger seems to provide what we might call a “theology of surrender,” Rahner is bound and determined to have man stand on his own feet and thrust himself toward God in that same total self-gift, what we might call a “theology of ratification.” Surely the end is the same, but there is, in Rahner, a certain degree of participation that seems lost in Ratzinger. No doubt this could open him to charges of Pelagianism, but the gift that man makes of himself in Rahner is no less a function of grace since his entire being is a gift of grace.

A further point on this, Ratzinger presents his theology as a relational and communicatory theology of death. Rahner’s is quite focused on the “gathering up” of the total acts of life. This, perhaps, gives us the impression that Ratzinger is far more open to the communal nature of death and, therefore, immortality, where Rahner appears to look inward, to the self and God alone.

A third point is a moment of concern for Rahner. Ratzinger’s approach is more obviously rooted in the scriptural tradition of the Church. His vision begins with and rarely strays from the scriptural data to the overtly speculative. While Rahner’s eschatological vision of death is beautiful, his speculative tendency to be only somewhat scripturally rooted, particularly when moving into the other realms of eschatology, creates problems for a total view of eschatology. We see this most clearly in his view of the “pancosmic soul” and his later writings on the resurrection-in-death.[72] Ratzinger’s fidelity to the substance of revelation allows him to present a theological viewpoint which is immediately more accessible to the Church as a whole.


Both of these theologies take death far more seriously than contemporary preaching and life. They give to man a true orientation toward the act of death itself and not merely an easing of the fear of death with promises of what is to come. Death can be either the complete and total ratification of or the complete and total surrender of the self to the living God, perhaps both. The terminus of life represents in them a real, existentially important, act that is distinct and separate from the mortal life lived on earth and the immortal life to which we are summoned.

In a world that avoids death, either proactively or repressively, Christian theology must take pains to reclaim a positive view of this radical reality of man. It must see death both a specter and gift. Death must stand before us always as that point to which we are terrifyingly aimed and through which we might enter into communion with the One who loves us.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien, The Silmarillion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), 41–42.

[2] Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C: Catholic University of America Press, 2007), 69–70.

[3] Ratzinger, Eschatology.

[4] Karl Rahner, On the Theology of Death (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972).

[5] Peter F. Ryan, “On Eschatology,” Nova et Vetera 15, no. 3 (August 4, 2017): 904–8. This is a somewhat helpful summary, but moves too quickly to the immortality of the soul and leaps over death as death.

[6] Ratzinger, Eschatology, 69.

[7] Ratzinger, 69–70.

[8] Ratzinger, 70.

[9] Ratzinger, 71.

[10] Ratzinger, 71.

[11] Ratzinger, 71–72.

[12] Ratzinger, 72–80.

[13] In doing so, he dispenses with theologians who reject the body/soul structure as an invention of Hellenic (read non-Christian) thought.

[14] Ratzinger, Eschatology, 76.

[15] Ratzinger, 81.

[16] Ratzinger, 80–81.

[17] Ratzinger, 81.

[18] Ratzinger, 81–82.

[19] Ratzinger, 82–84.

[20] Ratzinger, 83–87.

[21] Ratzinger, 86–87.

[22] Ratzinger, 88–90.

[23] Ratzinger, 90.

[24] Ratzinger, 91.

[25] Ratzinger, 92.

[26] Ratzinger, 93.

[27] Ratzinger, 93.

[28] Andrew Brubacher Kaethler, “The (Un)Bounded Peculiarity of Death: The Relational Implication of Temporality in the Theology of Alexander Schmemann and Joseph Ratzinger,” Modern Theology 32, no. 1 (January 2016): 92.

[29] Ratzinger, Eschatology, 94.

[30] Ratzinger, 94–95.

[31] Ratzinger, 95. Slight emendation of my own on the third point, but the essence remains the same.

[32] Ratzinger, 96.

[33] Ratzinger, 96.

[34] Ratzinger, 97.

[35] Rahner, OTD, 8: “I have in mind that kind of theological work which only begins when the doctrine of the Church has been clearly determined, and compares the single propositions of this doctrine with each other, confronts them with other types of knowledge and goes on to elaborate more fully the concepts they involve, in order to secure a more precise understanding of what has been directly heard in faith.

[36] Rahner, 12.

[37] David H (David Hugh) Kelsey, “Two Theologies of Death: Anthropological Gleanings,” Modern Theology 13, no. 3 (July 1997): 350.

[38] Henry L. Novello, Death as Transformation : A Contemporary Theology of Death (Surrey: Ashgate, 2011), 113.

[39] Rahner, OTD, 13.

[40] Rahner, 13 Paraphrased.

[41] Rahner, 13.

[42] Rahner, 14.

[43] Rahner, 15.

[44] Rahner, 15.

[45] Rahner, 17 Paraphrased.

[46] Michael G Lawler and Todd A Salzman, “Karl Rahner’s Theology of Dying and Death: Normative Implications for the Permanent Vegetative State Patient,” Irish Theological Quarterly 77, no. 2 (May 2012): 144–45.

[47] Rahner, OTD, 18; Lawler and Salzman, “Rahner’s Theology of Dying and Death,” 147; Jerry T. Farmer, “My Theological Reflection with Karl Rahner: Rupture, Discontinuity . . . Incomprehensible Mystery,” Horizons 41, no. 2 (2014): 321–22.

[48] Rahner, OTD, 19–20.

[49] Rahner, 25.

[50] Rahner, 27.

[51] Rahner, 30–31.

[52] Rahner, 34.

[53] Rahner, 34–35.

[54] Rahner, 35–36.

[55] Rahner, 38.

[56] Rahner, 49.

[57] Rahner, 48.

[58] Rahner, 50–51.

[59] Rahner, 57.

[60] Rahner, 60.

[61] Rahner, 61.

[62] Rahner, 61–62; Kelsey, “Two Theologies of Death: Anthropological Gleanings,” 352.

[63] Rahner, OTD, 61–62.

[64] Rahner, 68.

[65] Rahner, 68–69.

[66] Rahner, 69; Marie Murphy, New Images of the Last Things : Karl Rahner on Death and Life After Death (New York: Paulist Press, 1988), 11.

[67] Rahner, OTD, 69–71.

[68] Rahner, 71 Paraphrased.

[69] Rahner, 72.

[70] Lawler and Salzman, “Rahner’s Theology of Dying and Death,” 146; Kaethler, “The (Un)Bounded Peculiarity of Death: The Relational Implication of Temporality in the Theology of Alexander Schmemann and Joseph Ratzinger,” 92.

[71] Lawler and Salzman, “Rahner’s Theology of Dying and Death,” 148.

[72] Bernard P Prusak, “Bodily Resurrection in Catholic Perspectives,” Theological Studies 61, no. 1 (March 2000): 64–105.

Featured Image: Franz Lippisch, The Raftsman Death, 1897; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Dustin Hungerford

Fr. Dustin S. Hungerford is a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville. He has a B.A. in Theology and Philosophy from Bellarmine University, an M.A. in Theology and M.Div. from St. Meinrad Seminary, and an STB from the Pontifical Athenaeum Sant'Anselmo.


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