What Does the Church Teach about Suicide?
Sadly, today, there are many deaths by suicide. Very few people have not been deeply affected by the suicide of a loved one. In the United States alone, there are more than thirty-three thousand suicides a year. That averages out to ninety such deaths per day, about three to four every hour.
And yet suicide remains widely misunderstood and generally leaves those who are left behind with a particularly devastating kind of grief. Among all deaths, suicide perhaps weighs heaviest on those left behind.
What does the Church teach about suicide? From the 'Catechism of the Catholic Church':
2280 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.
2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.
2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.
Many people conclude that the Church therefore claims that everyone who commits suicide goes straight to Hell, because their last act before dying is a mortal sin. However, the next paragraph from the Catechism says this:
Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.
The act itself is always a grave matter; but for an action to be a mortal sin, the person must know that it is a grave matter, and he must do it voluntarily. The modern Church understands that depression and other psychological disturbances that might lead a person to suicide are true illnesses, which can significantly mitigate both a person's understanding and free will.
Moreover, even if a person's death seems quick, with no time to repent before the end, we have no way of knowing what happens between their soul and a merciful God, who wants to bring all of His children home to Himself:
2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.
This is not to say that we should assume that everyone who commits suicide becomes reconciled to God. All men and women are free to choose God or to reject Him; so it would be wrong to presume that all souls are saved. On the contrary, our faith in the mercy of God commands that we pray for all the living and for all the dead. We have no right to presume either that someone who has died is in Hell or (if he's not a saint!) that he's in Heaven. Prayer is always appropriate, and it always our duty.
It would also behoove us, as Catholics, to educate ourselves about depression and other mental illnesses. We do not believe in a Mental Prosperity Gospel, where God rewards His faithful ones with a sense of well-being and good cheer. A good many of the saints were as close to God as they could come -- Mother Teresa comes to mind -- and yet they struggled constantly against the darkness. Depression and mental illness are not a sign of personal sin, but one of many signs of the weakness we all inherited when Adam sinned.
Struggling to Understand Suicide
Suicide hits us so hard because it is surrounded with the ultimate taboo. In the popular mind, suicide is generally seen, consciously or unconsciously, as the ultimate act of despair, the ultimate bad thing a person can do. This shouldn’t surprise us since suicide does go against the deepest instinct inside us, our will to live. Thus, even when it’s treated with understanding and compassion, it still leaves those left behind with a certain amount of shame and a lot of second-guessing. Also, more often than not, it ruins the memory of the person who died. His photographs slowly disappear from our walls and the manner of his death is spoken about with an all-too-hushed discretion. None of this should be surprising: Suicide is the ultimate taboo.
So what’s to be said about suicide? How can we move towards understanding it more empathically?
Understanding suicide more compassionately won’t take away its sting, nothing will, except time; but our own long-term healing and the redemption of the memory of the one died can be helped by keeping a number of things in mind.
- Suicide, in most cases, is a disease, not something freely willed. The person who dies in this way dies against his or her will, akin to those who jumped to their deaths from the Twin Towers after terrorist planes had set those buildings on fire on September 11, 2001. They were jumping to certain death, but only because they were already burning to death where they were standing. Death by suicide is analogous to death by cancer, stroke, or heart attack; except, in the case of suicide, it’s a question of emotional-cancer, emotional-stroke, or an emotional-heart attack.
Moreover, still to be more fully explored, is the potential role that biochemistry plays in suicide. Since some suicidal depressions are treatable by drugs, clearly then some suicides are caused by biochemical deficiencies, as are many other diseases that kill us.
- The person who dies in this way, almost invariably, is a very sensitive human being. Suicide is rarely done in arrogance, as an act of contempt. There are of course examples of persons, like Hitler, who are too proud to endure normal human contingency and kill themselves out of arrogance, but that’s a very different kind of suicide, not the kind that most of us have seen in a loved one. Generally our own experience with the loved ones that we’ve lost to suicide was that these persons were anything but arrogant. More accurately described, they were too bruised to touch and were wounded in some deep way that we couldn’t comprehend or help heal. Indeed, often times when sufficient time has passed after their deaths, in retrospect, we get some sense of their wound, one which we never clearly perceived while they were alive. Their suicide then no longer seems as surprising.
- Finally, we need not worry unduly about the eternal salvation of those who die in this way. God’s understanding and compassion infinitely surpass our own. Our lost loved ones are in safer hands than ours. If we, limited as we are, can already reach through this tragedy with some understanding and love, we can rest secure in the fact that, given the width and depth of God’s love, the one who dies through suicide meets, on the other side, a compassion that’s deeper than our own and a judgment that intuits the deepest motives of their heart.
Moreover, God’s love, as we are assured of in our scriptures and as is manifest in Jesus’ resurrection, is not as helpless as our own in dealing with this. We, in dealing with our loved ones, sometimes find ourselves helpless, without a strategy and without energy, standing outside an oak-like door, shutout because of someone’s fear, wound, sickness, or loneliness. Most persons who die by suicide are precisely locked inside this kind of private room by some cancerous wound through which we cannot reach and through which they themselves cannot reach. Our best efforts leave us still unable to penetrate that private hell.
But, as we see in the resurrection appearances of Jesus, God’s love and compassion are not rendered helpless by locked doors. God’s love doesn’t stand outside, helplessly knocking. Rather it goes right through the locked doors, stands inside the huddle of fear and loneliness, and breathes out peace. So too for our loved ones who die by suicide. We find ourselves helpless, but God can, and does, go through those locked doors and, once there, breathes out peace inside a tortured, huddled heart.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
We can all help prevent suicide. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.
Image credit: Verne Ho