I was blessed a couple of weeks ago to chaperone a pilgrimage to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and to attend the National March for Life rally in Washington, D.C. This was a week of firsts for me. I met my first Nashville Dominican sisters, visited D.C. and several of its sites, such as the Holocaust Museum for the first time, and I experienced my first March for Life and all it offered. I originally intended for this post to discuss the many beautiful things I experienced, such as praying the Angelus outside the Shrine with a close friend and a Dominican sister in the blinding snow, the gorgeous and inspiring Basilica, and my own interior growth from this pilgrimage. Unfortunately, they will all have to wait, because I wish to write on one particular aspect of the Pro-Life movement I discussed with other young adults on the trip. That is the latter part of ‘from conception to natural death.’ Last week, I learned one of my fellow graduate students committed suicide unexpectedly. We were not close, but this news does not diminish the shock or dismay of hearing someone in the ‘prime of life’ made the choice to end their life.
There are a limited number of responses to a tragedy such as the suicide of a loved one: grief and numbness. These may be quickly followed by questions of frustration and, possibly guilt. How could this have been prevented? Did I do or not do something to reach out to make the individual feel loved and welcomed? My friends who knew this individual asked these very questions. One of my first thoughts though was for the salvation of his soul. Then, while discussing the nature of suicide with a friend, I began to think of how Holy Mother Church approached such a grievous sin. In times of confusion and despair, the Church provides us a safe port in the storm. There is comfort in the Church’s foundations in Jesus Christ, and 2000 years of continual guidance by the Holy Spirit. Knowledge of the ‘what and why’ of a teaching gives the faithful firm ground to stand upon.
The Church’s teachings, however, is where I think we get into sticky territory. Like divorce or ‘leaving’ Catholicism, the Church’s teaching on suicide is one issue that most Catholics do not fully comprehend, and do not attempt to enlighten themselves. Instead, they look to secular answers to console their grief. First, some will say suicide is the right of the individual to end the life they own, and thus is not wrong. Second, suicide can never be a sin, because anyone who commits suicide is not in their right mind, and thus are not culpable for their actions. Third, saying suicide is wrong is callous and inconsiderate of the victim’s family.
I do believe that some sincerely offer these or similar consolations to families, because there is very little one can offer in those first moments of grief. Our good desire to help others feel better cannot come at the price of denying the reality of sin and its consequences. These sentiments are merely a part of our culture’s desire for an amoral world without consequences; a place where all things are possible and can be justified as a right, even a morbid one. St. Thomas Aquinas tackled similar statements in his Summa.
Guidance through the Fog
The Catechism explains very succinctly what suicide does to the individual and those around them. You may find suicide in the Catechism alongside euthanasia and abortion under the Fifth Commandment: You shall not kill. Paragraph 2280 states,
“Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him … We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.”
For anyone who has first-hand knowledge, it may seem obvious that suicide is wrong, but we live in a culture of death where a life is only worth as much as it gives. While on the March, I witness hundreds of thousands of people marching for those who do not have a voice. I believe those who commit suicide might feel something similar. For reasons known only to them, they feel no one finds them worth speaking up for. One of the speakers discussed the difference in being Pro-Life and living Pro-Life. The subtle difference is reaching out with love to all those around you rather than simply subscribing to a list of beliefs. In other words, living your Catholic faith rather than simply verbally claiming it when it is convenient.
The shock my fellow students felt is a part of suicide’s impact on those around the victim. The Church teaches, CCC paragraph 2281, that “[suicide] 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.” Sin weakens and warps the bonds we share, especially and most importantly with God. Think of the words of absolution from the priest in confession, “…I reconcile you to God and the Church…”.
It is natural to wonder how culpable an individual is who commits suicide. Whether a person is given reprieve is not for us to know. That is between the person and God. People are fearful for their loved ones, rightly so, because suicide is a mortal sin (a mortal sin is an action that is a grave matter committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent). However, CCC paragraph 2282 explains, “…Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.” And, in the spirit of hope, paragraph 2283 states “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 in no way says suicide is therefore acceptable or no longer a mortal sin. What it is saying is we should pray for those who have committed suicide, and those who might be considering it. There is a danger in claiming to know the destination of someone’s soul, or anyone who is not a canonized saint. If they are in Heaven then they are not in need of our prayers, since they reside with God, and we risk forgetting them in our prayers. If we say they are in hell then we may despair unnecessarily, because we do not know for sure they are in hell. The judgment is not ours to make. Our choice to love them by keeping them in our prayers, or not.
Why is this important to talk about?
Sometimes, someone doesn’t know something until you outright spell it out for them. At least that’s my often used approach. Suicide is a grave sin, and it should be discussed as such. The Pro-Life movement promotes the dignity of each and every human life. Each of us is blessed with the gift of life from God. I titled this article Pro-Life Even When It’s Uncomfortable, because being outspoken about pro-life issues can be very uncomfortable. No one wants to give offense, either to those who suffered a loss due to suicide or those who perhaps attempted suicide, but not talking about a problem doesn’t make it go away. A simple extended hand of self-sacrificing love could make a radical difference in someone’s life. We have no idea what an outcome for someone contemplating suicide would be if we showed love more frequently. If we treat each person with the dignity he or she was created with, then the person can recognize it in himself. As St. Therese of Lisieux wrote in Story of Soul,
I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was burning with love. I understood that Love compromises all vocations, that love was everything, that it embraced all times and places, in a word, that it was eternal!…My vocation is Love.
Each of us is called to love first, and foremost even when we find it difficult or trying, and all else flows from that love. The Catechism mentions psychological conditions and their effects on an individual’s culpability. These can be difficult to face. I would like to recommend a book, though I have not yet finished it. I listened to the author speak on this book, and found it a fascinating combination of modern medicine and faith. This won’t be a fix all, but it could help. The Catholic Guide to Depression: How the Saints, the Sacraments, and Psychiatry Can Help You Break Its Grip and Find Happiness Again by Aaron Kheriaty, MD. There is a section on suicide, and the author has intimate experience with suicide. The book is mainly for those suffering from depression, but it also gives insights to those who are trying to help a loved one with depression. So, if I should end on any note let it be of hope. Keep loving and keep praying, and remember that you are loved.
© 2014. Michael Lane. All rights reserved.