Straight Answers from Father William Saunders
"Suicide: Gravity and Responsibility"
What is the Church's teaching regarding suicide? I always
thought suicide was a mortal sin, so how is it that a person can
be buried in the Church? --A reader in Fairfax
Before addressing the act of suicide, we must first remember that God
is the giver of all life. Each of us has been made in God's image
and likeness (Gn 1:27) with both a body and a soul. Therefore, life
is sacred from the moment of conception and natural death, and no one
can justify the intentional taking of an innocent life.
For Christians, this teaching takes on an even greater depth because
our Lord entered this world and our own human condition. Our Lord
knew the joy and pain, success and failure, pleasure and suffering,
happiness and sorrow that comes in this life; yet He also showed us
how to live this life in the love of God and trusting in His will.
Moreover, Jesus suffered, died and rose to free us from sin and give
us the promise of everlasting life. Through our baptism, we share a
new life in the Lord. St. Paul reminds us,
"You have been purchased,
and at a price. So glorify God in your body" (1 Cor 6:20) .
Therefore, we must be mindful that the preservation of our life
--body and soul --is not something discretionary but obligatory. We
must preserve and nourish both our physical and spiritual life. The
"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" (The Catechism of the Catholic Church #2280) .
With this foundation in mind, we can see why suicide has
traditionally be considered a gravely wrong moral action, i.e. a
moral sin. Our Holy Father affirmed this position in his recent
encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" (#66). (Please note that suicide is
distinguished from the sacrifice of one's life for God or another, as
in the cases of martyrdom, or of offering one's life or risking it to
save another person.)
The intentional taking of one's own life is wrong for several
reasons: First, in the most basic sense, each human being naturally
seeks to preserve life. To take our own life defies our natural
instinct to live.
Second, suicide violates a genuine love for oneself and one's
neighbor --family, friends, neighbors and even acquaintances. Other
people need us and depend on us in ways we may not even know. When I
as a priest have had to comfort the family of a suicide victim, I
hope that the person somehow realizes how much he really was loved
and needed. I also feel sad that this poor, troubled person faced
something so seemingly unbearable, insurmountable or agonizing that
he chose to withdraw from the love of God and others and kill
Finally, suicide defies the love we owe God . Sure, we all face tough
times, hardships and sufferings. However, we are called to place
ourselves in the hands of God, who will never abandon us, but see us
safely through this life. The words of the "Our Father" --"thy will
be done" --must be real for us. To commit suicide is to reject His
"lordship" in our life.
Therefore, objectively, suicide is a mortal sin. (Moreover, to help
someone commit suicide is also a mortal sin.) Here, though, we must
remember that for a sin to be mortal and cost someone salvation, the
objective of the action (in this case, the taking of one's own life)
must be grave or serious matter; the person must have an informed
intellect (know that this is wrong); and the person must give full
consent of the will (intend to commit this action).
In the case of suicide, I wonder whether a person always has full
consent of the will. Fear, force, ignorance, habit, passion and
psychological problems can impede the exercise of the will so that a
person may not be fully responsible or even responsible at all for an
action. Here again the Catechism states,
disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or
torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing
This qualification does not make suicide a right
action in any circumstance; however, it does make us realize that the
person may not be totally culpable for the action because of various
circumstances or personal conditions.
Only God can read the depths of our soul. Only He knows how much we
love Him and how responsible we are for our actions. We leave the
judgment then to Him alone. The Catechism offers words of great
"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"
Therefore, we do offer the Mass for the repose of the soul of a
suicide victim, invoking God's tender love and mercy, and His healing
grace for the grieving loved ones.
Fr. Saunders is president of Notre Dame Institute and pastor of Queen
of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.
This article appeared in the July 6, 1995 issue of "The
Arlington Catholic Herald."
Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper
of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information,
call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607
Arlington, VA 22203.
Provided courtesy of:
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Trinity Communications 703-791-4336 or telnet CRNET.ORG
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