What do we believe about Suicide?

If even one person died of suicide this year, there would be a crisis of suicide in our country.  It is natural and understandable for us to assign the “crisis” term to issues that affect tens and hundreds of thousands of people per year, but the other side of that coin is failing to see the crisis in the life of the individual and their family and friends.  It is essential that any conversation surrounding suicide take into account the complex lives of the people involved, and for that reason social media (and blog posts) are less than ideally suited for this.  That said, it would be equally inappropriate to simply ignore the conversation.

I lack the expertise to speak with much competence to means of prevention, and will therefore mostly avoid doing so.  Thankfully, resources abound for those in need of them, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (Iowa chapter here).  Instead, I’ll speak to the approach of the Catholic faith regarding pastoral situations surrounding suicide, such as what we believe about suicide, sin, and moral responsibility.  Primarily, this conversation will use the Catechism of the Catholic Church as it’s foundation (not totally sure what the Catechism is? Check this out).

Before investigating suicide itself, I think it’s important to address a more underlying issue, one that is often misunderstood by even practicing Catholics: the nature of sin.  All too often, sin is seen as partaking in some action that is on God’s “Do Not Do” list.  This mentality comes through when asking questions like “Is action X a sin?”, in expectation of a clear yes or no answer upon consultation of The List.

This isn’t to say there aren’t lists!  Certainly, the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes are the most recognizable instances of lists denoting what should and should not be done in understanding and obeying God’s will.  The problem with the list mentality when it comes to sin isn’t that it’s incorrect, only that it’s incomplete.  “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods”, the Catechism states, “it has been defined as ‘an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law”.  That eternal law certainly comes to us at times in the form of lists, but to reduce it to mere lists would be a very unfortunate misunderstanding.

A further clarification regarding sin is necessary: that of the distinction between a mortal and a venial sin.  Mortal sin “destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God” (note well: it doesn’t turn God away from man–nothing can do that).  Venial sin “allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it” (1855).  In other words, when a person completely turns away from God’s love through a freely chosen and understood violation of what that loving relationship entails, they’ve mortally sinned.  When a person merely deviates from what is involved in a loving relationship with God, though again in a freely chosen and understood manner, they’ve venially (is that a word?) sinned.  In a venial sin, charity (“love [of] God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God”–1822) continues to exist in the person’s heart, though it has been harmed.

Due to the fairly abstract manner in which mortal and venial sins are defined, debates surrounding whether particular acts are one or the other are not only inevitable, but are long-standing.  That said, there is one remaining bit of criteria to help us understand mortal sins a bit more clearly: “for a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: ‘Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent” (1857).

For our conversation regarding suicide, the first criteria, “grave matter”, is apparent: few things have more gravity than a person’s life on earth.  Additionally, though arguably with less certainty in particular cases, the second criteria of “full knowledge” is met: the individual understands that what they are doing will result in the ending of their life.  This, however, merits a closer look: the individual may not always have full knowledge of what their actions will mean, for example of the anguish it will cause loved ones; or additionally, there may be a hope that their actions won’t actually work, resulting in only an attempt.  The third criteria, surrounding “deliberate consent”, is the criteria that contemporary acts suicide are most likely to fail to meet, as will be discussed soon.

It must be acknowledged, though with charity and sensitivity, that there is no question of the sinful nature of suicide: “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…[Suicide] is gravely contrary to the just love of self…offends love of neighbor…[and] is contrary to love for the living God” (2280-1)

That said, the notion of moral responsibility gets murky with suicide, because of the way in which our will can be compromised by factors leading to it.  This means that ascribing culpability for a mortal sin to one who has taken their own life is often difficult to do (not that we should spend our time trying to ascribe mortal moral responsibility to individuals, but for the sake of family and friends who are in anguish over the soul of their loved one, this is an important point).  The Catechism acknowledges as such, pointing out that “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (2282).  If outside forces such as those listed here impact the decision to take one’s own life, the free nature of that decision is thrown into serious doubt.

The consequences for this discussion on the pastoral approach to suicide is clear, and the Catechism points this out as well: “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” (2283).  To judge the state of a person’s soul as irrefutably being in Hell because their death was self-inflicted is unacceptable.  Instead, we are called to not only join with the Communion of Saints in praying for their repentance and salvation, but to offer ourselves in support of those the individual left behind.

In conversations of suicide prevention, it is vitally important for the Church to be attentive to and aware of all credible literature and findings, and to follow these leads accordingly.  In a concrete way, this means parish staff and pastors proactively seeking out resources and providing them to everyone involved in ministry, being mindful not to make the mistake of assuming that youth ministry is the only, or the most important, place for these resources.  In fact, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention notes that in 2016, suicide rates were highest among adults aged 45-54.  That said, the rate at which suicide rates have increased in the past decade among ages 15-24 and 25-34 is alarming (on this, ProjectYM recently hosted an excellent discussion with Roy Petitfils regarding the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why”, a popular series among youth portraying teen suicide in a particularly dramatic fashion–it is a video all youth leaders should watch).

While it may at times feel as though the only pastoral option we have regarding suicide is a reactive one, it’s incredibly important that proactive steps be taken to ensure that a culture of authentic compassion is being cultivated in our homes, our friendships, and our workplaces.  The motivators for suicide are manifold and interrelated, but many common risk factors are known, and one of the steps in not only identifying but addressing these factors is simply being aware of others in a real way.  Reaching out to one another in genuine concern for their well-being not only plays a role in suicide prevention, but in building the Kingdom of God.

“What do we believe about Suicide?” is the first in a series of monthly “What do we believe about…?” posts, seeking to clarify certain teachings and beliefs of the Catholic Church, using the Catechism as a foundation.  If there is a particular topic you would like to see addressed in these posts, please email me (Justin White, Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministry for the Diocese of Des Moines), at jwhite@dmdiocese.org.  You can email me with accusations of heresy in my posts, too–not only am I thick-skinned, but I also recognize I may very well be wrong every so often.

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