St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, once said something to a grieving woman whose husband had committed suicide that can give comfort to Catholics today coping with the same tragedy.
“He is saved!” the saintly parish priest told the shocked woman. “I tell you, he is saved. He is in purgatory, and you must pray for him. Between the parapet of the bridge and the water, he had time to make an act of contrition.”
The story shows the depth of God’s mercy, and that the hope of salvation can also be extended to people who take their own lives.
“People who commit suicide are acting out of a desperate state. Many of these people who complete suicide have a mental illness and they are not acting out of malice, and that is where God judges us negatively,” said Father Charles Rubey, the founder and director of Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide (LOSS), a program offered by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago in collaboration with the Diocese of Joliet, Ill.
In the spotlight
Suicide, and its connection to mental illness and depression, has gained renewed attention since Robin Williams, the beloved actor-comedian who starred in dozens of movies, was found dead in his northern California home Aug. 11. The local coroner’s office said the probable cause of death was suicide by asphyxiation. His publicist and relatives said Williams, who struggled for years with drug and alcohol addiction, had been battling severe depression.
Father Rubey told Our Sunday Visitor that Williams’ death has “opened the floodgates” for people struggling with the loss of a loved one from suicide. Williams’ apparent suicide also appears to be raising awareness that mental illness, especially depression, is a real disease that can have tragic consequences if not discussed openly and treated.
“We need to have a better understanding of mental illness and not see someone like Robin Williams or anyone who completes suicide as weak, cowardly or selfish,” Father Rubey said. “They’re none of that. They’re desperate.”
Until recent years, suicide was predominantly seen as a scandalous, sinful, even cowardly act. In the past, Catholic burials were denied to those who committed suicide, as it was considered the ultimate act of despair. Some commentary immediately following Williams' death, including from a few Catholic bloggers, echoed the view of suicide as a selfish choice.
However, more people are coming to the understanding that suicide often is the tragic result of a diseased mind seeking release from unbearable pain and suffering. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has also struck a more sensitive and pastoral tone, and now provides the last rites and Christian burial to Catholics who take their own lives.
“Fortunately, right now we’re in a much better place in the sense that the Church recognizes that the person should be given all the full rights of the Church,” said Deacon Tom Lambert in the Archdiocese of Chicago, who also serves as the co-chairman of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability’s Council on Mental Illness. Deacon Lambert told OSV that the Church’s position on suicide “has evolved as we have learned a lot more about the brain and suicide.”
“We need to be very aware that the person who died by suicide like Robin Williams suffered tremendously and was not in their right mind when they did that,” Deacon Lambert said.
Loss of free will
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2281) still teaches that suicide “contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life,” that it is “gravely contrary to the just love of self,” and it “offends love of neighbor because if unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation and other human societies” to which people have obligations.
Suicide, the catechism says, “is contrary to love for the living God” and if it “is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal.”
“Suicide is a self-centered, self-oriented action. It is right to say that it is selfish, but the error is calling it a choice in the sense of the deepest meaning of the word choice, and that is consistent with our Catholic anthropology,” said Dr. Greg Bottaro, a New York-based Catholic psychologist who formed the CatholicPsych Institute in 2012 to connect Catholics around the world with therapists trained to integrate the Faith with their clinical practice.
Bottaro told OSV that people stricken by severe depression and mental illness can lose part of their free will.
“When you go the ultimate extreme where someone is capable of committing suicide, there is a clear restriction of having access to free will,” he said. “Suicide is the ultimate symptom of disease, of being the most removed from our full calling to be there for others. The more human we are, the more we live for others.”
The catechism says that “grave psychological disturbances,” as well as anguish, grave fear of hardship, suffering or torture can diminish one’s responsibility for suicide. Also, the catechism says Catholics should not despair of the eternal salvation of those 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” (CCC, No. 2283).
“We’re in a much better place, and I’m very grateful to be able to point out to people how the Church has changed in this area. We’re glad to give people comfort that their loved ones can be buried in a Catholic setting,” said Janice Benton, executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability.
Benton told OSV that Williams’ death shows that depression is a real disease that requires treatment and cannot be “prayed away” or overcome by personal willpower.
“It isn’t something that you can just shake off,” Benton said. “I’m glad to see people are reacting to this as a sorrowful thing and that something that is not a positive occurrence. We want people to recognize that dying in that way is a tragedy.”
However, mental illness still carries a stigma that makes it difficult for people suffering from the disease, including their loved ones.
“One of the things we need to recognize is just how common this is. One in 4 people is afflicted with mental illness, and 1 in 17 with severe mental illness, but we don’t talk about it because of the stigma,” said Deacon Lambert, who added that families and parish communities need to create comfortable, welcoming environments where people suffering from depression and mental illness can feel safe.
“When a person is in the psych unit, we should be visiting them just like as if they were in the hospital,” Deacon Lambert said.
Bottaro also said the Catholic community needs to recognize the need for professional treatment of mental illness and depression.
“As a Church, we need to recognize that people who suffer from depression are in need of real services — medical and psychological services — to really meet the needs that they have,” Bottaro said. “Ignoring depression as a disease is no different than refusing a blood transfusion if there is a reason for it.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.