Church and Suicide

Question: Many years ago, my mother-in-law committed suicide after years of mental problems. The parish priest would not say a Mass for her, since, he said, suicide was, in the Church's view, a sin. He said that there was no way she could go to heaven. Was he right or wrong?

-- D.M., North Canton, Ohio

Answer: He was wrong, although his position was commonplace before the Second Vatican Council -- which, being a pastoral council, did a great deal to make the practical life of the Church more compassionate and understanding of the broken-hearted and the downtrodden.

The Church has not changed its long-standing view on the moral seriousness of suicide, however. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains 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" (No. 2280).

Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human person to preserve and perpetuate life and is contrary to the love of self. It breaks the ties of solidarity with family and neighbors and causes grief in the community to which the person belonged.

The Catechism continues: "If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary cooperation in suicide is contrary to the moral law" (No. 2282).

That said, the mitigating circumstances of suicide have to be taken into consideration. The Catechism states: "Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide" (ibid.). The pressures and pains that lead people to commit suicide are often known to God alone.

"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"(No. 2283).

Clergy and those in Church ministry need to approach the families and friends of those who have committed suicide with the greatest pastoral care and compassion. Those left behind need to be assured that if they saw anything good in the one who has died, then God, who is infinitely loving, saw all the more good.

Not least of importance is the Catechism's simple statement: "The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives" (ibid.). Unless the person who committed suicide expressly wished otherwise or purposely took a stance against the Christian faith, he or she should be given the full rites of the Church.

In the celebration of such funerals, the fact of the suicide should be articulated and dealt with (otherwise the ceremonies have a sense of unreality about them), the overarching mercy of God should be proclaimed, and the truth that God's wisdom is wiser than all human wisdom should be clearly declared.

Whose theology is it?

Question: I have the impression that the theology of the body found in Christopher West's writings is different from that found in Pope John Paul II's writings. What do you think?

-- Name and address withheld

Answer: The theology of the body -- and its application to sexuality -- is quite complex, and it will take a lot of good popularization before it has its full impact on the thinking of Catholics. I have the impression that the works of Christopher West serve well in this much-needed popularization.

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.