Q. Would you explain the Catholic Church’s position on suicide? My wonderful wife took her own life 15 years ago, and every day I think about her salvation. She was a good wife and mother while she lived. Our pastor assured us that our Lord would bring her home. Still, my children and especially I myself feel responsible that we did not do enough to prevent this tragedy. (Illinois)
A. I’m sure you know and have probably been told often that the reaction of you and your children is not uncommon. When struck by a catastrophe like your wife’s death, which we cannot make sense of no matter how hard we try, we feel we must have done, or not done, something within our power to prevent what happened. To attempt to explain such actions this way, however, is futile and unhelpful.
I believe it would be personally useful to understand the Catholic Church’s approach to suicide, and I hope you take consolation in what your priest said. He reflects the same theology as the Catechism of the Catholic Church when it says we each have responsibility for our own lives, but we should not despair of those who take their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God has ways of providing for them, and the church always holds them, as it does all the deceased, in its prayers (No. 2283).
Much Catholic understanding of these situations is reflected in the church’s funeral policies. Canon law lists among those who might be deprived of Catholic rites "manifest sinners who cannot be granted ecclesiastical funeral rites without public scandal of the faithful" (Canon 1184).
Are people who commit suicide really "open sinners" whose Christian burial would give scandal?
Today bishops and other pastors generally believe just the opposite. The scandal would be, rather, if Christian burial is refused. They, as all the rest of us, are painfully aware of our limitations in knowing what really happened spiritually to the one who died, not to speak of the particular care we need to exercise toward the loved ones left behind.
Taking one’s own life is a serious matter. But how much was the individual capable of genuine reflection on what he or she was doing? How much true consent of the will was there? Clearly, we cannot know.
I have had the sad experience of dealing with suicide many times in my 55 years as a priest. Circumstances surrounding these deaths gave strong hints to everyone who knew them that the deceased were hampered mentally or emotionally, often to a severe degree, at the time of death.
Sometimes those hints are apparent, with erratic behavior pointing to some crippling psychological dysfunction. Sometimes they are less obvious, and the self-destruction contradicts every experience with that person. To all appearances, something inside just snapped, and we’ll never know what that might have been.
In other words, the church makes no judgment about the individual’s relationship with God. We simply place all our trust in God’s mercy and love for the one who has died and for those terribly hurt by the death.
So the encouragement your priest gave you was based on solid Catholic belief about God and what we understand today about such suicides as your good wife’s. You have every reason to hope, even be certain, that she is in our Lord’s loving presence and care.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Father John Dietzen, the author of this Catholic News Service column, died March 27, 2011.
If you or someone you know is dealing with severe depression, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or chat with a counselor online at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.