Q. The recent death of Jack Kevorkian prompts this question. It seems so right to grant a dying person’s wish to end a life that he or she can no longer tolerate because of severe, debilitating health. Will the Catholic Church ever find acceptable circumstances in which a person may elect to make such a decision? (New Jersey)
A. In June of this year, two weeks after the death of Dr. Kevorkian, the Catholic bishops of the United States issued a policy statement on assisted suicide called "To Live Each Day With Dignity."
In very accurate shorthand, a Pittsburgh newspaper said that the bishops had told America "that killing ill and handicapped people is no way to care for them."
The statement offers a clear answer to the reader’s question and follows the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states that "an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person" (No. 2277).
The catechism goes on to say, "It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. … We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of" (No. 2280).
True compassion focuses on eliminating suffering, not eliminating the patient. And so, the church would argue, every effort should be directed to effective pain management.
Some people believe wrongly that the church’s position is that life should be prolonged by every possible means for every possible minute, despite the burden.
That is far from the truth, and the bishops’ June statement makes this clear:
"Respect for life does not demand that we attempt to prolong life by using medical treatments that are ineffective or unduly burdensome. Nor does it mean we should deprive suffering patients of needed pain medications out of a misplaced or exaggerated fear that they might have the side effect of shortening life."
Q. Recently, a friend committed suicide. He struggled with depression for years, and the depression won in the end. He had a beautiful soul and just could not love himself as much as others loved him.
He told me in the past that he did not believe in God, so my question is this: When a person has truly lost (his) way from the Lord and takes his own life, does that person still have a chance at redemption in the afterlife? (Cape May Court House, N.J.)
A. Your question is really two questions: First, can someone who commits suicide ever get to heaven? And second, can an atheist get there, too?
The answer to both questions is yes.
First, let us consider the suicide. Nos. 2280 to 2283 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church set forth the church’s position. To begin, the catechism explains that suicide is gravely contrary to the moral law, since God is the sovereign master of life and we are only stewards, not owners.
But No. 2283 then says explicitly: "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."
In saying so, the catechism suggests that the church’s approach to suicide ought always to be pastoral.
The church’s Code of Canon Law agrees, no longer specifically citing suicide as an impediment to funeral rites. Canon No. 1184 notes only three cases that do present an impediment: "a notorious apostate, heretic or schismatic; those who requested cremation for motives contrary to the Christian faith; and manifest sinners to whom a church funeral cannot be granted without causing public scandal to the faithful." These restrictions apply only if the deceased showed no sign of repentance before death.
The desire for self-preservation is so strong that, for someone to overcome that instinct by taking his own life may well indicate severe mental or emotional disturbance that mitigated the person’s subjective guilt.
We will never know what turmoil was coursing through the person’s mind for him to be driven to such desperation. The moral judgment is best left to God, which is why the church prays for the salvation of a suicide victim and offers a Christian burial.
You said that your friend did not believe in God, but even that does not rule him out of heaven. The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church ("Lumen Gentium") says in section No. 16 that people are eligible for salvation who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or the church but who try by their lives to do God’s will.
Significantly, that same section goes on to say, "Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with his grace strive to live a good life."
You describe your friend as having a "beautiful soul," which I take to mean that he was a person of moral probity who tried to live unselfishly and with compassion. So I would think there’s a good chance that you will meet him in heaven, and I will pray that you do!
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle, the new "Question Corner" writer, at firstname.lastname@example.org and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, NY 12208.