Wednesday, December 04, 2019 - Updated: 2:46 pm
Recently, the Pittsburgh Catholic ran a column explaining that the church does not deny funerals to those who commit suicide — as had been portrayed on a popular TV show. However, in its well-intended effort to comfort survivors, the article may have left the false impression that suicide is of no eternal consequence.
Even on an intuitive level, we can sense that the enduring suffering of those whom suicide leaves behind is evidence of a sinful act. A funeral, however, is the ultimate moment when we acknowledge that God alone is our final judge. Only he can see fully into the heart and soul of any of us and know why we commit the sins that we commit.
I am a young priest, who in three short years of priesthood has been present to people close to me after a loved one has committed suicide. The instant pull of my heart is to speak only words of consolation, comfort and assurance. But love requires speaking the whole truth. The fullness of truth has been entrusted to holy mother church so that even in the midst of great grief and confusion we can be led to healing mercy.
The teachings of the church are beautiful. They are also challenging. Church teaching about suicide is outlined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 2280-2283.
All of creation, and most especially human life, is a free gift from God who loves each and every one of us into existence. Because my life is fundamentally a gift, then it is not my own, and it is not my own to take. Ultimately, one is never permitted to take an innocent life, whether that is someone else’s innocent human life or their own.
In recognizing the gift of every human life, the Catholic Church teaches that the taking of one’s own life is a grave sin. Further, if one were to know that taking one’s own life is a grave sin and still freely choose to take their own life, they would commit a mortal sin. To die in that state of unrepentant mortal sin would yield a real and eternal separation from a relationship with God. Jesus spoke of this rejection of a relationship with him as hell.
This, however, is where human judgment reaches its limit with suicide. In order to incur that ultimate penalty, someone has to knowingly and freely choose to commit this grave action of taking their own life. God is the only person who can say whether that person knew that suicide is wrong. Similarly, only God can know the freedom of that person to make the right choice.
Research has shown an overwhelming correlation between mental illness — depression, anxiety, bipolar, etc. — and suicide. The church teaches that these circumstances, along with anguish, grave fear and suffering, “can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide,” in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Without a full knowledge and complete, free consent of the person, their culpability is lessened and God cannot hold them fully responsible for their actions. Thus, those who mourn them are invited to trust in God’s unfathomable mercy.
Although it is tempting to pass over the hard truths within the church’s message of mercy, it is precisely in this truth that I see the opportunity for true pastoral care. For in the tension of the gravity of the action and the weight of the circumstances, the priest can give counsel that speaks to the heart of the Gospel:
First: Trust! Trust in the merciful love of Jesus, who goes to the depths of human misery on the cross and offers his mercy: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Second: Pray! It is a “holy and pious thought” to pray for the dead (2 Maccabees 12:44-45).
In particular during this month of November, let’s fix our gaze on Jesus Christ and with great confidence pray for the holy souls in purgatory: “Lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy.” Pray for God’s healing rays to be on all the family and friends who remain with an irreplaceable hole that will not be fully mended this side of heaven. Amen.
Father Potter is a parochial vicar in the parish grouping that includes St. Paul Cathedral, St. Regis, St. Rosalia and St. Stephen. He also serves as a part-time chaplain at Oakland Catholic High School.