Misrepresenting the church's teaching on suicide

Monday, November 04, 2019 - Updated: 9:44 am

By Jack Shaw

“Blue Bloods,” a TV show about a family of law enforcement officers, is popular with Catholics. It has a Catholic ethos, with prayer around the table and references to God and the church. But it recently got something wrong about the church in a way that caused grief for people who are already suffering due to the suicide of a loved one.

In addition to my role as a parish director of evangelization and outreach, I’m the coordinator for Listening Friends, a bereavement ministry for people who have lost a loved one to suicide. When people repeat long-outdated information about how the pre-Vatican II church responded to suicide, it increases the anguish for people who are already in terrible pain.

The “Blue Bloods” episode of Oct. 18 portrayed the possible suicide of an older woman suffering from terminal cancer, whose husband was a good friend of police commissioner Frank Reagan. Some evidence suggested the husband may have killed his wife as an attempted form of “mercy.”

Before the wife’s funeral Mass, Frank asked the husband if he had seen his priest for confession. The husband replied that he had. Frank then told his friend that they would talk after the funeral.

When that conversation took place, Frank said he knew that his friend had taken his wife’s life as an act of mercy. He was sure that his friend would have confessed the killing, and continued that, if the priest believed it was a suicide, he would not have permitted a Catholic burial. The whole plot turned on the idea that a Catholic funeral must be denied to those who die from suicide.

The writers must have thought it was a great twist in a detective story — but it misrepresents the Catholic Church’s compassionate teaching about those who have died from suicide and the families left behind. (It also misrepresents the sacrament of reconciliation because a priest cannot use any knowledge that he gains during a confession to take actions that might betray the seal of the confessional.)

It is true that many years ago the Catholic Church, and other traditions, taught that it was a mortal sin for a person to take his or her own life. However, in the more than 50 years since Vatican II, the church has viewed depression as the cause for suicide. Those who die from suicide are seen as victims of this disease — much like those who die from cancer or heart disease.

A person who completes suicide is not trying to end his or her life — they are trying to end their pain and the dark, endless pit of their depression. By this way of ending their pain, they also end their life. This is never the right thing to do, but it does not place them outside the grace and mercy of Jesus and his church.

Those of us in the ministry of educating the public about suicides do not use the phrase “the person committed suicide.” A person does not “commit” a heart attack. No one commits cancer. We instead say a person “died from suicide” or “a person completed suicide.”

It is also incorrect to say that a person “chose to take their life.” Because of the mental state they are in, they are incapable of making a rational choice.

Suicides are now the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. We all need to work harder to overcome the stigma of depression and mental illness. We also need to show more compassion for those left behind, who carry the pain of the loved one whom they have lost.

For the person who has died from suicide: God may not have “called” them home, but he most certainly has “welcomed” them home. 

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