News reports of the deaths of fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who committed suicide within three days of each other this month, have inspired fresh internet conversations about the impact of suicide on families, communities, and the culture. In such conversations, we must be careful. For a lot of people, including some of my own friends and family members, suicide isn’t an abstract cultural phenomenon but a soul-shredding calamity they’ve experienced firsthand.
Nonetheless, the conversations are necessary. For Catholics, one reason is that misconceptions abound over what suicide is and what the Church teaches about it. Empathy for victims and their families, and concern for those who struggle with clinical depression and suicidal ideation, can lead to well-intentioned misinformation being disseminated through heart-rending memes and personal testimonies. Although we shouldn’t discount the importance of personal experience, it needs to be accompanied by a solid understanding of the moral issues involved.
From the Church’s perspective, those issues involve a balance between recognizing, on the one hand, the gravity of suicide and the free moral agency of those who commit it and, on the other hand, the possibility of diminished culpability and, of course, the final mercy of God.
Suicide is the act of self-murder. It’s as simple and as difficult as that. This fact corrects one of the comforting myths that circulate in cyberspace whenever there are high-profile suicides: that we mustn’t say people “commit” suicide but that they “die by suicide”—as if suicide were a physiological disease to which the human body succumbs. But suicide is an act. It doesn’t happen to a person; it’s something a person chooses to do to himself.
Perhaps one reason for that euphemism is that we tend to assume that suicide is always the result of clinical depression, which is indeed a physiological illness. We then conclude that suicide is something the person is never responsible for, any more than he would be responsible if he had died of cancer. But there are many reasons why people commit this act, and some of those reasons have little or nothing to do with mental illness.
Some commit suicide to avoid human justice—the legal or moral consequences of their actions. Others do it to escape pain or further a personal agenda (a woman named Brittany Maynard did both when she pressed for the legalization of physician-assisted suicide before killing herself). And many of those who were suffering severe spiritual despair nonetheless were able to choose, with an unimpaired will, to commit self-murder. (Judas Iscariot might be one example.)
This recognition of free human will in performing moral acts has led many Catholics and non-Catholics to assume that the Church teaches that committing suicide automatically condemns a person to hell. After all, didn’t the Church forbid Christian funerals and burial in consecrated ground to those who were determined to have committed this act?
Yes, for many centuries the Church taught that those who took their own lives could not be given a Christian funeral or buried in consecrated ground. Nonetheless, in so doing the Church wasn’t passing judgment on the salvation of the individual soul; rather, the deprivation of Christian funeral rites was a pastoral discipline intended to teach Catholics the gravity of suicide. Although the Church no longer requires that Christian funeral rites be denied to people who commit suicide, the Church does still recognize the objective gravity of the act:
Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self (CCC 2281).
The Catechism goes on to remind us that suicide is not merely contrary to love of self, which is the way we’re used to thinking about it. It is also a social sin because it is contrary to what we owe others, including God:
It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God (CCC 2281).
As it does for all grave acts, the Church also teaches that both full knowledge and deliberate consent must be present for the grave act of suicide to become a mortal sin:
Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice (CCC 1859).
When a person commits suicide as a result of psychological impairment, such as that caused by clinical depression, the Church recognizes that he may not have been fully capable of the knowledge and consent necessary to commit mortal sin:
Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide (CCC 2282).
Far from condemning souls to hell for suicide, then, the Church teaches that salvation is possible for those who commit this act and cautions survivors against despair for their deceased loved ones:
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. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives (CCC 2283).
In most cases, of course, whether someone committed suicide under circumstances that involved impairment of the will or that allowed for repentance prior to death is beyond our ability to know. Ultimately, we can only entrust those who have chosen this act to the mercy of God and pray for the repose of their souls. St. Paul assures us that our hope for those we love is not misplaced:
Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or [the] sword [separate us from Christ’s love]? . . . I am sure that neither death, nor life . . . nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:35–39).
If you’re experiencing thoughts of suicide, please seek immediate help from a physician or mental health professional. In the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For more information, visit the NSPL web site (www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org).