Trent Horn outlines the Church’s teachings on suicide and explains why it is no longer seen as possibly scandalous to bury a suicide victim in a Catholic cemetery.
Host: Patrick in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, listening on 1380 AM, Patrick, you are on with Trent Horn, what’s your objection?
Caller: It’s not a personal objection, it was an objection that was brought to me by a colleague at work. She explained that her family left–her grandfather left the Catholic Church and caused his family to leave it too. About 50 years ago, when this gentleman, one of his–his sister who was a mentally ill person who had been treated in an institution for several years, she committed suicide, and when she died the Catholic Church that they all belonged to would not allow this woman to be buried in a Catholic cemetery. And my colleague asked “What is the current rule about that today, and why didn’t the Catholics let my aunt be buried in a Catholic cemetery?” For which I had no answer. Can you help her?
Trent: The current rule today is that there is no impediment to receiving a Catholic funeral or being buried in a Catholic cemetery due to suicide. And that has been removed from Canon Law, it’s not in the Church’s Canon Law today as of the Code of 1983.
In older documents, and this may have been in the previous 1917 Code, I’m not sure, but previously the Code of Canon Law and the Church has always taught that funeral rites and burial cannot be given to people who would cause grave scandal. If the Church were to conduct a funeral for someone that would cause scandal and make people think their behavior was acceptable or there’s nothing wrong with it–in the Canon, now I believe it’s canon 1184, the Church teaches that funeral rites cannot be given to someone who is a notorious apostate or heretic or schismatic, somebody who rebelled, publicly rebelled, against the Church in leaving, or committed another grave sin, or wanted to be buried not in accordance with the Christian faith. You’re not going to have–nobody, you know, you can’t have a priest come over and hold a funeral for your grandmother’s ashes so that you can go and dump them at the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland–which people have done, and the Walt Disney Corporation says “Stop doing that!”
So burial for a scandalous way, or anything that would cause grave scandal to the Church. Now, so there was a time where it was believed, you know, suicide is a mortal sin, and someone who would choose this, to do this, would seem to be unrepentant and could cause scandal and possibly encourage others to believe that suicide is a morally appropriate act. And so the Church feared about causing scandal in holding funeral rites for those who had committed suicide.
However, as psychological sciences have been better able to study the issue, the Church has come to the conclusion that many people, if not the vast majority, who choose suicide do so because they have a mental illness, they’re not necessarily freely choosing this act, they’re under grave emotional stress or some kind of psychological defect that keeps them from thinking properly, and so we wouldn’t say that they’re guilty of grave sin in that regard, and so granting them burial rites and a funeral rite would not be scandalous, because the reason they’ve chosen suicide is not to flout the Church’s authority, it would be because they have some kind of psychological illness.
But what the Church teaches now in the Catechism is that we should not despair for those who committed suicide, we’re to pray for them; and God can even grant them forgiveness, and they may seek repentance through ways we can’t know. I remember watching a documentary once about people who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, and one guy who survived said that the second his feet left the bridge, he immediately regretted what he did. And so we can imagine many other cases where someone who had committed suicide had that same moment of repentance, and we would still pray for their souls for them to be welcomed into Heaven.
So is that a helpful answer for you, Patrick? Would you like clarification on anything?
Caller: No, you’ve knocked it out of the park as usual, I really appreciate it. Thanks very much.