by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
This summer my family suffered a terrible tragedy. A close relative committed suicide.
The number of suicides and the rate of suicides have increased significantly in the past 25 years. Particularly alarming in recent years has been the number of young people who take their own life.
Preaching the memorial Mass for this relative was a challenging task. As I worked through my own thinking and emotions about this tragic death and attempted to offer support and consolation to members of my own family, it became clear to me that this was a topic I needed to teach about in a future Leaven column.
The unexpected death of a parent, spouse, child, sibling, cousin, or friend is painful and difficult enough in the most benign circumstances, but grief and other emotions are magnified when the loved one has taken his or her own life. Our family was very sad about the despair and pain that motivated the suicide of our relative. Some of us felt guilty, thinking that there was something more we could have done to prevent this tragedy. Others felt anger that our loved one did not permit us the opportunity to provide more help.
In the homily, it was important to offer consolation and hope to family members who were suffering profoundly because of the tragic circumstances of our relative’s death. At the same time, it was essential to communicate the church’s teaching and understanding of the morality of suicide.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in addressing this matter, instructs us that taking one’s own life is a serious evil first and foremost because it is a rejection of God’s sovereignty over life. It denies the truth that we are not the owners of our lives, but rather stewards of the gift of life which has been entrusted to us by God (no. 2280).
At the same time, the catechism points out that suicide is “gravely contrary to the just love of self” and causes an injustice to others because “it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family” (no. 2281). Part of the reason my family felt a mixture of emotions — sadness, frustration, anger, etc. — at the memorial Mass was because a tie had been severed that it appeared impossible to repair.
While making clear why suicide is a grave evil, the catechism also states: “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (no. 2282). Several of these qualifiers for moral culpability certainly applied to the circumstances of my relative.
The catechism also offers these words of encouragement to families, like mine, concerned about the eternal destiny of a loved one: “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” (no. 2283).
The Gospel that I chose for the memorial Mass was a portion of St. Luke’s Passion narrative (Lk 23: 33, 39-43). The episode, unique to Luke’s Gospel, recounts the dialogue with Jesus and the two criminals crucified alongside of him. The one criminal joins the crowd by mocking and reviling Jesus. The other criminal, who is unnamed but in Christian tradition is known as Dismas, rebuked his companion by acknowledging that they had been justly condemned and sentenced. On Calvary, Dismas alone defends the innocence of Jesus by stating: “This man has done nothing criminal.”
Dismas also demonstrated a remarkable faith by humbly requesting of Jesus, who at the moment seemed completely defeated and humiliated: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The reply of Jesus is equally startling as he promises Dismas: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” In all of Scripture, Dismas is the only one who receives such a personal assurance of his salvation.
This passage reveals the remarkable mercy of God. What were the chances of being executed alongside the Savior of the world? Dismas is sometimes given the title “the good thief,” because he was able to “steal” heaven. Dismas is a sign of hope to all of us because he illustrates God’s perseverance and persistence in pursuing us. The Lord never ceases to offer us opportunities of grace right up until the very last moment of our earthly existence.
The church teaches that suicide is always a grave moral evil. It offends God by usurping his authority as the Lord of Life. It can be the ultimate repudiation of faith. It is also gravely evil because of the serious wrong that it perpetrates on others. Suicide can be an attempt to inflict a profound pain, difficult to heal, upon surviving family members.
For some of us there may have been moments when we have contemplated suicide as a benign way to end great suffering. In such circumstances, it is important to remember the clear teaching of the church. Suicide is an affront to God, the giver of life. It does not end pain but creates profound and unjust suffering in many lives.
At the same time, the church teaches us never to despair of the power of God’s mercy for our loved ones. We find cause for hope in the mitigating circumstances for moral culpability that are mentioned in the catechism. Moreover, the reason why Jesus came into the world was to bring mercy, not condemnation. God has a long and well-documented history of rescuing, at the last moment, those who seem to be in an impossible circumstance.
The catechism reminds us to pray for those who have taken their own lives. November is a special time in the church’s liturgical calendar to offer prayers for the dead. Next week, I will share some reflections on our responsibility to offer prayers for the deceased, no matter the circumstances of their death.