The Catholic Church has always taught that suicide constitutes a grave injustice towards God, principally because God is the author of life, and all life belongs to Him. And it is also because of this belief that all forms of contraception also constitute a similar injustice to him. Just as we don’t control how life begins, neither do we control when we exit this world. We are not the masters of our own lives, and when rightly viewed, our lives (and everything, really) must be seen as gift. To purposely and willfully terminate our own lives is to falsely think that we have final control and complete dominion over our lives, which is to buy-in to a lie.
I am not a moral theologian by a long shot, and am not pretending to be one in penning my thoughts on this very sensitive and complex issue of suicide and its moral implications. There are, to be sure, many different layers and facets to this issue, where one can talk about positive and direct suicide, positive and indirect suicide, negative and direct suicide and negative and indirect suicide. Each has its nuances and the Church tries its best to logically and rationally present the moral implications of each kind of instance of suicide.
But pastorally, when faced with any event of a suicide death by people under our care, priests in general will face a vacuum of sorts. Suicide is death that is most unlike any other. Of course, each death is very different, and very personal. But suicide, without doubt, intensifies the anxiety. Priests will face the great issue of what best to say, and what can be done to address the deep cavern in the tormented hearts of those whom the victim leaves behind. People are impacted in many ways. To be sure, nothing one can say can assuage the pain of a loved one taken away by deliberate choice. But this is perhaps where what are needed may not be succinct theological answers (though these may very necessary), but rather, a heart that is willing to enter with and into.
Perhaps the only thing that can try to address the hearts that are rent with anger, sorrow, doubt and confusion (a very unsettling combination) is not so much to look at the victim’s heart or head, but at the heart of God instead. After all, after the moment of death, everything really lies at the heart of God.
Yes, suicide is indeed a moral issue at its core. And the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that for a sin to be mortal, three conditions have to be together met. This sin has to be one whose 1) object is a grave matter, which is 2) committed with full knowledge, and 3) with deliberate consent (free will).
And herein lies the crux of what many people have perhaps yet to fully appreciate. The mercy which lies at the heart of our God is so wide and expansive that it really is very difficult to commit a mortal sin in the actual sense of the word. It’s not that this is not possible, but it is very difficult. It is even more difficult to conclusively label a sin as mortal on this side of heaven. What is true is that every sin does separate us from God. The more serious it is, the wider the rift becomes. But perhaps even the suicides that we read about and encounter within our circles of friend and family may not fall into the “mortal sin” category, simply because in many instances, one’s freedom is very often never full.
A person suffering from depression, anxiety, fear (of being hurt by loan sharks, some scandal, habit, physical torture, suffering and pain caused by an illness, etc), and any combination of these, often result in his full freedom being impaired and compromised. When this happens, no one can say for sure that the three conditions are together met. We may have been far too quick as Church in the past to reach a conclusion that the death was a suicide, labeling it as mortal sin and denying a Funeral Mass for the victim. What we have now is much wisdom gained in the areas of psychology and sociology, where we know more about what we don’t know rather than stick with what we think we know. Often, the victim is very much in pain, suffering an illness, than someone who is in despair.
With this in mind, we can enter with a new vision and hope, into that place where closed minds cannot – which is deep in the heart of God. I believe, together with Ronald Rolheiser who writes and reflects very frequently on this important but difficult subject, that when we are helpless, God is not. Someone once asked him if God can unscramble an egg (referring to making right something as messy as perhaps a suicide), and he wisely said that perhaps one needn’t unscramble the egg in the first place. God’s love and God’s mercy reaches the depths that no human can. And it is there that the victim of suicide, together with the family that he or she leaves behind, will find great consolation and hope for redemption.