Is suicide a grave sin?

The issue of suicide in relation to Christian thought has appeared on my interweb radar a few times recently.

Michael Patton recently blogged on this subject in response to an email question he received in relation to suicide. Now, Michael is an Protestant Evangelical thinker, and interestingly, he raises the issue of confession of sin in regard to the Catholic Church:

Some may say that all sins have to be confessed before death. Roman Catholics, in fact, distinguish between mortal and venial sins. Mortal sins are those that you cannot have on your soul at death. They are the really bad ones like murder, pride, adultery, using birth control, or missing mass without a valid excuse. Also among these has traditionally been suicide since suicide is murder for which it is impossible to confess.

Michael goes on to refute this ‘Catholic’ stance; however, I think this is a gross oversimplification of the Catholic position.

Put simply, the Catholic Church does indeed view suicide as a grave sin as evidenced by Catechisms 2280 – 2282:

2280 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.

2281 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. 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.

2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.

However, the Catholic Church also acknowledges diminishment of responsibility:

Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

Note the mention of “Grave psychological disturbances”.

This issue of ‘grave psychological disturbances’, or put another way, mental illness, is also raised on a website detailing the Orthodox position:

The reason why the Orthodox Church normally condemns suicide is that this person has willingly chosen to destroy the gift of life that God has given him or her. It is ultimately a defiant and final act of separating oneself from God, a final assault again faith, hope and love.

In the case of the mentally ill who commit suicide, however, the circumstances (medication, etc) may indicate that they are not willfully choosing to deny God’s gift.

The crux of the issue surrounding suicide from both a Catholic and Orthodox position appears to be one of volition.

It’s interesting to note in this regard that back in 2009 the then Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster, Rt Rev Bernard Longley, had this to say:

“Suicide is a grave sin, but an individual must be mentally healthy to be fully aware that what they are doing is a sin.

When a person commits suicide, they are generally so clouded by confusion and despair as to be no longer in full control of their mental faculties.

God does not condemn anyone not fully aware of what they are doing – His mercy is without end.”

Rightly said. And it’s in relation to the issue of volition, that assisted suicide will never be accepted from an orthodox Christian perspective.

Returning to Michael’s post on suicide, he raises the issue of premeditation and mentions the harrowing case of his own sister’s premeditated suicide.

I’m not entirely convinced that premeditation is in itself automatically suggestive of volition.

I knew a dear brother in the Lord called Justin (36 yrs old) who suffered from Schizophrenia and hung himself towards the end of 2008. As far as I can deduce, he carried this act out with efficient and methodical aforethought.

Justin was without doubt a most tormented soul and I couldn’t shake the feeling that he did not murder himself, but was internally tormented and tortured without mercy, to the point, whereby he executed his plan in the grip of madness without volition.

Now at the time, I had a ‘black and white’ understanding of suicide. I simply believed that those who took their own lives, in effect, committed murder on themselves, consequently, this didn’t bode well for them in the eternal stakes.

No exceptions.

Of course, like so many things we unquestioningly believe, when forced to evaluate them in the light of real-life, personal events, they can be harder to define in terms of black and white.

And it’s because of experiences like this one, that so shook me to the foundations of my belief structure, that I was relieved to discover the Catholic Church.

Without realising, I held to a thoroughly deterministic, black and white, unsympathetic, almost brutal ‘theology’. And yet, I believed that the Catholic Church was under the grip of this type of theology, whilst in reality, when I would have consigned all suicides to hell, the Catholic Church has this to say:

2283 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.

Amen to that!

The Catholic Church gives hope; where I would not have.

Thank God for the Catholic Church.

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2 Responses to “Is suicide a grave sin?”

  1. Peter Kirk Says:

    Well, one thing is certain: suicide is the only sin which takes one straight to the grave!

    suicide is murder for which it is impossible to confess.

    Even this isn’t true in Patton’s article. Many deaths, by suicide as by other means, are far from instantaneous. They can take anything from minutes to, in extreme cases, years. A dying person very likely has some time to repent, between themselves and God and in some cases even formally before a priest. A truly repentant suicide would of course call for medical help if possible, but that may well be too late.

  2. Goy Says:

    “If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal.”

    Suicide as example – the movement from the individual to the pact, from the pact to the community then through society culminating in the suicide of a nation of people – the gravity of genocide.

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