Archive for the ‘Roman Catholic Church on suicide’ Category

img_0019-edit-4Set in Ireland in the early twentieth century, Frank O’Connor’s story “An Act of Charity” revolves around the effort to conceal a parish priest’s suicide.

“The worst thing a priest could do was to commit suicide,” O’Connor writes, “since it seemed to deny everything that gave his vocation meaning–Divine Providence and Mercy, forgiveness, Heaven, Hell. That one of God’s anointed could come to such a state of despair was something the Church could not admit. It would give too much scandal. It was simply an unacceptable act.”

Because the “unfortunate occurrence” of a shotgun blast to a priest’s head carried “consequences” affecting the entire parish in this story, the man’s death certificate was falsified, his casket closed, and his body brought at last before the altar of the church–all performed as acts of Christian charity (Collected Stories, New York: Vintage Books, 1982, 638, 639).

What exactly is the state of despair into which the priest was judged to have fallen?

Described in one Catholic encyclopedia as the “deliberate and willful abandonment of hope in God and rejection of trust in his power, mercy, and love,” despair is the “most serious sin against the theological virtue of hope” (Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. Peter M.J. Stravinskas, Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing division, 1991, 301).

In reality, was it the kind of despair that ended the fictional priest’s life? All too often in the Roman Catholic Church up to the late 20th century, death by suicide was wrongly connected with the sinful abandonment of hope in God.

For a while, I also made that erroneous connection after my daughter Mary died by intentional overdose in 1995. Because her father and I were away for a day of prayer on the Sunday of her death, I asked myself repeatedly whether Mary had timed her suicide as a deliberate rejection of her faith and ours.

But that question eventually faded. I finally gained some small understanding of my daughter’s psychological state on the day of her death, and it had nothing to do with willful abandonment of hope. If anything, her hope had been robbed by suicidal depression, “paraylzing all the otherwise vital forces that make us human, leaving instead a bleak, despairing, desperate, and deadened state . . .” (Kay Redfield Jamison, Night Falls Fast:Understanding Suicide, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1999, 104).

I’d like to believe that, written today, an “An Act of Charity” would tell the story of priests reaching out to their suicidally depressed brother, getting him into treatment, and helping to save an entirely savable life.

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img_0082-edit-2“Few things stigmatize someone’s life and meaning as does a death by suicide,” Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI, wrote recently in a column titled “Suicide–Reclaiming the Memory of Our Loved One.” Fr. Rolheiser is a spiritual writer who has produced an annual column for years about suicide because, in his view, someone needs to dispel the “false perceptions” surrounding the church’s understanding of suicide.

With that in mind, Fr. Rolheiser offered this summary not long ago of the main points presented in his annual columns: “In most cases, suicide is a disease; it takes people out of life against their will; it is the emotional equivalent of a stroke, heart attack, or cancer; people who fall victim to this disease, almost invariably, are very sensitive persons who end up  . . . being too bruised to be touched; those of us left behind should not spend a lot of time second-guessing, wondering whether we failed in some way; and, finally, given God’s mercy, the particular anatomy of suicide, and the sensitive souls of those who fall prey to it, we should not be unduly anxious about the eternal salvation of those who fall prey to it.”

This year, Fr. Rolheiser added a new conviction to his repertoire: those bereaved by suicide should work at “redeeming the life and memory” of the person they love who died. They should work not only to overcome the stigma, or social disgrace, that continues to surround suicide but also to restore the honor, memory, and reputation of the person who died (ronrolheiser.com. July 21, 2014).

Every year, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention holds Out of the Darkness Walks in communities across the nation to raise both money and awareness for suicide prevention, to break down stigma, and to honor those who have died. My husband and I participated in the Manassas, Virginia, Out of the Darkness Walk in October, 2013. It felt exactly right to walk as Team Mary in the company of dozens of walkers on other teams, and we plan to do so again on September 28. (Go to afsp.org for Walk information.)

Almost from the day my daughter died by intentional overdose in 1995, it was clear that I would someday work to restore her honor, memory, and reputation. My Daughter, Her Suicide, and God: A Memoir of Hope, to be published in the next few weeks, is that loving labor.


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“He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again.” This statement represents the fifth of twelve articles of Christian faith set forth in the Apostles’ Creed written in the early centuries of the Roman Catholic Church.

“Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, ‘hell’–Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek–because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God,” explains the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned,” it states, “nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him,” adding, “The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment” (New York: Doubleday, 1995, #633-4).

In one of his 1985 columns, Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI, expanded on Christ’s descent into hell by applying it to the tragedy of suicide. “Jesus still descends into hell, entering closed hearts, to breathe peace and love in places where there is huddling in fear and hurt,” he writes. “Most suicide victims are trapped persons, caught up in a private emotional hell which is an illness and not a sin. Their suicide is a desperate attempt to end unendurable pain, much like a man whose clothing has caught fire might throw himself through a window. They are not, on the other side, met by our human judgments, but by a heart, a companion, a love . . .” (“Suicide, Despair, and Compassion,” http://www.ronrolheiser.com May 1, 1985)

Regarding Christ’s descent into hell, the Catechism offers Easter hope by quoting from a document it calls Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday: “Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, [our Lord] has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him–He who is both their God and the son of Eve . . . . ‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son . . . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead'” (Catechism, #635).

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When Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI, wrote a column in 2000 suggesting that most people who die from suicide are not “morally or otherwise responsible” for their deaths, he received a mixed response. While those bereaved by suicide tended to regard his views sympathetically, other people challenged them by quoting the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church which reads in part, “Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life . . . [and is thus] gravely contrary to the just love of self” (New York: Doubleday, 1995, #2281).

In denouncing suicide throughout the centuries, the Roman Catholic Church has also at the same time been emphasizing the inestimable value of life given by God for which we are “stewards, not owners” (#2280). Because human life is God-given and precious to self as well as “family, nation, and human society,” the Church will not, in my view, ever cease to condemn its termination through suicide (#2281).

But there’s more than condemnation in the Church’s teaching about suicide. That “more” is contained in the allowance for mitigating conditions that often surround suicide. In other words, “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish responsibility of the one committing suicide” (#2282). Even more, “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. . . The Church prays for persons who have taken their . . . lives” (# 2283).

Father Rolheiser makes the case that suicide is not usually freely chosen but is, rather, the end result of a disease which the person did not choose. “It’s truer to say that suicide was something they fell victim to than to say that it was something that they inflicted upon themselves.” He adds, “Every victim of suicide that I have known personally has been the antithesis of the egoist, the narcissist, the strong, over-proud person who congenitally refuses to take his or her place in the humble, broken structure of things” (“The Notion of Suicide Revisited,” http://ronrolheiser.com Sept. 24, 2000).

My daughter Mary died by suicide in 1995 not because she was strong and proud but because she felt herself to be weak, insignificant, and forgettable. Suffering from depression, she wasn’t responsible for those feelings or for the suicide which followed from them. It’s likely that your mother, father, brother, sister, daughter, son, or friend is equally guiltless and deserving of compassion.

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There is hope to be found in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church for those who die by suicide and those bereaved by suicide. The Church has denounced suicide in the strongest possible terms since the fourth century; true enough. But in the twentieth century, psychological sensitivity entered into Church teachings on the topic of suicide.

First, a brief look at history. In a fourth-century pagan world enamored of “heroic” self-destruction, St. Augustine condemned suicide, making it clear to early Christians that life in Christ requires virtuous living, not dying at one’s own hand. He held that the killing of oneself is the killing of a human being and is therefore prohibited by the fifth commandment–“Thou shalt not kill.”

Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century offered three reasons why suicide should be prohibited: the responsibility of loving and cherishing oneself, the responsibility toward community of which each person is a part, and the responsibility of recognizing God as giver of life with power over life and death.

The following seven centuries of Church teaching about suicide were characterized by an accent on law and penalty. In the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent maintained, for example, that the law forbids suicide and that no one has such power over his or her life as to end it. Up through the early decades of the twentieth century, in fact, the Church taught that Christians who broke God’s law by choosing self-destruction removed themselves from the spiritual jurisdiction of the Church and were to be considered, lamentably, as lost.

In 1994, though, the Catechism of the Catholic Church revealed a shift in thinking about suicide. While maintaining the traditional regard for the sanctitiy of human life and the human responsibility to “preserve” our lives for God’s honor and our salvation, the Catechism takes account of psychological disturbance, anguish, or grave fear which can diminish responsibility for the person committing suicide.

Moreover, the Catechism urges the faith community to pray for those who have taken their own lives and not to despair: “By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentence.”

The Church’s contemporary teaching about suicide, put forth one year before my daughter’s suicide, continues to be a source of hope.

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