Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Patheos community here.
In 1915, my great grand-aunt Emma Annie Rabig died at the age of 24. I have a copy of her death certificate. Next to “Cause of death” is written “Body viewed.” Nothing more.
Annie killed herself by hanging at her parents’ home in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Her brother, my great grandfather, was a cop in Elizabeth, and my mother sees his hand in the cryptic note.
Had the coroner written “suicide,” she could not have had a church funeral and burial. Her damnation would have been assumed. Her brother would have asked for that detail to be left off the official paperwork, and it was rarely spoken of again.
“We were just mean,” my mother noted sadly when we found the certificate. She meant the Church.
Ropes dangle from too many branches of my family tree. That’s just the way it is for some families. Suicide, depression, alcoholism, mental illness: sometimes they’re just in the blood.
Annie may have been pregnant and unmarried at the time of her suicide. At least that’s how family lore tells it. It’s said by way of explanation, as so many suicides and breakdowns are explained away: his son died, his wife left him, he was a drunk, she was pregnant and unmarried.
The reasons are notable because, shameful as some of them are, they were still considered better than mental illness.
In the wake of Robin Williams’ death, much ink, literal and virtual, has been spilled on the root, causes, and theological meaning of suicide. If suicide was a disease it would be an epidemic. One person commits suicide every 40 seconds. Of the 1.5 million violent deaths every year, 800,000 are suicide, more than from war and natural disaster combined. It is not something we can ignore as Christians.
Robin Williams was an Episcopalian and thus at least a nominal, if not practicing, Christian. Christian theology is very clear: suicide is self-murder, and thus it is always a grave and mortal sin.
However, as we have come to have a more refined understanding of mental illness, our theology has adopted a more nuanced approach. The culpability of the sinner may be minimized by other factors. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that
Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. 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.
In Evangelium Vitae, St. John Paul II writes:
Even though a certain psychological, cultural and social conditioning may induce a person to carry out an action which so radically contradicts the innate inclination to life, thus lessening or removing subjective responsibility, suicide, when viewed objectively, is a gravely immoral act. In fact, it involves the rejection of love of self and the renunciation of the obligation of justice and charity towards one’s neighbour, towards the communities to which one belongs, and towards society as a whole.
We do not own our lives, which are given to us by God. It is not a gift we simply accept and use as we choose. We are, as the Catechism observes, merely “stewards” of this life entrusted to us. Our purpose is to return that life to God at a time and in a manner of His choosing, unmarked by sin. Thus, suicide and euthanasia can never be permitted.
Act 5 of Hamlet offers an example of how the Church viewed suicide for centuries. It is the funeral of Ophelia, who in her madness has drowned herself. Laertes demands the full rites be said, but the priest has already given as much as he is willing to give:
We should profane the service of the dead
To sing a requiem and such rest to her
As to peace-parted souls.
There’s no denying the force of the priest’s arguments. If the final action of someone’s life is a mortal sin, how can that person achieve salvation? The chance for repentance would seem to be gone.
For an act to be a mortal sin, it needs to be gravely immoral (such as murder), it must be committed with a fully informed intellect that understands the sinful nature of the act, and it must be an action of the individual’s free will. Illness and circumstance can compromise those second two elements. In such a compromised state, the functioning of the will and intellect may be so damaged that the individual is no longer fully responsible. This is what the Church means by factors that lesson or remove “subjective responsibility.”
It is in this light that the Church now views suicide, and allows funeral masses and burial. It’s a subtle shift in focus from justice to mercy, and thus allows the possibility of hope for the families of suicides. Perhaps purgatory provides an opportunity for those who, compromised by circumstance or illness, commit a mortal sin as a final act. All things are possible with God.
As the trend towards devaluing human life and the human person increases, suicide and euthanasia risk being treated as just another life choice. When consent is the sole criterion for judging the goodness of an act, objective morality becomes impossible. The Dutch are already experimenting with physician-assisted suicide for the mentally ill: yet another milestone in conditioning us to view see suicide as a viable personal decision.
This how the culture of death grows, and the Church stands firmly against it.
The Church can never “evolve” from understanding suicide as a sin, nor should it. Modern society views guilt, social stigma, and fear of damnation as primitive and destructive forces. In fact, they exert a powerful counter-pressure that pushes back against the individual’s natural inclination to sin, and thus provide a social and religious support for those tending towards an objectively evil act such as self-murder.
This is the fine line the Church must walk between affirming the wrongness of an act and leaving open the possibility of salvation. Here at the close of a summer in which suicide entered the public dialog in a forceful and unprecedented way, our ability to balance the evil of suicide against the hope in God’s mercy contributes to that dialog.
Like Ophelia, Robin Williams’ final act was wrong, but God’s mercy is boundless, and ours should be as well. Let us continue to pray for all those trapped in darkness and despair, that they may find their way to the Light.