Hey, Father! Explain the Church’s teaching on suicide

During my 12 years of Catholic education in the 50’s and 60’s, we were taught that those who committed suicide were guilty of the sin of despair and could not have a Catholic funeral Mass or be buried in consecrated ground. At some point, the Church realized that those who died by their own hands were probably mentally ill and not fully responsible for their actions. Are these souls entitled to a Catholic service these many years later if requested by their loved ones?

– Mary A. in Springfield

Thank you for taking the time to write your question, as I am sure that it is something that many people have wondered about, but were not sure how to ask it.

The Church teaches that the act of taking one’s own life is gravely wrong because it violates God’s own love of the individual, just love of self, and the good of others who will suffer because of the act (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2281). However, as you alluded to in your letter, the Church also recognizes that in many, many cases, if not all, one might argue, the person who commits such an act does not do so freely because it goes against the natural inclination of self-preservation.

The Catechism states that “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (CCC 2282). The Church teaches and believes that “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” (CCC 2283). Sadly, many Catholics do not know this aspect of the Church’s teaching. The Church has come a long way in her understanding of suicide; in fact, there are specific prayers in the Order of Christian Funerals for those who die by suicide. Sadly, many among the faithful still do not know that the Church has come to this deeper understanding of the tragedy of when someone takes his or her own life. I am sorry for the pain, suffering, and fear that many have experienced because of this.

Prayers can always be offered for the faithful departed and in various ways. The most efficacious prayer that can be offered for someone who has gone before us in faith is to have a Mass offered for him or her. In cases like you mentioned, a loved one’s grave can always be blessed by a priest or deacon along with other prayers being offered on their behalf that God will grant that person light, joy, and peace forever in heaven with all his Saints.

Father Christopher House, S.T.L., J.C.L. is pastor at Christ the King parish in Springfield and is the Vicar Judicial for the Office for Tribunal Services for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois