Hey, Father! What does the Church teach about suicide?

Anonymous in the diocese

We know that “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of one committing suicide” (CCC, 2282). This we learn from modern psychology; only rarely does someone commit suicide with the full and deliberate consent of the will. Consequently, we cannot say definitively whether one who commits suicide does so freely and deliberately; without a free and deliberate choice, a sin is not mortal, and a Christian burial may be celebrated for the deceased. 

The greatest prayer of the Church is the Holy Mass in which the sacrificial death of Christ Jesus is re-presented to the Father for the salvation of the world. Through her funeral rites, Mother Church “commends the dead to God’s merciful love and pleads for the forgiveness of their sins” (Order of Christian Funerals, 6). It is fitting, then, that a funeral Mass be offered for those who commit suicide and that Mass intentions be made for the repose of their souls.

As we witness the breakdown in this nation of familial and interpersonal relationships, coupled with a growing disbelief in God and morality, we are witnessing at the same time, an increasing number of people who tragically take their lives by suicide. We are also witnessing an increasing number of people who seek to assist people to commit suicide and seek to justify such an act as something valuable and even necessary. What are we, as people of faith, to make of this? 

We know that suicide is the intentional taking of one’s own life, and as the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear, is a grave sin against the Fifth Commandment: “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13; cf. Deuteronomy 5:17 and Matthew 5:21). In an age in which we continually seek after autonomous independence, we too often forget that “God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning to its end: no one can under any circumstance can claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being,” whether it be another person or oneself (CCC, 2258; cf. Donum vitae, intro. 5). 

We know, of course, that God longs to forgive us of our sins, but He does not force His forgiveness upon us; He honors our freedom and will not force anyone to spend eternity with Him who does not wish to be with Him. At the moment of death, our choice for or against God throughout our life is made and cannot then be undone by us. 

We see, then, that “although we can judge that [the act of suicide] is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons [who commit suicide] to the justice and mercy of God” (CCC, 1861). While we can judge the objective sinfulness of the act, we cannot judge it subjectively; only God can read and judge the soul.

Because of this, the Church teaches 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).

Father Daren J. Zehnle, JCL, KCHS, is pastor at St. Augustine Parish in Ashland and is director of the Office for Divine Worship and the Catechumenate and judge in the diocesan Tribunal.