Content Warning: This piece discusses suicide — a sensitive topic that may be traumatic for some people. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please contact The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or message the Crisis Text Line at 741741. If you are grieving the loss of someone who has died by suicide, know that you are not alone and please have hope and trust in God’s mercy. For online support groups, check out: Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide (LOSS) based out of the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
As we continue our examination of pro-life issues during Respect Life Month, we will see how this applies to more than just the Church’s teachings regarding abortion. The Church tells us that, according to natural moral law, a human being has a right to life from conception until natural death. This means that protecting the dignity of the individual, body and soul, is just as important at the end of life as it is in the very beginning.
The Catechism begins its treatment of end-of-life issues with euthanasia, which is the willful termination of a life in order to end suffering due to illness, injury, or other debilitating physical conditions. The Church invokes special compassion for those who suffer greatly in their physical bodies saying, “Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible” (CCC #2276). All throughout the gospels, we see Jesus himself paying very special attention to the sick, blind, deaf, and lame. At the time, it was commonly believed that individuals suffered from these bodily ailments as a result of their sins, or those of their parents. The love and compassion that Jesus offered to those who were otherwise cast aside by society is the example for us to follow. Often, not only are certain ailments a source of great suffering for the individual, but are also a source of suffering for family, friends, and caretakers as they carry the burdens of caring for the sick. However, we are called to embrace that suffering and shoulder the burden, with Jesus’ help, in order to honor the dignity of the human person before us, whatever the condition of the body.
It can be a temptation for some people to want to end their suffering, as well as the suffering of their caretakers and loved ones, by ending their own lives through medical intervention. The Church is clear that purposely ending a life for these reasons is morally unacceptable, as it falls under the grave sin of murder. “Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded” (CCC #2277). While euthanasia is not morally permissible, the Church does offer certain solutions in order to alleviate at least some suffering, if not all. As Catholics, we are not required to undergo extreme or unnecessary medical intervention in order to achieve a disproportionate outcome (CCC #2278). This is a very important moral distinction: killing and allowing a life to naturally end are two very different things. So, we are at liberty to discern medical interventions for ourselves and our loved ones each according to our specific circumstances. The Church even makes allowances for increasing painkillers at the risk of shortening the individual’s life, so long as the intent is to provide relief and not to kill (CCC #2279). If you ever find yourself in a situation where these hard decisions need to be made, the best thing to do is call a good and holy priest to help you navigate the situation so that the dignity of all the souls involved can be preserved as best as possible.
The Catechism goes on to treat the other end-of-life moral issue, which is that of suicide. I understand that this is a very sensitive topic. It seems today, more than ever, suicide rates have increased to the point that it has affected most, if not all of us, either directly or indirectly. Again, we must treat this issue, and those with suicidal ideation with the utmost compassion, as the suffering in these situations is immense.
The Church tells us that we are given the gift of life by our Creator and it is therefore our privilege and responsibility to be good stewards of that life. In other words, our life is not our own to take. (CCC #2280) Not only is our life a gift, but natural law dictates that it is human nature to “preserve and perpetuate” one’s own life (CCC #2281). We see examples all around us as we wear our seatbelts, eat healthy food, and take medicine. Suicide, in its very nature, is contrary to the instinctual will within each of us to live, which is an act of self-love. Similarly, the Church tells us that suicide is also an offense against love of neighbor because of the deep effects it has on loved ones and society as a whole (CCC #2281).
We, as Catholic Christians, know that murder is a grave sin and suicide is the murder of oneself. This leaves many of us in a moral and spiritual conundrum as to how we think and feel about the suicides that have affected us personally, and the souls of those we love whom we have lost to suicide. I hope to alleviate here any worry or distress that some of you may be feeling at this point by being very clear about Church teaching on the gravity of taking one’s own life. In her deep Christ-like compassion, the Church offers us some words of comfort. Factors such as “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture” can diminish the responsibility of the person (CCC #2282). Certainly, the vast majority of suicides can be linked to one or more of these issues and we can take some relief from the fact that, due to an altered mental and emotional state, victims of suicide receive diminished culpability for their actions in the presence of our most loving and merciful Father. For those of us left behind and suffering after a suicide, the Church tells us 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). In other words, God’s ways are a mystery to us, but He does, indeed have them. The Church takes into consideration the possibility that, in the process of dying, a person might regret and repent of his or her action, so we need to trust in God’s mercy and direct our prayers as such. Pray for those souls you know to be troubled, but have not yet acted, but also pray for those who have taken their lives. God is outside of time and your prayers are efficacious.