Catholic Churchís Teaching on Suicide and Helpful Resources



Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2282: ÖGrave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

2283: 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.


A Motherís Prayer of Anguish

"May the God of all consolation and compassion,
     have mercy on my son [N.];
Mary, Mother of Sorrows, who knows a motherís anguish,
     into your arms I place my son [N.],
Please hold him close and comfort him.
This I pray, Amen."

~ Fr. Brian Cavanaugh, TOR, November 9, 2013



Catholic Churchís Teaching on Suicide
by William J. Byron, S.J., CATHOLIC DIGEST

What is the Catholic Churchís teaching on suicide? Do people who take their own lives go to hell? My son committed suicide. In the note he left, he said he was going to hell for this, but didnít know what else to do. He made many mistakes, and I made lots of mistakes raising him. Iím truly sorry.
- D.B., Minnesota

Answer: No one can appreciate the unimaginable pain that is the ultimate explanation for such a tragic action. No one, therefore, can judge a person whose choice we cannot fathom, whose life we can remember, but cannot restore, and whose pain we cannot understand. This is how the Church tends to look upon suicide today.

The Church teaches that suicide is wrong; it is contrary to the Fifth Commandment. It is an action that runs counter to the proper love of self, as well as love for God, the giver of life. We are stewards of our lives, not owners. The person who takes his or her own life also wrongs others Ė those who remain experience loss, bewilderment, and grief. You wonít find anything in that teaching about going to hell.

Pity, not condemnation, is the response of the Church. Prayers are offered for the deceased. Mass is celebrated. Burial with dignity, in consecrated ground, is provided for one who dies this way. Not that long ago, Christian burial was denied to those who took their own lives. There may have been another denial at work in those days, too Ė denial of our inability to understand the pain. We assumed that those who chose to take their own lives were acting freely and under no psychological distress or illness. Or worse, there may have been a denial of responsibility to try to understand the pain. As your son said in the note he left behind, he just didnít know what else to do.

So for those of us who remain, the Church encourages paying attention to the pain that produced the action. Then, look forward, not back, to pain within ourselves and pain in others, especially when we see no signs and hear no calls for help.

Why do we avoid speaking to one another about inner pain? Why are we not more sensitive to the pain in othersí hearts, or able to read the pain in othersí eyes? Why do we spend millions for "pain relief " over the counter or by prescription, but not spend the time it takes to encourage those who may be hurting to open up? This kind of thinking is all now part of the Churchís pastoral response to the tragedy of suicide.

It seems to me that there has to be some mysterious insulation enveloping those who commit suicide. Tragically, their minds cannot be read by those around them, nor can they reach out and ask for help. Again, the unimaginable pain.

The Church teaches through liturgy, and the liturgy on occasions like these stresses divine mercy. Take a look at Psalm 103, and recall the dimensions of Godís mercy Ė as far as the east is from the west, as high as the skies are above the earth.

The Church still teaches that there is a hell, but leaves it to God to decide who should go there. And divine decisions, in this regard, are filtered through divine mercy. Tragedy at the end of this life is no sure sign of an eternal tragedy in the next.


What Is the Churchís Stance on Suicide?
by Father John Dietzen, CATHOLIC COURIER, October 3, 2013

Q. Would you explain the Catholic Churchís position on suicide? My wonderful wife took her own life 15 years ago, and every day I think about her salvation. She was a good wife and mother while she lived. Our pastor assured us that our Lord would bring her home. Still, my children and especially I myself feel responsible that we did not do enough to prevent this tragedy. (Illinois)

A. Iím sure you know and have probably been told often that the reaction of you and your children is not uncommon. When struck by a catastrophe like your wifeís death, which we cannot make sense of no matter how hard we try, we feel we must have done, or not done, something within our power to prevent what happened. To attempt to explain such actions this way, however, is futile and unhelpful.

I believe it would be personally useful to understand the Catholic Churchís approach to suicide, and I hope you take consolation in what your priest said. He reflects the same theology as the Catechism of the Catholic Church when it says we each have responsibility for our own lives, but we should not despair of those who take their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God has ways of providing for them, and the church always holds them, as it does all the deceased, in its prayers (No. 2283).

Much Catholic understanding of these situations is reflected in the churchís funeral policies. Canon law lists among those who might be deprived of Catholic rites "manifest sinners who cannot be granted ecclesiastical funeral rites without public scandal of the faithful" (Canon 1184).

Are people who commit suicide really "open sinners" whose Christian burial would give scandal?

Today bishops and other pastors generally believe just the opposite. The scandal would be, rather, if Christian burial is refused. They, as all the rest of us, are painfully aware of our limitations in knowing what really happened spiritually to the one who died, not to speak of the particular care we need to exercise toward the loved ones left behind.

Taking oneís own life is a serious matter. But how much was the individual capable of genuine reflection on what he or she was doing? How much true consent of the will was there? Clearly, we cannot know.

I have had the sad experience of dealing with suicide many times in my 55 years as a priest. Circumstances surrounding these deaths gave strong hints to everyone who knew them that the deceased were hampered mentally or emotionally, often to a severe degree, at the time of death.

Sometimes those hints are apparent, with erratic behavior pointing to some crippling psychological dysfunction. Sometimes they are less obvious, and the self-destruction contradicts every experience with that person. To all appearances, something inside just snapped, and weíll never know what that might have been.

In other words, the church makes no judgment about the individualís relationship with God. We simply place all our trust in Godís mercy and love for the one who has died and for those terribly hurt by the death.

So the encouragement your priest gave you was based on solid Catholic belief about God and what we understand today about such suicides as your good wifeís. You have every reason to hope, even be certain, that she is in our Lordís loving presence and care.


What Does the Church Teach about Suicide?

Clinically, suicide involves major mental illness, said Father James Livingston, a chaplain at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, adding that 70 percent of those who attempt or commit suicide suffer from depression. Oftentimes, they feel hopeless and helpless, and die emotionally before they die physically, he said.

Suicide victims lack the resiliency skills to overcome their problems, Father Livingston said. They donít have full freedom in their lives when stress is factored in Ė their emotions take away their sense of freedom.

The Church takes into account the state of mind of those involved in suicide. "Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide." (CCC2282)

Rather than deliberately intending to end their lives, some may attempt suicide or engage in parasuicidal behaviors such as cutting, to get help, Father Livingston said.

Because we donít know a suicide victimís thoughts, we canít speculate on the state of their soul after death, he said. "The interesting question for us as Catholics is, where does the soul go? We donít know."

Unlike in the past, the current tendency is to err on the side of mercy, Father Livingston said. The Catechism offers hope:

"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." (CCC2283)


Talking about Suicide:

Fr. Mike Schmitz explains why hope is the best remedy for suicidal thoughts. If you know someone struggling with such thoughts, donít hesitate to reach out to them with reasons to have hope. If someone you know or love has committed suicide, pray for them and donít lose hope for their soul. If you struggle with suicidal thoughts, donít be ashamed to seek help.


Funeral Masses for a Suicide

ROME, 15 NOV. 2005 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: What is the current stand of the Church regarding the possibility of funeral Masses "in corpore presente" of persons who are said to have committed suicide? Is it true that there already are mitigating circumstances, like the possibility of irrationality at the moment of taking oneís life (even if there was no note), whereby it would be possible to suppose that the person was not in his right mind, and that therefore it is licit to let the funeral entourage to enter a church and a funeral Mass be said? Ė E.C.M., Manila, Philippines

A: In earlier times a person who committed suicide would often be denied funeral rites and even burial in a Church cemetery. However, some consideration has always been taken into account of the personís mental state at the time.

In one famous case, when Rudolph, the heir to the throne of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, committed suicide in 1889, the medical bulletin declared evidence of "mental aberrations" so that Pope Leo XIII would grant a religious funeral and burial in the imperial crypt. Other similar concessions were probably quietly made in less sonorous cases.

Canon law no longer specifically mentions suicide as an impediment to funeral rites or religious sepulture.

Canon 1184 mentions only three cases: a notorious apostate, heretic or schismatic; those who requested cremation for motives contrary to the Christian faith; and manifest sinners to whom a Church funeral cannot be granted without causing public scandal to the faithful. These restrictions apply only if there has been no sign of repentance before death.

The local bishop weighs any doubtful cases and in practice a prudent priest should always consult with the bishop before denying a funeral Mass.

A particular case of suicide might enter into the third case Ė that of a manifest and unrepentant sinner Ė especially if the suicide follows another grave crime such as murder.

In most cases, however, the progress made in the study of the underlying causes of self-destruction shows that the vast majority are consequences of an accumulation of psychological factors that impede making a free and deliberative act of the will.

Thus the general tendency is to see this extreme gesture as almost always resulting from the effects of an imbalanced mental state and, as a consequence, it is no longer forbidden to hold a funeral rite for a person who has committed this gesture although each case must still be studied on its merits.

Finally, it makes little difference, from the viewpoint of liturgical law, whether the body is present or not. If someone is denied a Church funeral, this applies to all public ceremonies although it does not impede the celebration of private Masses for the soul of the deceased.

The same principle applies to funeral Masses of those whose body is unavailable for burial due to loss or destruction. Certainly the rites are different when the body is present or absent, but the Churchís public intercession for the deceased is equally manifest in both cases.


Other Helpful Resources:

"Losing a Child to Suicide: Trusting in Godís Mercy" by Gladys Sweeney, Ph.D.

"Every parent who has lost a child is free to make the choice to trust in Godís merciful love and to allow his grace to heal their deep wound. May each have the faith to trust in his love!"

Secretariat of Pro-life Activities Ė Copyright © 2010, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1046

Writings on Suicide: Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, OMI, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.

Suicide: Finding Hope: The journey after suicide often feels lonely and confusing. We are lost in our swirling emotions as we sort through why someone we cared about ended his or her life. Suicide: Finding Hope is here to help you navigate this journey.

How to Deal With the Suicide of a Loved One
: Your spouse, child, parent, friend, or another person close to you has recently committed suicide. What can you do to make yourself get through each day? It will still be hard, but there are some things you can do to help yourself, in the short run and the long term. 

in memory of
Michael Patrick Cavanaugh
November 6, 2013

Rest in Peace, Mike