Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Catholic's Guide to Suicide

Two Suicides

Rick Warren is a famous evangelical pastor who wrote The Purpose Driven Life. On April 5, 2013 his son Matthew killed himself with a handgun his parents knew he had after texting with his mother about suicide. Ten days before, he had attempted suicide by overdosing on pills.

Matthew Warren

Franz Joseph I was the formidable, but tragic Catholic Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During perhaps the most bizarre conclave in history, he was the last to exercise the Catholic Sovereign's right to veto candidates for pope, averting the election of a possible Masonic sex cultist (told you it was bizarre) and opening the way for St. Pope Pius X. His son, the heir apparent, Crown Prince Rudolph, concluded a suicide pact with his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Maria Vetsera, at a hunting lodge outside of Vienna, Mayerling. He shot her first, then, several hours later, himself.

Crown Prince Rudolph and Baroness Maria Vetsera

Emperor Franz Joseph had the lodge razed and built a Carmelite convent, where to this day sisters pray for his son's soul. The altar is on the exact spot occupied by the bed where the doomed couple was found. (Probably not the best choice for more than one reason.) And the Warrens remain confident that their son is in heaven. It's only natural to hope.

The Church's Teaching On Suicide

Although suicide has been traditionally thought to be a guaranteed ticket to Hell (an unforgiven mortal sin), the Catechism of the Catholic Church now takes into account the likely unsound mental state of someone taking their own life. Crown Prince Rudolph was buried in the hallowed Hapsburg crypt on the basis of an official declaration that he was "mentally unbalanced."
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.
Catechism of the Catholic Church 2282-2283.

The Bear will just say this doesn't sound like Plan A, but that is the official Church teaching. The Church has always taught consent of the will is necessary to commit any mortal sin, and that is the hinge upon which this teaching turns. However, this is by no means to presume that every suicide is ipso facto not a mortal sin. In fact, it would seem to be the exception, not the rule. The comforting words are best left for the survivors, not relied upon as a "loophole."

Suicide? There's an App for That

Fame, wealth, a good family, religion, or -- in Matthew Warren's case -- state-of-the-art psychiatric treatment are no guarantees against suicide. (In fact, many antidepressants carry FDA black box warnings that side effects include suicide.) More people die by their own hand than in car accidents now.

There may not really be a suicide app (yet), but there are whole websites devoted to the promise of quick, easy, and painless exits. Designer methods with catchy names like "Death By Hibachi" fill lengthy menus. They are full of chirpy advice. Like: "Modern automobiles have such clean emissions you'll want to find an older car for carbon monoxide poisoning." Or, "Remember, if you use toxic chemicals, be considerate and leave a note alerting responders."

Boomers: Going Out With a Bang

But the typical suicide is no longer the angsty young person. It is the burnt-out middle-aged man, typically in his 50s.

Boomers are increasingly opting to go out with a bang.

Many Boomers find themselves at the end of their rope, struggling to provide material and moral support to both aging parents and boomerang kids. The settled expectations of their parents long ago exploded for Boomers, who see the future as a dim and unwelcoming place financially, emotionally, culturally and spiritually. This may hit Boomers particularly hard since they were the first high-expectations generation. They have seen the future, and it still doesn't work. John Cougar Mellencamp's 1982 song Jack and Diane keeps running through their heads: "life goes on long after the thrill of livin' is gone."

For men, especially, the traditional compensations of old age -- security, status, grandchildren, and the aura of patriarchy -- are just not in the cards anymore. With the Boomer's typically low tolerance for disappointment, and the stigma of suicide being replaced by a respect for "self determination," suicide becomes just another option in a culture where everything's an option. Whether you were born may have been your mother's choice, but at least punching out is yours.

Catholics and Suicide

Catholics do commit suicide at a lower rate than Protestants. We haven't quite bought into the Culture of Death to the same extent as the rest of the culture. A coherent spiritual heritage is still available, although it takes a lot of discernment and some digging. There is the supernatural support of the Sacraments, and the constant availability of sacramentals to ease life's ills. But the Church is not the spiritual fortress of the past for most Boomers.

Catholics should not fool ourselves. As great spiritual doctors like St. Teresa of Avila and St. Bernard of Clairvaux realized, "melancholia" was separate from spiritual maladies, and handled with respect. We call it depression today. Not the ordinary blues that your quadruple-booked GP will write you a prescription for to get you out of his office, but a long-term, crippling disease of the mind for which there is no cure. Catholics can at least understand it as a cross to bear. St. Teresa called it a "mystery."

Catholics are not exempt from mental illness any more than they are from other human afflictions. Indeed, the modern notion that they should be filled with joy always can add nontherapeutic guilt on top of depression. Stand up and greet the person next to you! Our opening hymn is Lord of the Dance!

Mother Teresa, we now know, suffered from spiritual darkness, if not clinical depression, much of her life, but learned to find value in it. After suffering for 11 straight years, she wrote: "I have come to love the darkness. For I believe now that it is a part, a very, very small part of Jesus' darkness and pain on earth."

The Role of Pride

The Bear has a theory that, especially for men, the capital sin of Pride may lie at the root of the suicidal urge. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jeremy Boorda had achieved everything a naval career had to offer. But a controversy over whether he was entitled to wear "V" (for valor) devices on two of the many ribbons on his uniform led him to commit suicide on May 16, 1996 at the age of 56. Not to judge the state of Admiral Boorda's soul, or to discount other factors that may have played a role, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that his wounded pride -- that wound is called shame -- was the reason he committed suicide.

Pride is called a "capital sin" (or "deadly sin") because it leads to other sins. Men have historically committed suicide rather than live with a stain on their honor. The captain goes down with the ship. The Boomer goes down with his downsizing, his failed marriage, and his depleted retirement plan. In both cases, the situation appears irretrievably lost, and death is preferred to living with the consequences of failure, including shame.

None of this is to downplay problems people face. Some have more than others. Some are a result of bad choices in the past, some seem like bad luck. Some are widespread. The economy is bad; worse than most will admit. Sometimes there are no good options that we can see. Let's face it: from a worldly view, the cost-benefit analysis does not always favor living. Even so, that choice is not ours to make, the Church teaches. Whether it is contraception, abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, murder or suicide, the Church's command is unbending: human life belongs to God, and is not ours to take.

The Answer of the Cross: Jesus or Judas

Our God is a tortured man nailed naked to a cross at the end of a metoric rise and fall. History offers no more compelling picture of abject failure. Jesus asked the Father to be spared this, just like we do, and that's fair. But can we imagine Jesus hanging himself in the garden to escape the pain and humiliation, the taunts about his failed grand designs? Of course not! So why would Catholics think to spare themselves the cross? In a way, if you're suffering, you're doing it right, or at least have the opportunity to.

It was Judas who hanged himself. Did he have reason to feel bad about his prospects? He had sold his friend and rabbi for 30 pieces of silver and betrayed him with a kiss. He had watched as soldiers roughly seized Him and dragged Him away to be tortured and killed in a way so shameful polite Romans didn't even speak the indecent word: crucifixion. Judas didn't have a friend in the world, and was so consumed by guilt he hurled the silver back at the feet of the Jews. Judas would seem to have had a good reason to commit suicide if anyone did.

And yet, imagine a different story. Judas, instead of fixating on himself and the cosmic mess he had made of everything, falls to his knees at the foot of the cross and sincerely begs forgiveness. Can you imagine Jesus refusing? Judas' life would have gone on, albeit differently than he had once imagined, and your parish might today be named St. Judas the Penitent.

The subtle but crucial difference is giving into hopelessness versus embracing it to repentance. "For the sorrow that is according to God worketh penance, steadfast unto salvation: but the sorrow of the world worketh death." 2 Cor 7.10.

The Cross As Choice

The point is not that you are not suffering. Of course we suffer, some of us horribly, and not always physically. There's an old saying that the best penances are the ones God sends us. (And sometimes we're someone else's cross to bear, which can be particularly painful.) Suffering is your opportunity to participate in the mystery of the Passion and gain spiritual merits that, according to the Church, God puts to good use in some mysterious way. You must be humble and trusting enough to let God take something as impossible as your life appears to be and reinvent you. This does not necessarily mean making your material or emotional circumstances better. But:
I will lead the blind into the way which they know not: and in the paths which they were ignorant of I will make them walk: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight: these things have I done to them, and have not forsaken them.
Isaiah 42.16. The cure for depression -- if it has one -- is in the wood of the cross. The smoke that drives away the demon of suicide is compounded of the gall of the crucifixion.

You notice I haven't spoken of the resurrection. That is not for now. Frankly, it's crass to tell someone in the black depths of Hell on earth, "Oh, don't worry! Before you know it there will be a glorious resurrection!" Try telling that to the mourning women as they made their sorrowful way to the tomb to anoint their Lord's corpse. There is a time for mourning without hope for a resurrection. Too many well-meaning people fail to respect that. They want to yammer on like Job's friends. No, the answer must be sought in the silent cross and the cross alone.

There is no resurrection without the cross. We know that, but we don't necessarily understand it. But those who do, who bear this truth patiently can be great witnesses in their failure, their futility, their fear and their pain. They are the ones who drink the chalice to the dregs with Christ. Truly they are white martyrs, God's unsung heroes, no matter what their lives look like to anyone else. Angels stand in awe at their secret battles.

As for those who toss the cup aside prematurely, we must not despair of their salvation. But that is the most we can say.

Due to the very positive reception this article has gotten, I added the following "action plan" for those who might wind up here via the search engines. I am firmly convinced that the key to depression and suicide lies in a genuinely Catholic appreciation of the spiritual dimension of suffering. This is respectful of the warrior -- that is the only word for those who never rest from this struggle -- and the very real enemies he (or she) faces. There are no easy answers and certainly no easy victories.

For Anyone Fighting a Hard Fight Right Now

Thinking about punching out? It probably makes sense at the moment. But that doesn't decide the question. Please consider the following
  • Wait three days -- what difference will it make?
  • Go to confession (!) And tell your priest.
  • Go to the National Suicide Prevention website or call.
  • There's a special site for Veterans. 1-800-273-8255.
  • Give the spiritual dimension of your suffering real consideration.
  • Be safe for now. Give your guns, razor blades, wood chippers  etc. to a trusted friend. Don't allow yourself to be victimized by a sudden impulse, whatever that takes. If you do take your own life, make it your choice, not a sudden loss of nerve coupled with an easy means of carrying it out.
One of many immediate
resources for the discouraged.

Recover your Catholic heritage and claim the heroism of suffering. Don't look at your situation with a worldly eye. For Catholics, success is failure, and failure is success; the high are brought low and the low are raised; the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Humility is a hard lesson, and contrary to everything men are taught. "Honor suicides" are NOT part of Catholic culture! Put pride aside. (Maybe that's what God is teaching you.) Pour out your heart to God. Talk to Him frankly about your fears, your failures, your poor prospects, your misery. But also use familiar prayers, like the Rosary. Understand that you have powerful spiritual enemies, and that many of your inner experiences may not even originate with you. Don't go down without a good fight against the Devil. Don't risk Hell. Maybe it is time for the "old you" to die, and that's what you're feeling. But that doesn't mean physically. Don't devastate those who care about you. Finally, give God a chance, even if He is the God of silence and darkness -- for now.


  1. Like most of your pieces, this is a scholarly work that causes reflection. I greatly appreciate your efforts that aid my spiritual journey, particularly at this time of year.

  2. Remember, my fellow Catholics: Our lives have value.

    ...Ten percent of our income, to be precise.


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