Sadly, it’s a difficult situation many families face daily. The news of a loved one’s death is always heartbreaking and leaves those behind with substantial grief. The pain can be multiplied when the death comes because of suicide. Suicide leaves an even greater hole in the hearts of loved ones because it is compounded by questions left unanswered. However, is suicide a mortal sin? Has the Catholic Church changed its teaching on suicide?
The evolution of understanding suicide has caused the Church to reexamine the consequences once faces at the other end of the decision. The teaching of the severity of suicide has not changed. However, considerations have been taken into account by the Church regarding if one is capable of making a rational decision at the time of the suicide. That teaching has not always been present within the Church.
Catholics who grew up being taught the faith by the Baltimore Catechism were not only taught that suicide was a mortal sin, but it would prevent the individual who committed suicide from having a Catholic burial or being buried in a Catholic cemetery. Many Catholic families have not only suffered from the pain of losing one to suicide, but also from the additional heartbreak of that individual being denied a funeral rite by the Church and burial within a Catholic cemetery where, in many cases, the family members of the individual were buried.
The Baltimore Catechism states, “persons who willfully and knowingly commit such an act die in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of Christian burial.” This definition does not apply the principles of what must be present for a sin to be considered mortal. A sin is mortal when it is committed in full knowledge of the severity and gravity of the action as well as with full consent of the action by the individual. The teaching of the Church has evolved due to the increased knowledge and research conducted regarding mental health’s connection to suicides.
The Church has struggled, since an increased understanding of the correlation between suicide and mental illness, to maintain a delicate balance of teaching. It has attempted to reach a balance between teaching the severity of suicide while acknowledging there are circumstances which may not make it a mortal sin. In 1983 the Church removed suicide from the list of mortal sins due to trying to strike this balance.
The Catechism affirms that suicide is contrary to love of God and love of self. “Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God” (CCC 2281)
Suicide also removes the recognition that we are not the owners or creators of our life. Our life is not owned by us. It is a gift from God that we must preserve and protect. “Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of” (CCC 2280).
The Church has not changed the teaching of the severity of sin, however, it has recognized that suicide may not always be a mortal sin and, therefore, a loved one must not despair of one’s soul who has done such an act. The Church urges us to pray for that individual’s soul and not automatically assume they are in hell because of that action. Suicide only becomes a mortal sin when the individual who commits the act does so “willfully and knowingly”.
The Church teaches there are considerations for reasons behind suicide which could diminish the responsibility of the individual and the consequences to that person’s soul. Circumstances such as a grave psychological disorder, anguish, grave fear of hardship or suffering, or torture, can all play a factor in determining the state of one’s soul following suicide.
The Catholic Church no longer automatically denies an individual a funeral rite or Catholic burial because of suicide. It does, however, require a study of the circumstances surrounding the suicide to determine if the decision was done with full consent and full understanding of the gravity of the act. Canon Law 1184 only mentions three circumstances which would deny an individual a Catholic burial and Catholic funeral. Those circumstances are 1) a notorious apostate, a heretic, or schismatic 2) those who request cremation for motives contrary to the Christian faith 3) Manifest sinners to whom a Church funeral cannot be granted without causing public scandal to the faithful.
Upon Pope John Paul II’s approval of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992, recognition of the circumstances surrounding a suicide were recognized for the first time. It should come as a comfort to many families who have loved ones struggling with mental illness or who have chosen suicide that only God can determine one’s mental state at the time of the act and, thus, provides for grace and mercy for many.