How does the Church Respond to Suicide?

The news of Robin Williams’ death is heartbreaking, as is any news of the death of one of our heroes. Just as was the news of mega-church pastor Rick Warren’s son’s suicide.

I can understand Williams and I feel pity and sorrow for those souls. I really can and do. Between the time I was 14-17 I tried on three separate occasions to kill myself. All three times I couldn’t even overdose correctly. That, or my guardian angel was purifying the poison I had consumed inside my body. That was an awful time of my life; I hated who I was, what I was addicted to, and certainly believed I had no reason to live and didn’t want to.

The problem with depression is that some of those who have it don’t know it, ignore it, or play it down. I’ve always been the funny guy.  I’ve always been the “life” of any social situation, but on the inside, for years, I was hurting. To be honest, I can’t give credit to anything other than God for having dragged me out of that burning building I was trapped inside. Nothing can surpass the understanding of the grace of God.

But on the subject of suicide we acknowledge the crime of taking ones own life. It’s the direct rejection of what God has created us for, a violation of the 5th commandment, but is it always a mortal and grave circumstance?

For those who haven’t familiarized themselves with it, the Cure of Ars is the book that contains the incredible works of St. John Vianney. This book played a brilliant part in my own conversion to the Church. You have to know that John had several mystical gifts. You name it, he likely had it. One in particular that stopped me cold in my conversion process was his ability to know details of confessors when hearing confessions. I didn’t believe in confession at the time but there was an amazing story about Vianney I was stupefied by.

In it, there is a woman who told St. John Vianney that she was devastated because her husband had committed suicide. She wanted to approach the great priest but his line often lasted for hours and she could not reach him. She was ready to give up and in a moment of mystical insight that only a great saint can receive, John Vianney exclaimed through the crowd, “He is saved!” The woman was incredulous so the saint repeated, stressing each word, “I tell you he is saved. He is in Purgatory, and you must pray for him. Between the parapet of the bridge and the water he had time to make an act of contrition.”

This story is powerful. First of all, we can never understand and know the hearts and actions of others to the degree that God does. Second, and this is really first, we will never and can never understand the mercy and peace of God.

This all speaks just as well to the need for the confessional in the modern world. Society preaches that we are all fine but we spend millions on self-help books and services. The psychologist’s couch has replaced the confessional bench and curtain, and we wonder why western society is hurting, suicide rates are up, and people feel more judged and jailed than ever. When we do approach God in confession we approach the embassy of God’s Kingdom. There, we are not on earthly soil, but are in a place that God has reserved for us to heal and recover from our pain and suffering. The problem is, we don’t always think we are suffering. We get used to the pain. We need to know and remind ourselves that the door to healing and conversion is always open; the light is always on.

The Catechism says:

2282 – “…Grave 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.”

Suicide is a product of such a deep pain and torment that nobody can understand it. From the Church, you won’t find anything in that teaching about going to hell for the act. How should we respond to suicide then?  With pity, and prayers. So long as we do this, we have hope and give others who are on the same road a hope to talk to someone.

St. Paul was certainly convinced.

“And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.  No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).

 

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the author’s personal blog and is reprinted here with kind permission. 

Shaun McAfee

By

Shaun McAfee was raised Protestant but at 24, he experienced a profound conversion to the Catholic Church with the writings of James Cardinal Gibbons and modern apologists. He is the author of Filling Our Father’s House (Sophia Institute Press) among other books, and holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology. As a profession, Shaun is a veteran and warranted Contracting Officer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and has served in Afghanistan and other overseas locations. He devotes his time to teaching theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, co-owner of En Route Books and Media, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and lives in Omaha, NE.

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  • nancy fecteau

    Excellent article. Thank you. I, too, suffer from severe clinical depression and have received wonderful medical care but it has been my work with my Spiritual Director that has helped me so much.

  • av8trx

    Thanks for a very informative and comforting article. So many of us have known and loved someone who committed suicide (I know three). We must pray for their souls and trust in The Lord’s mercy. God is so good!

  • Seeker of Truth

    This morning I was praying for Robin Williams and wished I could ask someone about how the church views suicide. Now here is my answer. Thank you

  • Monica’s Daughter

    I am deeply saddened by the loss of Robin Williams. He gave many people a great deal of enjoyment through his career. I also know the devastation of a loss such as this in a family and among friends because my own father chose this path to end his pain in 2008. The ongoing pain for those left behind is real and unrelenting. The pain is exacerbated in these cases where the individual is not a Catholic, not even a Christian. How does one achieve Purgatory without the Sacrament of Confession?

    Yes, we can hope and PRAY that all kinds of exceptions were made on the soul’s behalf because of prayers and acts of sacrifice and fasting of people like ourselves, those who are in a state of grace because of the Sacraments …. and especially those in the religious life who give their very lives for people such as this.

    But we must never presume upon God’s mercy and as much as we wish that everyone we love will make it to heaven, we must never stop praying for the souls in Purgatory, and for all those souls in our lives that are currently living. Those family and friends who do not believe in Jesus and do not live Christian lives. We have a great responsibility in this regard.

  • Shaun McAfee

    You are most welcome

  • Shaun McAfee

    God bless you Nancy. Thanks for the good and encouraging words

  • andia

    I would love the author of that book you mentioned.

  • Marty Dancy

    There must be something very wrong in our society that so many people today are taking their own lives. I had a family member take his life at only 20! This happened in 1987! Thank goodness that the church is getting more understanding today about this but people must know where to get help and must not be embarrassed about getting it. This act really devastates a family that is left behind and makes scars that never really heal. Families must watch for signs of depression and not live in denial about this. Help must be sought as soon as possible and counseling must be available to help people through this.

  • Very good article! I know the story he mentions and I love it. In my French translation, it does not say exactly “he had time to make an act of contrition.” it said: “Between the
    parapet of the bridge and the surface of the waters, there is repentance”.
    Which is very similar. I love to repeat this story to believers or non-believers
    alike because everyone gets it, this story offers so much hope, it is
    absolutely top in extending a hand to someone. Plus, this story (of
    salvation via repentance) is totally biblical (think of the Good Thief)
    and has been validated by science. I lived in SF and an average of 50
    people a year used to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge. The City talked about
    building an extra fence along the parapet of the bridge to dissuade them.
    While this was being debated, there was an article about the (very) few who
    survived the jump (it’s all a question of how they hit the waters). And one
    person, who had survived and who was being interviewed in the hospital
    afterwards, was asked when she knew she had made a mistake and
    she answered “as soon as my feet left the bridge…”

  • Rosemary58

    All we know is what we know: that someone took their life, and others do not. We cannot presume to know how God will dispense his mercy. Many people I’ve known have had incredible suffering but they saw God’s mercy working its way through their lives to help them. From what Williams said in interviews, he felt alone. I am so sorry that he did not know God’s grace in this life. Having people around us is not enough; only Christ suffices.

  • Razor Maclennan

    Beautifully done. A timely reminder of the mercy of God.

  • Kiara

    Praise God for that.
    The problem with a lot of people with depression is that it’s not recognized quick enough…and especially for those Catholics who have abandoned the Sacrament of Reconciliation in lieu of “I don’t need to confess to another like myself…I will go directly to God” I hear this so often and it is so sad. Knowing that this person, a sinner like myself, has the power through Jesus Christ to forgive my sins is a force difficult to understand when not practiced.

    “Any to whom you give forgiveness, will be made free from their sins; and any from whom you keep back forgiveness, will still be in their sins” These are not my words. These are Jesus words to the His Apostles in the Gospel of John 20:23.

  • TERRY

    Could he have been in his right mind before doing something like this? I prefer to believe that the answer is no, in which case I hope and pray that he regretted what he had done before it was too late.

    And then have a Mass offered for the repose of his soul. Wherever it goes the Grace from the Mass will help someone.

  • Shaun McAfee

    Love it. I love the detail you bring to the story with your knowledge of the language. Thanks for the comment.

  • Shaun McAfee

    Andia, check out Abbe Trochu, the Cure de Ars.

  • Shaun McAfee

    I’m very happy to read your comment. Thank you so much for your wonderful words.

  • Rosemary58

    it seems that my comment was deleted. Is ther some reason? I did not say anything that was much different from others.

  • El_Tigre_Loco

    There is something that the material world can do:

    http://reportingonsuicide.org/Recommendations2012.pdf

  • Michael J. Lichens

    Your comment is below. Was there another one? Not seeing it deleted.

  • Gigi2010

    I lost my 17 year old son to suicide in 2002. At the time I was a severely lapsed Catholic and was not praying very much. I was teetering on the brink of insanity myself and experiencing excruciating pain from my loss. I was never angry ay God, yet it took me years to come back to the Church. Now I am so terrified about my son reaching heaven (even Purgatory). I was not praying for his soul as I am now. My heart and soul are consumed with guilt that I couldn’t figure out how much he needed my prayers. Is it too late for him? What else can I do? Jesus, please help me help my son!

  • JVG

    Gigi, it is not too late for your son. God does not experience time like we do. Keep praying for your son. You are on the right path. I will pray for the repose of his soul and for God’s consolation for you. God bless you.

  • Mia

    Dear one. God is not confined by time. Surely your prayers of today reach His heart as timely as if they were prayed 14 years ago. I can say that my heart has always been full for those who suffer with great pain, depression, guilt, and despair. I have prayed earnestly for those who take their lives, and have contemplated taking their lives. I make a point to pray for those who I do not know, and ask God for His tender mercy for them. Though I don’ know your son, I’ve prayed for him. Take heart in God’s grace and mercy. Pray it forward ; ) I will continue to pray for your son, and yourself.

  • Melissa Carney

    Gigi2010, I hope you can relax about this because in Mass they pray for those in Purgatory. They always say a prayer for those departed. Being that depression is a mental illness makes your 17 year old son not like an adult that can make the right decision. He was like a child in his mind. He is God’s precious child & is loved by God even more than you love him. Your son is with the Lord. He forgives of of sins that we don’t even know we have committed. If you feel badly about it pray for others that are in purgatory for suicide waiting. Perhaps a mother in your same shoes did for your son. 🙂

  • Gigi2010

    Such inspiring words, – thank you so very much. I will continue to pray for those souls in Purgatory.

  • Gigi2010

    I thank you for your kind advice and compassion. I will definitely Pray it Forward.

  • Gigi2010

    Thank you for your sympathetic encouragement. I greatly appreciate all responses.

  • CGDoc

    Although we all would hope to see Robin performing for us in heaven it really wouldn’t seem that we will be able to obtain tickets for the show under catholic theology. It is considered a mortal sin and it is the one sin that you can’t go to confession for to seek forgiveness.
    Personally, I for one do believe that I will have tickets because we do have a forgiving Savior. He will even forgive church theologians that came up with such a idiotic thing as confessions to a priest.

  • Don in Massachusetts

    Thank You, Shaun, for this timely article about the all-encompassing mercy of God.
    I would like your readers to know that the book you referred to is available from tanbooks.com for $26.95, and well worth the money. I highly recommend it as a spiritual classic on one of our greatest and holiest saints.
    Saint Jean Vianney also stated in his cathecisms that sin is like a grain of sand on the beach, and the mercy of God is all the sands of all the beaches in the world.

  • therese

    The blog post and most of the comments are disheartening. Just as the world has been showing love towards Mr Williams and for others who have had or who have life long severe refractory depression without stigma, there is this post. I am so ashamed to be Catholic for the first time in my whole life. It is as though I am surrounded by saints on earth, and me just a sinner daring to post among you all. Chances are God welcomed Mr. Williams with the words “you have fought the good fight, welcome home, you will be with me in paradise today.” I read a lot of presumptuous comments and sentiment, when the secular press is showing charity. Think about calling Mr Williams a criminal (as in referring to his crime above), when you see someone take a drag on a cigarette, or suffer chest pain and die rather than go to the hospital, or pour alcohol into their mouths when it often causes many cancers and neurologic illness, or decline cervical pap smears and die of cervical cancer (in these cases people respond with empathy and love). Death is our portal to heaven, Christ opened the door and conquered death by death. Denial? everyone uses it, if we did not we could not even get through the day as we would be focused on the reality of impending death. Do people suffering severe, recurrent depression feel as though they do not know it? Of course they know it, they live it. Yes there are some people who suffer an isolated situational depression related to loss, or adolescent developmen, e.g. and may not know much about their situation. This is very different.

    I doubt that there is a single soul who is not a criminal against their body and snuff out life earlier because they choose to eat unhealthy food, eat too much, choose not to exercise, clutter their mind with unhealthy things, and do not pray enough. Now who shall throw the first stone?
    How nice it would be if Catholic Christians were able to follow the love and charity which has occurred in response to Mr Williams illness and death. Instead I see presumption, of Mr Williams and themselves. We are all criminals, at least I am, and to convict someone as a bigger criminal is criminal.

  • Shaun McAfee

    God bless you Leigh

  • Shaun McAfee

    Thank you, Razor.

  • Fig Newton

    I think you do not comprehend Catholicism rightly. Catholicism, through Christ, does not condemn those who suffer from depression, for Depression is as deadly as any cancer or other serious disease. Catholicism offers solace and hope; I fail to understand your attack on the religion I so love. Somewhere you have misunderstood true Catholicism. Clinical depression is a disease, a true and real disease that can end lives. Just remember that God in His mercy understands.

  • Fig Newton

    First of all, God’s time is not our time. Secondly, God’s understanding and great Mercy offers us hope and salvation. Nobody who commits suicide is in a good and healthy state of mind and God knows this. He knows that they are suffering horribly and so these souls are not lost, but we must pray for them and ask God daily to release their souls into Heaven. God is good. God is merciful. I will
    pray for your son. God bless you.

  • Fig Newton

    God’s Grace is abundant.

  • Gigi2010

    Thank you very much for your prayers and encouraging words. I love that you use Akiane’s painting of Jesus, – I find it very comforting. God bless you as well.

  • Cooky642

    Thank you, Shaun, for an excellent article. As one other poster noted, nearly all of us know someone who has “chosen to leave life before the final curtain”. And, as several posters admitted, I also do battle on a regular basis with clinical depression. I think that by seeing it as a battle, a war with the devil, it makes it easier to struggle through and come out the other side. And I am daily thankful that God gives me every scrap of strength to fight through! I pray daily for all those who will meet God today, and invoke His mercy. To those who also fight the battle, hang on! Our Redemption is at hand!

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