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How Does the Church Respond to Suicide?

funeralThe 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 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 reserves 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).

Originally published at ShaunMcAfee.com.


Shaun McAfee is a veteran of the Air Force and current civilian in the Army Corps of Engineers as a Contract Specialist. He blogs at ShaunMcAfee.com. Currently he is pursuing a Masters in Dogmatic Theology with Holy Apostles College and Seminary where he also serves as the Social Media Director. A convert to Catholicism, he loves learning, explaining, sharing, and defending the faith. He is married and has two boys named Gabriel and Tristan. They live in Omaha, NE.
  • April

    Thank you for getting to the heart of this matter, where truth lies. This is excellent and cuts to the core, broadening our understanding of where culpability may fall, and that only God knows. It is clear we must have and hold onto hope and pray for suicide victims; for otherwise, we play God and judge the situation, which is never ours to judge.

    • Shaun McAfee

      April you’re absolutely right!

  • goral

    “Suicide is a product of such a deep pain and torment that nobody can understand it.”
    I said as much in a previous related article. Nevertheless, some suicides are the result of complete moral emptiness and a total preoccupation with self. As one caller commented on a talk show yesterday – suicide leaves a mile long path of mental anguish and shame for those who are close to the victim. Most relatives carry this torment with them to their grave. This is something that the selfish, self-destroyer doesn’t consider. If only Williams stopped into a church, he passed along the way, his ego could have been checked.

    He was just another Hollywood god who was confronted with the reality of human frailty and had no resources or grace to work through it.

    • DianaG2

      We don’t really know that.

      “The Church prays for those who have taken their own lives.”