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DEAR FATHER | Our compassionate God understands a person’s heart at the time of death

When I was growing up suicide was considered a mortal sin. Is that still the teaching?

Your question is one that comes up frequently, for many people have lost loved ones to suicide. In my experience, suicide is the most painful death for a family to experience, because in addition to the death, they are left with the pain of knowing their loved one was hurting so deeply. If your question stems from personal loss, please be assured of my prayers.

When it comes to the issue of suicide (or any serious sin), it is important to differentiate between a grave act and personal moral culpability. Suicide is considered a grave act, meaning that the act itself is evil. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life…Suicide is contrary to love for the living God” (2281). To be clear, the act of suicide itself is seriously immoral and can never be justified.

That being said, personal moral culpability — meaning the guilt a person bears — is a different matter. An act can be evil but the person who committed it be in so much physical or emotional pain that he or she doesn’t bear serious guilt (meaning not in a state of mortal sin). The Catechism states: “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (2282). It is important to remember this when dealing with the loss of a loved one. God understands better than we do what was in that person’s heart at the moment of death, and He is rich in mercy and compassion.

Tragically, at one time people who died by suicide were presumed to be in a state of sin and therefore were not buried in consecrated ground. With our modern understanding of the human person, the reverse is now true. Suicide is an extreme act and it would be a rare set of circumstances where it was committed in true freedom. The presumption today is that the person was so driven by pain, he or she lacked the ability to make a free choice. To refuse a Christian burial would be an unconscionable violation of charity and would reveal a lack of basic knowledge of Church teaching.

I’d like to close with the prayer from the Catholic Funeral Rite that is used for someone who has died by suicide. It communicates beautifully the compassion of our Lord: “God, lover of souls, you hold dear what you have made and spare all things, for they are yours. Look gently on your servant, and by the blood of the cross forgive his sins and failings. Remember the faith of those who mourn and satisfy their longing for that day when all will be made new again in Christ, our risen Lord. Amen.”

Father Scott Jones is pastor of Sts. Teresa and Bridget Parish in St. Louis.

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