Photo: Felix Carroll
When One Takes One's Own Life
Viewing Suicide Through the Lens of Divine Mercy
By Fr. Walter Dziordz, MIC
It seems to me that over the centuries, Catholics have struggled to truly understand the act of suicide. It is just too painful, leaving us with such a strong emotional reaction, that it is almost as if we want to understand it only from a logical perspective. In this way, perhaps, we try to shield ourselves from the pain that we feel, especially as the pain is mixed up with so much confusion, too. There are just so many questions that we end up with, and so many of them that remain unanswered, that we reach an intellectual impasse.
That reminds me of the old story of the three blind men who were asked to describe an elephant. One felt the leg and said that the elephant was like a pillar. One felt the body and stated that an elephant was like a wall. The last person felt the trunk and stated that an elephant was like a snake. Each person gets an impression of only a part of the picture, and describes it by means of the only intellectual categories available to them. In this way, blinded by our painful feeling, our intellect offers us a tiny sense of the whole concept of the suicidal act, so limited that the resulting understanding ends up inadequate and, thus, unsatisfying.
Suicide must really be viewed by means of the Spirit, but now I am getting ahead of myself. Let's begin by looking at, admittedly, a "Cliff's Notes" version of the Roman Catholic Church's intellectual understanding of the act of suicide.
When I was a child, learning the Roman Catholic religion with the Baltimore Catechism just as the Second Vatican Council was taking place, a person who committed suicide was not permitted to be buried in consecrated ground. The general sense when I was young was that a person who took his or her own life made a decision that only God could make — i.e., the time of our death. Only God can give life and take life. No human ought to be so presumptuous, for, in so doing, we become like Adam, who thought he could be another god, as opposed to Christ, who did the Will of His Father, completely.
In addition, the person giving in to the decision to commit suicide was judged to be someone who, instead of surrendering to God — Who is Hope Incarnate — gave in to despair. We are reminded that Judas committed suicide, having had abandoned any hope of mercy, as opposed to Peter, who, having had denied Christ, wept bitterly and expressed his need for mercy, in the end receiving it. For these reasons alone, we can see how it was deemed logical to refuse a family's desire that their family member who committed suicide be buried in consecrated ground.
How have we, as a Church, changed and what are we seeing that caused this change?
We did not change in our teachings. We changed in seeing better. Now, we take other elemental understandings from our Christian past that weren't properly brought forward in the past. The tradition of the Church continues, so to speak, in that we still rely on our past Catholic teachings. But now we are better prioritizing those teachings. As such, our understanding is that the Mercy of God is always held toward the sinner, and we are grasping more of what this means.
The realization here that allows us to better bring forward this sense of Divine Mercy, is that we do not know what went on in a person's mind at the moment of death. We just do not know. Maybe the person called out for forgiveness! Isn't this lack of full understanding of any person's mind the basic reason, at least, as to why the Church never assigns anybody to Hell? The Church has always put the emphasis on Mercy in declaring the virtuous life of a person, thus declaring saints as a result. The Church is comfortable in declaring somebody in Heaven, but never assigns anybody to Hell. The nudge is always towards Mercy, and not condemnation.
I was brought up being told that we can judge objectively, but not subjectively. That is to say, we can look at this or that objective act and categorize it as moral or immoral, sinful or not sinful. By such an exercise, we can cement in our minds the proper way of living and of guiding ourselves. Nonetheless, we, again, cannot look inside a person's mind (or heart!). That would be subjective judging. In the end, only God can judge the inner being (heart) of any of us. Ironically, if we do attempt to judge the inner self of another, we become guilty of a sin on par to that in which we accuse a person who committed suicide — the sin of "playing" God. Again, only God can judge the inner self of another.
Finally, free will is a necessary presupposition to the committing of a mortal sin. To what extent then, did a person who committed suicide have free will and therefore commit a mortal sin? It is typically understood by teachers in the Church that mental impairment inhibits a full free will decision, a perspective that certainly includes the act of suicide. What fully, mentally healthy person would choose such an act?
The result of these intellectual understandings is our current attitude of always offering hope to the believer. We would guide people to not abandon hope and give in to the desire of suicide, but rely instead on Christ, the ultimate guide to Full Life. However, if the act of suicide does occur, we as a Church continue to serve the deceased person and his or her family by prayer and by the continuous invitation to trust in Christ, most needed now in this time of grief, as the source of Hope and as the ultimate guide to a full life.
This current understanding is important. The path given to us by Christ offers us the needed spiritual tools to truly grasp the depths of who we are and of what it means to be human — our destiny! This tool is love. It is difficult to hear the call of Christ adequately, lost as we are in our own needs and desires. Ultimately, we are lost in our own short-sightedness, not able to recognize what is right in front of us, what has been right in front of us since the start of our conscious memory. Most of us are brought up with some sense of love. Most of us understand, at the very least, that love is important — a needed "something" found, perhaps, through romance, family bonding, friendship, etc. But most of us don't ever actually define love, or reflect deeply upon it. We generally do not take the time, as a rule, to consider the deepest levels of (self) knowledge that a focused reflection upon love can bring us.
Pope Benedict XVI says the same in his first Encyclical Deus Caritas Est. He invites us precisely to this deeper reflection — and to use Christ as our Ultimate Guide to the best understanding of love that's possible. Pope Benedict XVI writes in this encyclical that in any reflection on love "we immediately find ourselves hampered by a problem of language. Today, the term love has become one of the most frequently used and misused of words, a word to which we attach quite different meanings." Nonetheless, he states that "being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice of a lofty idea but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction."
Christ is the very Ideal of Love personified. To encounter Christ is to walk the path to deeper understandings of Love. However, this path has to be recognized. Christ has to be really encountered. Yes, it is possible to have Love Itself right in front of us, and not "see" it. If we did, we would first off see Him, and not an "it." In Matthew 13:54-58, we read where people were puzzled by Christ because they "knew" who He was. He was their neighbor; they knew His family, and so on.
Christ differs with them in that He is right in front of them, and they nonetheless miss the importance of His true meaning to, and for, them. In other words, today, the path of love as a genuine choice is right in front of us as well. We seemingly feel that we "know" what love is, and we choose to reject love in favor of violence, rejection of others, judgmental behavior, and so on. Our current Pontiff, reflecting the message of Christ, is saying that if one truly recognizes love, truly recognizes Christ, such choices cannot be taken. And the fact that we do take them is both a gauge and a reminder to ourselves that our understanding of love as the ultimate path does not yet exist, or, at the least, remains on a shallow level.
With intent alone we can choose to encounter Christ right now, with the exposure to this Divine Mercy website. In this way, choose to walk the path of love and life. It has been said repeatedly that the message of Divine Mercy did not originate with St. Faustina, but has been with us from the beginning of our Church — from the beginning of the revelation of God to mankind. This discussion on love is saying the same thing. To say that Divine Mercy has always been with us is to say that to encounter Christ is to know that love is the ultimate path to truth. If we can affirm love and the mercy of God right here and now, we'll know how to view the act of suicide.
In love, we try to guide others to know love, too, and in this way, to live full lives. If suicide happens despite our best efforts, in love we forgive and in love we commend that person to God. Such is the life of mercy!
Father Walter Dziordz, MIC, is Provincial Superior of the Marians' St. Stanislaus Kostka Province, based in Stockbridge, Mass.