One of the most widely reported human interest stories this week was the tragic news of a Michigan family who, after their son Maison’s devastating suicide, were told at his funeral Mass that he might not be going to heaven. The story went viral, with many condemning the Catholic priest who celebrated the Mass, the Rev. Don LaCuesta, for his actions. In fact, according to a statement emailed to the Detroit Free Press, Catholic officials apologized for the incident. All of which raises the question: What does the Church teach about suicide? While for most of the Church’s history suicide has been considered a grave crime, there were many in the early church whose deaths sound a lot like suicide.
For the majority of the past two millennia, the Catholic Church has taught that suicide is a sin against God that has dire penalties. Those who had committed suicide were unable to be buried on sacred ground or receive a funeral Mass. Paragraphs 2280-83 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church deal with the question of why suicide is wrong: “We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us” and, thus, our lives are “not ours to dispose of.”
It is only relatively recently, and with a heightened understanding of mental illness, stress, and emotional distress that the Church’s positioned has softened. Beginning in the 1960s parishioners who had taken their own lives were permitted to receive a Catholic funeral and be buried in Catholic cemeteries. In the 1990s, during the tenure of Pope John Paul II and for the first time, the Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledged that “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.” It adds, as the Washington Post pointed out, that “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 repentance.”
If any of this sounds unspeakably harsh, bear in mind that it is still much, much gentler than the New Testament picture of post-mortem expectations. A passage in Hebrews, for example, can easily be read as suggesting that there is no forgiveness for sins committed after receiving baptism, for example. And, in general, the texts of the New Testament agree that no one (except, perhaps a chosen few like the penitent criminal crucified next to Jesus) goes to heaven directly after their death. People have to wait for Judgment Day and the resurrection of the dead in order to enjoy their time in the hereafter. This is the kind of thing ministers of every stripe tend to gloss over at funerals (as Father LaCuesta should have too). My point is that Church teachings, especially practices like penance and ideas like purgatory, do valuable work in trying to explain how people can knowingly sin after they have been saved and yet still make it into heaven.
The most interesting thing, though, is that suicide was not always regarded as an unforgivable sin in the Church. The theological groundwork for that idea was laid by Augustine in his City of God. What’s most interesting is that when Augustine’s magum opus was set against the backdrop of the Sack of Rome during the German Visigoth invasion of 410 CE, numerous Roman Christian women were raped. In his effort to console them, Augustine wrote that they were not defiled because they had not assented to the violation. And, thus, they remained chaste. This brought him to the case of Rome’s most famous pagan rape victim: Lucretia. After her rape Lucretia had taken her own life. Augustine’s response was to develop the notion that by committing suicide Lucretia had committed a greater sin, a sin against God.
This was a central turning point in the history of Christian thought about all kinds of things: rape, volition, the relationship between the mind and the body, and, of course, suicide. But before Augustine decried suicide as a sin most Romans considered it a respectable way to exit the mortal coil. And many Christians were hailed as martyrs for deaths that we today might call suicide.
For example, in the Martyrdom of Carpus, Papylus and Agathonike (ca. 185), the last martyr, a woman named Agathonike, witnesses the execution of Bishop Carpus and his companion and his partner Papylus by burning. Agathonike is not under arrest or even suspicion, but watching their death she declares “this is the meal that has been prepared for me” and throws herself onto the pyre. Agathonike’s self-immolation is not an isolated incident. When the Christian philosopher Ptolemy was transported to his execution after his trial, two Christian bystanders volunteered to die. One of them, Lucius, is even named in the account and celebrates his feast day, with Ptolemy, on October 19. The chain effect of the martyrdom is especially problematic in terms of the modern catechism, which states that suicides that are meant to encourage others to do the same are especially deplorable.
What all of this means, as I once argued in an article for the academic journal Church History several years ago, is that early Christians didn’t view these deaths as anything other than just ordinary martyrdom. They certainly didn’t think of them as suicides. While we might call them “voluntary martyrdom” or invent a new kind of term for them, early Christians simply didn’t make those kinds of distinctions. Which is why these religious suicides are celebrated as martyrs to this day. The biting irony here, of course, is that these suicidal martyrs not only go to heaven, they – unlike ordinary non-saintly people -- go to heaven immediately after their deaths.
Suicidal thoughts are a relatively common phenomenon among holy figures in the church. Ignatius of Antioch, for example, traditionally believed to be a disciple of John the Apostle, frequently wrote of his desire to die as a martyr and begged the recipients of his letters not to try to prevent his death. Having suicidal thoughts is not a sign of abandonment by God and should not be a source of shame for people experiencing them.
Blameworthiness is a key issue here. Not everyone who dies by their hand is necessarily blameworthy because their intentions and the circumstances of their actions are relevant (this is especially relevant in cases of mental illness). Thomas Aquinas had to defend his own position on suicide when it comes to the Biblical account of the death of Samson. In the Bible Samson uses his strength to pull down the pagan temple and, as a result, kill himself. Aquinas quotes Augustine who says “’Neither may Samson be otherwise excused for crushing himself along with his enemies in the fall of the house, except that the Holy Spirit inwardly commanded this in order to perform a miracle through him’; and he gives the same reason for certain holy women who killed themselves in time of persecution, whose memory the church celebrates.” In other words, there might be a larger moral framework in which to understand these actions. And it is worth pointing out that many of the stories of early Christian martyrs are ahistorical and do not record events as they actually happened.
None of this is to say that suicide has ever been encouraged by the Church: life is precious and holy. And, of course, no one should have to experience either the suffering that accompanies suicidal thoughts, depression, mental illness, or the tremendous grief that comes with losing a loved one. Anyone struggling with thoughts of depression and suicide should seek help (here, for example) and those around them should offer it without judgment. My point is that the history of suicide is not clear and it would be inaccurate to say that heaven has ever been barred to all those who take their own lives. Even though the Catholic Church describes the mechanics of the salvation of those who commit suicide to be “mysterious,” the redemption of those who take their own lives is an honored part of Christian tradition.