With the sad and scandalous news out of Oregon last night of Brittany Maynard’s state sanctioned suicide, thoughts turn toward the eternal consequences of such actions. The Internet and social media com boxes are full of praise and condolences for the terminally ill young woman and her grieving family. Many have offered their personal belief that Brittany is now in heaven with God who understands (and apparently condones) her decision. Even among professing Catholics there has been an incredible disconnect between what we are called to believe and what some “want” to believe.
As word of her suicide was released over a weekend when Catholics celebrated both the Church Triumphant (All Saints Day) and the Church Suffering (All Souls Day), it is even more distressing to see so many either oblivious to, or outright dismissive of, foundational truths such as mortal sin, the existence of Purgatory, the sin of presumption, praying for the dead and even the possibility of eternal damnation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, regarding suicide, instructs:
Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.
Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.
If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.
Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.
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. (CCC 2280-2283)
In addition to the most recently promulgated Catechism, however, we can also turn to the brilliant work of Fr. Francis Spirago, The Catechism Explained: An Exhaustive Explanation of the Catholic Religion, from 1899. Regarding suicide, Fr. Spirago states:
“Suicides are generally men (or women) who are devoid of religious beliefs, who have got into trouble or committed some great sin, and who despair of God’s mercy and assistance; they are sometimes not accountable for their actions, and consequently not to be blamed for them.
“King Saul lost all hope when he was grievously wounded and surrounded by his enemies; he then cast himself on his sword (1 Kings xxi.)…Judas, in despair at the enormity of his crime, went and hanged himself (Matt. xxvii. 5). How often we read of people destroying themselves because they have lost their all at the gambling table, or because they have ruined their character by embezzling money, or because they cannot obtain the object of their illicit passion.
“But often madness, or overtaxed nerves, cause men to take their own lives without knowing what they do. Let us beware, therefore, how we hastily judge and condemn them.
“The prevalence of suicide is however principally and generally to be ascribed to the lack of religion, of a firm belief in a future life, of confidence in God’s willingness to aid the unfortunate and to pardon the repentant sinner. Experience teaches that as religion decreases in a land, the number of suicides increases…
“A man’s life is not his own, it belongs to God, Who takes it away at His will (Deut. xxxii. 39). Thus self-destruction is a presumptuous encroachment upon the divine rights, and shows contempt for God, by flinging back at Him His greatest gift to man, which is life…
“Far from being an heroic deed, it is a most cowardly act; real heroism is shown by bearing bravely the miseries of life…” (pp. 383-384)
In the coming days and weeks we can seek the good out of what is a truly tragic story. While the “death with dignity” movement will attempt to argue that suicide is something noble and good, we have both the opportunity and obligation to charitably instruct what our Catholic faith teaches.
Remind others that we who make up the Church Militant have a duty to offer prayers and masses for those poor souls suffering in Purgatory. We do not need to despair for Brittany Maynard and others who choose suicide; we must not presume to know their fate…whether it be heaven or hell. What we can do is pray. And we can catechize others so that they too can understand that suicide is never dignified and that it is God, and not man, who is the author of life.
Brian Williams is a convert who entered the Catholic Church in 2006. He is a graduate of Long Beach State University with a BA in History. Brian blogs on life, liturgy and the pursuit of holiness at liturgyguy.com. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with his wife and five children.