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Far from being an heroic deed, it is a most cowardly act.


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.

40 thoughts on “Far from being an heroic deed, it is a most cowardly act.”

  1. Thank you for this article…may God have mercy.


    Yes, I know November
    The tolling of the bell,
    The whispers of the suf’ring souls
    From mountain top to dell.

    The chilly, gray, damp mornings
    The rusting of the leaves,
    The whispers of the suf’ring souls
    Like moans from one who grieves.

    And in the windy noon-time
    When clouds fight ‘gainst sun’s might,
    The whispers of the suf’ring souls
    Cry, “Sanctuary light!”

    So ‘fore the red-glassed candle,
    Compelled I go to pray,
    The whispers of the suf’ring souls
    Plead, “Sacrifice today!”

    Now deep, dark sanctuary
    Is lit by candle bold,
    The whispers of the suf’ring souls…
    “Your prayers are autumn gold!”

    So like the leaves of autumn
    I fall to kneeling posture
    The whispers of the suf’ring souls
    Beg, “Say a Pater Noster!”

    The flicker in the red glass
    Burns hotter now with Creed.
    Oh, yes, I know November!
    The month of Hope…souls freed!

  2. Really, I can’t believe all of the people who are ready to condemn this poor woman who made the most difficult choice anyone can make. Do you know what it’s like to be given a death sentence, knowing that your end days will be full of incomprehensible suffering? Shame on people who criticize her.

    • We are all going to die one day. She was not given a death sentence, but rather a medical diagnosis. We all face suffering in life, some visibly, others interiorly. It is not shameful to criticize a poor decision that she chose to make public and then used to publicly support a political group. I find her implicit claim that those who suffer or are ill lack dignity shameful.

    • No shame. My heart aches for her and her family. But I don’t agree with her decision and I won’t for reasons as strong as hers.

      • She read about the type of suffering that occurs with that particular disease. She chose to cut her life short by a few months to spare herself and her family the agony.

        • The problem with such a decision, while understandable on a human level, is that it’s incredibly shortsighted on a spiritual level.

          To end one’s life to save a few months of difficult but bearable suffering while simultaneously inviting an eternity of unimaginable suffering is a terrible, terrible trade off. Probably the worst one I’ve ever heard of.

          • You might be at the wrong website, then. We have a scripture passage as our title and URL. Might have been a hint that we would see things this way.

            That said, I’m willing to bet you rejected religion because you didn’t really understand it in totality, and focused in on the things you didn’t like.

            It’s kind of like my kids saying “You reminded me why I rejected parental authority” because I won’t let them have candy or watch TV. Meanwhile, I’m feeding, clothing, sheltering, and loving them.

            We’re all kind of selfish that way. I know I am. We sometimes just need to mature enough to realize it and do something about it.

          • I have been visiting AT for years. One can be conservative without being religious. We’re just going to have to disagree on this thing.

          • But Steve, I’m willing to bet that there are many Christians on this site who do not believe that a loving God would send someone like her to ‘an eternity of unimaginable suffering.’

          • Those Christians would be wrong on two counts: first, that God’s love and mercy precludes justice; second, that it is He who sends people to hell.

            We choose hell by choosing to oppose Him and His will. Just like a runaway chooses, because they dislike the discipline and rules of their parents, to go off into the world to untold consequences.

            If a teenage girl runs away because her parents are strict about modesty and give her a curfew and won’t let her have a cell phone, and she is raped and murdered, did her parents send her to be raped and murdered? Of course not. Did she choose it? Not directly, but she chose to place herself outside their authority and protection. The consequences she suffers are the direct result of her choices; if she failed to see that these consequences would result from her choices, it isn’t because she didn’t have the information available. It’s because she ignored it. Her parents warned her about the dangers of the world; they told her that modesty is for her protection as well as to reduce the occasion of sin in others; they reminded her that her curfew was to ensure she was home and safe, etc.

            But she was angry. She was selfish. She wanted something other than her parents’ ways. And she chose that other thing. And what happened, happened.

            Her parents were devastated, no doubt. They never wanted this to happen to her. But should they have changed their rules, all of which were created for their daughter’s well-being and out of love, simply because they never wanted to give her a reason to be upset and leave? They would have made her into a monster then, and other bad fates would have befallen her.

            Nobody wants hell for us, least of all God. But free will is an alarmingly radical thing. He loves us enough, and respects us enough that he allows us to choose it if that’s what we want. He tells us how to avoid it, gives us graces to help us along the way, and tries to steer us toward heaven.

            But he does not force us to do what is right. He lets us make that choice for ourselves. That sounds a lot more like love to me than making us into automatons who have no option about whether to love Him back. Forcing someone to love you is a sort of ontological rape. It’s not beautiful. It’s ugly.

          • Utter nonsense. If a girl is raped and murdered, it is because EVIL MEN chose to commit a crime, NOT because of the way she was dressed or because she ran way. She wasn’t selfish, the men who committed the crime were in addition to being evil. Spare us your sexist nonsense. Men commit 90% of the violent crime on the streets, so don’t you dare talk about women. You men are THE PROBLEM, not girls who run away. Let’s have a curfew for MEN under 50, the streets would be much safer, problem solved.

            Brittany Maynard didn’t commit suicide, on the contrary, she wanted to live. Unfortunately, , she had two choices, she could die a few weeks or months later after suffering a lot or die a few weeks or months earlier and suffer less. Either way, she was going to die, she just chose to die the death with less suffering. Who are YOU to judge?

          • Did you even read what I wrote? “Did she choose it? Not directly, but she chose to place herself outside their authority and protection. The consequences she suffers are the direct result of her choices; if she failed to see that these consequences would result from her choices, it isn’t because she didn’t have the information available.”

            I’m not interested enough in philosophy to try to understand where this notion comes from that anything bad that happens, no matter how much I invite it, is always the other guys fault. It’s not a rational conclusion.

            If someone covers themselves in honey and stands on an anthill, what will happen? If someone tries to hug a wild animal, like a lion or a grizzly bear, what will happen? We know that these scenarios are not going to produce positive results. They may claim they did not choose the outcome, just the stimulus, but causality exists, and they fail to grasp it

            The same is said for those young women who run away from home and go to places where predators look for the vulnerable, or who dress seductively and go out to places where men go to find such women and use them. Is it different because men have an intellect and free will, whereas ants and lions and bears do not? Yes. We should hope that the men will exercise these things and resist the animal temptations.

            But when they do not choose to do so, it would be pure fallacy to assert that they, and they alone, are responsible. They bear the ultimate responsibility for the attack that comes, but the women bear the responsibility for choosing to place themselves as close to danger as possible.

            And with hell, it’s even worse. Choosing to place ourselves outside God’s protection and authority subjects us to the whims and influence and attacks of far stranger and more vicious beasts. And they will do all they can to see that we share their fate for all eternity.

          • so your view is that she developed terminal cancer because of sin? I guess AIDS is a curse from god as well? smh. you’re opinion is stupid.

          • With respect, by any reasonable definition of the word, Mrs. Maynard absolutely did commit suicide. We don’t claim that a prisoner on death row who hangs himself didn’t commit suicide because he wanted to end the suffering of waiting to be executed. In other words, the reason she killed herself does not change the basic fact that she killed herself and thus committed suicide. We can argue about whether such a suicide is justified or not (I am strongly in the not justified camp BTW), but by any reasonable definition of the term suicide, she committed suicide.

            Regarding whether Steve’s point was sexist or not. We seem to want to believe in our culture that we have no responsibility for our own actions. If one places oneself in a dangerous situation, then one must bare at least some responsibility for the negative consequences of that decision, even if the actual guilt for the negative consequences belong to someone else. Lets use a different scenario. If you knowingly and willingly get into a car that is being driven by a drunk person, and the car gets into an accident maiming or killing you, the driver is guilty of driving drunk, but you are guilty of willingly placing yourself into a dangerous situation.

          • bad anology. An inmate on death row is not in a medical, terminal condition. Their deaths will be done by chemical means. this woman will die. In great pain. She will waste away until she is basically a breathing corpse.
            she didn’t willingly give herself a disease. Yes she is comitting suicide. It’s situational. If you are not terminal, it can always get better. What are her choces? Life out her days suffering. Her family sitting there watching her die?

          • Your views “Steve” are just that, YOUR VIEWS and your views are wrong.

            No, they are the views of the Catholic Church, and have been ever since it came into existence. Suicide is a gravely evil act. Culpability will depend on the circumstances, but the taking of innocent life is never to be condoned – even if it is one’s own.

          • “We choose hell by choosing to oppose Him and His will”
            Um…no. Did any of us create hell? I don’t think so. That is purely your gods doing. Here an omniscient being created a place to put the people it that it already knew where going to languish in agony.
            You say your god didn’t want humans in hell? Then why make it a viable option? There are a plethora of other options available that would show more of the loving “father” motif.
            Also, this anology of god as a father is flawed. Fathers are physical beings that interact with their children on a daily basis. those rules you are talking about are solcial norms not shared universally among humans.
            You can insit it’s the same. then I’ll ask you to show us where hevean is and have god call me. I can call my dad on the phone and interact with him

          • “To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being on earth; to enter hell is to be banished from humanity. What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is “remains.” To be a complete man means to have the passions obedient to the will and the will offered to God: to have been a man – to be an ex-man or “damned ghost” – would presumably mean to consist of a will utterly centered in its self and passions utterly uncontrolled by the will.”

            ― C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

          • So your god would rather see his creation suffer until the end. Yeah…and your theology is not cruel and immoral?

          • Our God makes suffering redemptive. Our God not only shared in our suffering, but endured the worst of it for our sake. There cannot be both free will and no evil, nor suffering to endure. The principle of non-contradiction cannot be violated by a rational God.

            Every good thing in this life is attained through suffering. Exercise yields physical strength and health and an attractive appearance. Hard work yields income to purchase the things we desire. Selfless love gains the heart of the beloved, even though it often comes at great personal cost.

            You don’t climb a mountain by sitting on your ass at the bottom.

            This is reality. Whether you subscribe to a god or not, reality is no less cruel than reality’s author is. Stop whining about it and embrace it.

          • I would also add that there cannot be Freewill without a degree of randomness in nature generally. As Steven King implies in one of his books, our fates are two parts Divine Purpose, one part random Chance.

        • I’ve known two people very dear to me that outlived their cancer prognosis and symptoms. They gave us not just a couple of months but a couple of years of memories that I wouldn’t trade for the world. When their time came, I assure you, they went with dignity surrounded by friends and family. I wish I could say that they beat cancer, but they were never a burden to those that took care of them. What bothers me most about assisted suicides is the long term implications that it can have on a society and having assisted suicide as an option in a treatment plan. What impact will this have on those that would rather not treat an ailing family member. And you can’t deny the fact that many insurance companies would rather spend $35-50 rather than shell out a lifetime of treatment for someone that is fighting a disease such as MS or Ankylosing Spondylitis or even severe RA. All 3 of those diseases run in my family and my whole family has them. Wait, read this.

  3. @LydiaLong – it is not condemnation of this poor young women. It is condemnation of everyone who “helped”. Both morally and legally, as soon as not only the suicidal person but someone else is INTENTIONALLY involved in their death – it is not nor it can ever be a “suicide”. “Assisted suicide” is oxymoron. Involvement of another person makes it a murder. No murder, ever, can be condoned (as opposed to suicide for which we can feel sorrow for the person who have done it, but it was wholly their own mind and deed and for which, practically, no prosecution is ever possible).
    As soon as such practice is allowed, unintentional consequences in a form of possible and likely abuse will raise their ugly head. And there is no correcting a death, hence the only real defense is to ban and criminalize and “assistance” with death. People in position to contemplate so are typically physically and psychologically weak while being surrounded by people with potential profit from their death and strong influence… Recipe for catastrophe.
    And I deeply understand suffering involved. I cared for mother in last stages of ALS, in country with “State Healthcare” “free for all” to boot – which meant that bureaucrats in charge , because of her age and disease banned any treatment or medication … We, the family delivered all the care. That is human.

  4. Lydia, yes, I do understand that “death sentence”. In fact, I have been diagnosed with cancer twice, as have my brother and my father. My brother and I survive, and we have the courage of our father to help us live according to our Catholic ideals. The statement referring to the “cowardly act” was first penned in 1899, before Ms. Maynard’s grandparents were born.

  5. But it’s OK to put down a suffering animal? Or does that fall under thou shalt not kill? Really, this is a personal decision that she made and I support her.

    • I suppose that one difference between the acceptability of putting down a suffering animal and the fact that the Catholic Church disapproves of assisted suicide is because people have immortal souls and free will, while animals do not have free will and their souls (if they have any) are mortal — or at least that is how I remember Catholic teaching in that regard. (Somebody who is more knowledgeable about how Catholicism sees animals should correct me if I am wrong.) Remember, it is also acceptable to euthanize unwanted animals as well as suffering ones. However, I think that you would agree that it would be horrific if people who were not terminally ill and whom society did not want for whatever reason were to avail themselves of fatal doses of medication — and the government and society at large were to condone such actions. Euthanasia is one of the things that can licitly be done to animals that would be beneath human dignity if people did them to themselves or to other people, even with the consent of the persons who are dying. People are on a different plane than (other) animals.
      It is true that I personally struggle with much of this teaching (free will is a particularly hard pill for me to swallow), but it is part of the package of being a practicing Catholic, and being a practicing Catholic is important to me.

    • An animal is not made in the image and likeness of God, only a human person is. A human person has an eternal soul the exists forever. An animal has animal soul that is mortal. Once an animal dies, he ceases to exist. Animals also don’t have a right to life. Only innocent human persons have a right to life.

    • Is it a personal decision? Did it affect just Brittany? Or in fact did an entire media battalion jump on this and blitzkrieg unsuspecting mushy headed Americans with “choice” again. One has to wonder how all this fawning over how strong one has to be to “choose” death will affect suicidal teens; or mothers with unwanted (born) infants, or pesky old parents.

      No, this wasn’t a personal decision. It was a very public one. Unfortunately, its a decision, with ramifications that affect our entire culture. This kind of incrementalism won’t stop here. Hang on to your AARP Card omasgirl. If you’re lucky enough to reach the golden years someone will be making a “choice” for you next.

  6. Do we know what it’s like to receive a death sentence? Oh my gosh…yes, we do. We have all received it. You didn’t get yours? She was diagnosed, so she would have received palliative care, which would have mitigated the pain to some extent. There are many who don’t receive care or validation in their pain until poof. Pain is a grace, a gift. Pain expiates our sin here on earth with much greater efficacy than in Purgatory. Pain can also be offered up for other souls and accrued to us as eternal reward. God does not give a soul more than pain than she can bear, although it may seem otherwise in the midst of it. We are no different than those suffering medieval souls, we actually don’t have it any better than they did. Because either we bear pain here, or we bear it in the hereafter, temporarily or eternally. We should all be prefer to bear it here. The only regret we should have about imminent death, is that we have little time left to suffer.

  7. Spirago Clarke. Hell, yes. Any traditionalist worth his salt has a copy of
    The Catechism Explained for it puts to rest many
    of the anxious imps of modernism pestering the consciences of real

    O,and it completely eviscerates the execrable entries on the New
    Catechism which teaches that Jesus gave scandal. He DIDN’T.

    Pick-up The Catechism Explained (beginning page 286) and compare it with the
    entries on scandal in the new Catechism and the tell me our Faith has not
    been effectively changed by giving new definitions to old well-known

    He commits a still greater sin who destroys the spiritual life of his neighbor, either by tempting him to do evil or by giving scandal says Spirago-Clarke.

    New Catechism #588 Jesus scandalized the Pharisees…
    # 589 Jesus gave scandal above all…. and then read the entries on scandal beginning at #2284 -2287 Anyone who uses the power at his disposal in such a away that it leads others to do wrong becomes guilty of the scandal and responsible for the evil that he has directly or indirectly encouraged….

    That is, the Catechism of the Catholic Church objectively teaches that Jesus is a grave sinner.

    M.J. has about had it with all of this and he desires a Hierarchy that cares enough about Jesus that it would retract these execrable entries, rewrite both sections entirely, and do public penance for its, at best, cavalier, approach to its teachings about Jesus and His actions.

    Hell, man, M.J. can not even imagine any woman being so mean as to publicly and falsely accuse her husband of grave sin but when it comes to the Bride of Christ teaching about Him, hey whatever, let’s print it..

    The Catholic Church is a public scandal and if anyone wonders why’n’hell we are in such pathetic shape and why we have so many bathetic discussions about long-settled doctrine, look no further than the CCC; Why would Jesus pour out His Grace upon His Bride when she treats Him this way publicly?

    O,and as far as Purgatory goes, M.J has read the Vatican News Service which reports on The Bishop of Rome and what he said over the Holydays of All Souls and All Saints and he, apparently had nothing to say about Purgatory: if he did it is not carried by the Vatican Information Service.

  8. Those who favor legalizing physician-assisted suicide do praise the courage of Brittany Maynard in carrying out her concept of death with dignity in the face of accusations of cowardice and immorality. It is interesting that they never in turn accuse those who pursue treatment and life-prolonging measures to the utmost of a cowardly fear of death. If this not a true reflection of their feelings, it is an intelligent strategy. Much more intelligent than the “pro-lifer” tactic of calling someone like Brittany Maynard a coward.

    It’s pretty obvious from reading internet comments that people judge Ms. Maynard’s actions based on their personal experience with dire circumstances. They have seen palliative care succeed or fail. They have attended “natural” deaths that provided emotional closure or deaths that left those attending wishing that apparently useless suffering could have been avoided. Their temperaments are comfortable with the idea of choosing to undergo/risking a predictable period of helplessness and exposure at the end of life, or they are not. The feelings are not right or wrong–they are experienced.

    I think it is unwise of those against legalizing physician-assisted suicide to try to tell people how to feel about Brittany Maynard and her choice. It is all very well to argue for the redemptive power of suffering and the duty of submission to a God Who requires His human creations to drain life to the last bitter dregs in honor of His sovereignty. The fact is, a lot of people simply don’t hold these beliefs. Adding name-calling into the mix really doesn’t go down well.

    There are plenty of valid practical difficulties that can be argued against physician-assisted suicide. Most doctors don’t want to be involved in helping patients commit suicide. There are good reasons to be concerned about the ill and disabled being manipulated into “choosing” suicide. There are bad people who would hasten a death against the wishes of the terminal patient to get money. These are tough problems that are not easy to solve.

    The “cowardly Brittany” meme isn’t helping anyone except those who are fighting FOR the legalization of physician-assisted suicide. It keeps the focus on the emotional component of this issue (which is beyond the control of both sides anyway) rather than the very real difficulties of crafting laws that protect everyone’s rights.


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