I had a very painful and (for the person calling) traumatic conversation earlier this past week. A relative had committed suicide, and the person calling me was terrified (because of having been educated in the “old school” of Catholic moral theology): was the relative now in hell for all eternity?
Ironically, I had just come back from lunch with a former student whose brother had committed suicide some years past; I did his funeral, as I have done for 6-7 others, including two priests. What needs to be said and understood?
The “old school” teaching was that if a person died unrepentant with a mortal sin on the soul, the person was hell-bound. The taking of one’s own life is regarded as a mortal sin. Therefore, such a person was denied a Catholic funeral and denied a burial in a Catholic cemetery. In theory, Catholic teaching held that perhaps at the last split second (after the drinking of the poison or firing the gun or passing out from the gas) the person MIGHT have repented, but in practice this was regarded as unlikely in the extreme.
But there needs to be a qualification. One of the key elements in defining “mortal sin” is free choice. From ancient times (certainly in Biblical times, and through most of the Church’s history), pretty well ALL choices were regarded as freely made, traditionally described as “full consent of the will.” In the early centuries of the Church, apostasy (denying the Faith) was regarded as a mortal sin and in fact unforgivable, even if the denial was made under torture. The Church pretty quickly modified this hard-line approach, realizing that the essence of the mission of Jesus Christ was forgiveness.
Where things began to get complicated (in a healthy way) was in the 20th century with the advent of psychological understandings of the human person. The Church came to see that not all choices are fully free enough to constitute an action (even if serious in itself) as a “mortal” sin. What are some of these conditions that compromise our free choice?
Many, many of the people who take their own lives are suffering from the torments of bi-polar disease or depression; some are psychotic and schizophrenic; some are driven to take their lives by attacks and ridicule in classrooms or PE shower stalls or lunchrooms or social media. I have known people who are gay and who, through self-loathing thanks to their being ostracized or humiliated or persecuted, either have taken their lives or were seriously contemplating doing so—including a nephew of mine.
What should be done?
Rule #1–we do NOT judge the state of the person’s heart/mind/soul. We entrust the person to God, the God of Mercy. Can God heal what was broken in that person? Of course, just as God can (and will need to) heal so much else in each one of us that is also broken, albeit in different ways.
Rule #2–we pray for the person and are present (no words needed; just tears and hugs) to the person’s family. They are ripped apart enough by guilt (“I should have seen the warning signs”; “If I’d been a better parent/brother/sister/friend…”). They need strong loving support.
The bottom line: meditate on Matthew 7:1, and thank God that Jesus Christ is the final and ultimate Judge, not us.