Most Rev. Joseph Osei-Bonsu
Bishop of Konongo-Mampong
On 24 August 2014, the Catholic Church in Ghana and indeed the whole of Ghana received with great shock the tragic news that Reverend Father Kevin Abakisi, a Roman Catholic priest who was a tutor at the Saint Victor?s Major Seminary at Malshegu in the Tamale Metropolis, had committed suicide by hanging.? I take this opportunity to express my heartfelt condolences to all who are grieving as a result of this tragedy, especially the family of Fr. Kevin Abakisi, the bishop and the faithful of the Navrongo-Bolgatanga Diocese (to which he belonged) and indeed the whole of the Tamale Ecclesiastical Province.
Following this tragic news, a whole lot of questions have been asked by many people regarding the teaching of the Catholic Church on suicide, including the question of whether one who commits suicide is destined to go to hell and whether such a person can be given a church burial.? This article seeks to present the teaching of the Catholic Church on suicide.
What is suicide?
Suicide is uncoerced, intentional self-killing. It should not be confused with the willing surrender of one?s life in self-sacrifice, such as in defending another unjustly attacked, in delivering health care to the highly infectious sick, or in witnessing to one?s faith in persecution. In these instances, one does not will one?s death but accepts it as an inevitable result of doing what one feels called to do to serve justice, mercy, or faith.
In health care, refusing ?ordinary? means of treatment is considered suicide. Refusing ?extraordinary? means is not suicide but more accurately understood to be humbly accepting the inherent limitations of the human condition and letting a fatal pathology run its course.? ?Assisted suicide? is a related concept which emphasizes helping someone to take one?s own life by providing the means and knowledge of how to do it.
Causes of Suicide
A number of theories have been developed to explain the causes of suicide.? Psychological theories emphasize personality and emotional factors, while sociological theories stress the influence of social and cultural pressures on the individual. Social factors such as widowhood, childlessness, residence in big cities, a high standard of living, mental disorders, and physical illness have been found to be positively linked with suicide rates.? We cannot here engage in a discussion of these theories, as our main focus in this article is on the teaching of the Catholic Church with regard to suicide.
The Catholic Church Today and Suicide
The Catholic Church opposes suicide by appealing to the principle of the sanctity of life and its related principles of the sovereignty of God, human stewardship, and the prohibition against killing.? The religious argument claims that life has been given to us to use and to make fruitful, but that it ultimately belongs to God and so is not for us to end when we so choose.? Consequently, we must be mindful that the preservation of our life is not something discretionary but obligatory.? We must preserve and nourish both our physical and spiritual life.? In this connection, the 1997 Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts, ?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 honour 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? (CCC #2280).
To take one?s own life violates God?s sovereignty over life, attacks human dignity, and is an offence against the proper love of self.? Suicide violates a genuine love for oneself and one?s neighbour ? family, friends, neighbours, and even acquaintances.? Other people need us and depend upon us in ways we may not even know.? As the Catechism says, ?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 neighbour 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? (CCC #2281).
Suicide has traditionally been considered a gravely wrong moral action, i.e. a mortal sin.? Therefore, objectively, suicide is a mortal sin.? However, we must remember that for a sin to be mortal and cost someone salvation, the objective action (in this case the taking of one?s own life) must be grave or serious matter; the person must have an informed intellect (know that this is wrong); and the person must give full consent of the will (intend to commit this action).? In the case of suicide, a person may not have given full consent of the will.? Recent studies which have paid attention to the social and personal circumstances surrounding suicides show that they are not often voluntary acts and so, while they may be mistaken and morally wrong, they are not always blameworthy.? Fear, force, ignorance, habit, passion, and psychological problems can impede the exercise of the will so that a person may not be fully responsible or even responsible at all for an action.? Thus, while acts of suicide are objectively immoral, the degree of culpability for suicide depends upon the state of mind in which the act is done.? In this connection, the Catechism states, ?Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide? (CCC #2282).? This qualification does not make suicide a right action in any circumstance; however, it does make us realize that the person may not be totally culpable for the action because of various circumstances or personal conditions.
Like the Church, our traditional societies consider suicide to be morally wrong and unacceptable.? Among the Akans, for example, it is regarded as an abomination.? It is regarded so seriously that in the past the dead person was subjected to a judicial trial before his burial and was invariably found guilty.? The presumption was that by committing suicide the person was trying to run away from some serious crime that he had committed.? Such a person was hurriedly buried after ?the trial? without the usual honours given to a person who did not die through suicide.
We may contrast this traditional Akan treatment of those who commit suicide with how they are treated by the Catholic Church today.? While the Church holds that death by suicide is a grave or serious sin (mortal sin), the Church nonetheless prays for those who have committed suicide, knowing that Christ will judge the deceased fairly and justly. It is the belief of the Church that only God can read the depths of our soul. Only He knows how much we love Him and how responsible we are for our actions. The Church?s view is that we should leave the judgment of those who commit suicide to God.? The Church still teaches that there is a hell, understood as a definitive separation from the love of God, but leaves it to God to decide who should go there.? The Catechism, however, offers words of great hope: ?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#2283). Therefore, we offer Mass for the repose of the soul of a suicide victim, invoking God?s tender love and mercy, and His healing grace for the grieving loved ones. The Church also prays for the close relations of the deceased, that the loving and healing touch of God will comfort those torn apart by the impact of the suicide.
The Church teaches through her acts of public worship known as the liturgy, and the liturgy on occasions like these stresses God?s mercy.? There are many passages that stress God?s abundant mercy.? We cite just a couple.? According to Psalm 103:10-12, God ?does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us?.? According to Isaiah 1:18, ?Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are like crimson, they shall become like wool?.
Funeral Rites for those who commit Suicide
In earlier times, people would often be denied funeral rites and even burial in a Church cemetery. However, some consideration has always been taken into account of the person?s mental state at the time. Canon Law no longer specifically mentions suicide as an impediment to funeral rites or church burial.? Canon 1184 of the Code of Canon Law mentions only three cases of those who can be denied funeral rites or a church burial: (i) a notorious apostate (someone who has renounced the Christian faith), a heretic (someone who holds or teaches doctrines contrary to those of the Church) or a schismatic (someone who has broken away from the church); (ii) those who requested cremation for motives contrary to the Christian faith; and (iii) manifest sinners to whom a Church funeral cannot be granted without causing public scandal to the faithful. These restrictions apply only if there has been no sign of repentance before death.
The local bishop weighs any doubtful cases and in practice a prudent priest should always consult with the bishop before denying a deceased person a funeral Mass.? A particular case of suicide might enter into the third case ? that of a manifest and unrepentant sinner ? especially if the suicide follows another grave crime such as murder.? In most cases, however, the progress made in the study of the underlying causes of suicide shows that the vast majority are consequences of an accumulation of psychological factors that impede making a free and deliberative act of the will.? Thus the general tendency is to see this extreme gesture as almost always resulting from the effects of an imbalanced mental state and, as a consequence, it is no longer forbidden to hold a funeral rite for a person who has committed suicide, although each case must still be studied on its merits.