In our office we subscribe to most Catholic publications from around the United States. For some reason the Dialog, newspaper of the nearby Diocese of Wilmington, Del., is always gone before I get a chance to read it. Last week was an exception.
Thanks to the Dialog staff, the paper ran a commentary by Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser on the topic of suicide. It was the most compassionate take on the topic I've ever read. And timely, too.
A few days later, the owner of a prominent car dealership in my area had committed suicide.
Over coffee and sad eyes ever since, many folks have been discussing the man. Many of them had bought at least one car from him and his family over the years, my dad and myself included.
There was a lot of sympathy for him and his family. Everyone recognized this as a tragedy. Maybe they'd even spend a little more time with a loved one who is in a difficult period, to provide a hopeful word. That is my hope anyway.
The real questions and fodder for long conversations, however, was that the man received a Catholic funeral. Older Catholics thought that was improper, based on their understanding of Church teaching from their youth. Younger Catholics didn't see anything wrong with a Catholic funeral, but didn't know Church teaching precisely on the matter.
In short, the teaching from the Catechism that "the Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives" (2283) seems a compassionate response to families dealing with the loss. Here is the full Church teaching on suicide from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2280 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.
2281 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.
2282 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.
2283 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.
To this eminently reasonable teaching, Father Rolheiser adds an emotional summation: "we need to give up the notion that suicide puts a person outside the mercy of God. God's mercy is equal even to suicide."
Read his full article or, if time doesn't permit, digest this closing gem:
"The Christian response to suicide should not be horror, fear for the person's eternal salvation, and anxious self-examination about we did or didn't do. Suicide is indeed a terrible way to die, but we must understand it for what it is, a sickness, and stop being anxious about both the person's eternal salvation and our less-than-perfect response to his or her illness.
"God redeems everything and, in the end, all manner of being will be well, beyond even suicide."