When Ántonia’s father kills himself in Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia, his body can’t be buried in either the Catholic or Protestant cemeteries. Feeling the stigma of suicide, the gentleman’s family puts his remains to rest on their Nebraska farm while a neighbor offers a merciful prayer.
Suicide is no longer viewed the way it was in the late 1800s but the question remains of how the Church views this tragic action and what happens to the soul of a person who ends their life.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, cooperating voluntarily in suicide is contrary to the moral law. (CCC2282)
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.” (CCC2281)
Objectively suicide is against the commandments, and justice, hope and charity, said Father James Livingston, a chaplain at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, who offers spiritual assistance to persons who have attempted suicide. “There is something counteracting the rational inclination to live, something contrary to hope that suicide speaks to.”
When someone commits suicide to set an example, especially to youth, the Catechism states, “it also takes on the gravity of scandal.” (CCC2282)
However, a suicide victim’s behavior may look wrong objectively, but it’s not possible to know what’s going on in their mind, he said. “It’s not something somebody chooses.”
Clinically, suicide involves major mental illness, Father Livingston said, adding that 70 percent of those who attempt or commit suicide suffer from depression. Oftentimes, they feel hopeless and helpless, and die emotionally before they die physically, he said.
Suicide victims lack the resiliency skills to overcome their problems, Father Livingston said. They don’t have full freedom in their lives when stress is factored in—their emotions take away their sense of freedom.
The Church takes into account the state of mind of those involved in suicide. “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.” (CCC2282)
Rather than deliberately intending to end their lives, some may attempt suicide or engage in parasuicidal behaviors such as cutting, to get help, Father Livingston said.
Because we don’t know a suicide victim’s thoughts, we can’t speculate on the state of their soul after death, he said. “The interesting question for us as Catholics is, where does the soul go? We don’t know.”
Unlike in the past, the current tendency is to err on the side of mercy, Father Livingston said. The Catechism offers 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.” (CCC2283)