What does the church have to say about suicide?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Thursday 23, July 2015 | Category:   Doctrines & Beliefs

 

What does the church have to say about suicide?

Suicide is the deliberating taking of one's own life. It may sound simple to pass moral judgment here, but many factors influence the moral value of the decision according to Catholic teaching. For example, a person who witnesses to faith under threat of death is choosing, not death, but the testimony of faith—though death is the sure result. In the same way, medical personnel fighting highly infectious diseases may hear from their relatives that entering such a medical arena is "suicide"—yet the choice is clearly not to die, but to serve.

 Modern health care offers extensive means of maintaining biological life. To refuse ordinary care is considered suicide in church teaching, but to refuse extraordinary means of care is not. These distinctions may seem unclear to the layperson but consultations with doctors and chaplains will help clarify the categories. To refuse extraordinary treatments allows the pathology of a disease to run its course, not to actively terminate a life. My sister, for example, was pronounced terminally ill but told that radiation treatments would extend her life for a few months. She tolerated treatment poorly, however, and chose palliative care (for the alleviation of pain only) for the last months of her life instead.

In our times, euthanasia (mercy killing) and assisted suicide have gained many advocates.  Euthanasia is a decision made on behalf of the sick person by a third party, as when someone is comatose or mentally incapable of rational choice. Assisted suicide, sometimes called aid-in-dying, involves a deliberate choice to end one's life with medical assistance. Popular arguments in favor of assisted suicide are the principles of autonomy and utility. Autonomy argues that human beings have a right to freely choose their path. It presumes that a person is free to make the decision to die unimpeded by coercion, stress, crisis, or narcotic substances. Utility argues that an individual's death might be best for all concerned due to economic factors or the burden placed on caregivers.

Catholic teaching on suicide does not accept arguments from autonomy or utility. Our moral tradition is based on four positive principles: the sanctity of human life, the sovereignty of God, personal stewardship, and the commandment against killing. Still, pastoral practice no longer passes judgment on the suicide, as most such acts are not fully voluntary but rather entered under duress. Christian burial is therefore available for the victim of suicide.

Scriptures: Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 30:19-20; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Job 1:21; Isaiah 45:4-25. Books: Suicide, Despair, and Soul Recovery  by Ken Stifler (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2008); Moral Discernment, Moral Decisions Guide by Richard Gula, SS (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997).

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