Our Lord was probably a teenager when the Roman general Publius Quinctilius Varus impaled himself on his own sword in despair for having lost three legions in combat with Germanic tribesmen.
Thirty years earlier, Mark Antony had killed himself the same way in Egypt. The Celtic Queen Boudica poisoned herself in Britain some 60 years later, and then, if the historian Josephus is to be believed, there was the mass suicide of Jews on Masada in the year 73.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Albigensian cult thought that all created beings were the work of an evil power and considered suicide the ultimate good, as it freed the soul from the “prison” of the body. Contrary to those pessimists, life is sacred: “You have been purchased at a price, so glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20).
Consequently, “We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2280).
Thus G.K. Chesterton, who fought serious depression, said, “Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in life … The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world.”
Though suicides were once denied Requiem blessings, the church now teaches that a suicide victim’s responsibility can be diminished by “grave psychological disturbances, anguish or grave fear of hardship, suffering or torture” (CCC 2282).
Much publicity attended the recent suicides of a woman who designed fashionable handbags, and a celebrity chef. I never availed myself of their apparent talents, yet one wonders whether such lives might have been spared had the victims of their own hands studied more intently the wounds in the hands of the One who died so that “none be lost and all be saved.”
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Suicide rates in our country in all age groups have climbed nearly 30 percent in the last generation. Among women between ages 45 and 64, who were promised sexual and social liberation, suicides have increased 60 percent in the past 20 years.
While not wanting to lapse into the logical fallacy of cum hoc ergo propter hoc (“a coincidence must be a consequence”), these figures almost exactly match the increased number of Americans who say they have no faith or belong to no religion.
The only suicide whose fate is certain was Judas, who fell into remorse rather than repentance, and the difference is that he was ashamed of himself out of pride, and so he “repented to himself” and became the “son of destruction” (Matthew 27:3; John 17:12).
Christians should not lose hope for those they loved and lost. St. John Vianney, that master of mystical intuition, told a woman whose husband had jumped off a bridge: “Do not despair. Between the bridge and the water, he made an act of contrition.”
Fr. George William Rutler is a Catholic priest and the pastor of the Church of St. Michael in Manhattan. This article from his parish church bulletin is used by permission.