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Canonical consequences for suicide

January 14, 2013

I find it ironic to be posting about a dual suicide in Belgium on the very day our parish begins mourning the death of Paul D last night, but we’re still slogging through the Valley of Tears, so.

Suicide is never, ever, justifiable (CCC 2280-2283), but sometimes it is—how to put it?—understandable. Suicide out of depression, physical pain, fear, etc., is still gravely wrong, but the Church is very slow to use the occasion of a suicide to reinforce her teaching on the inviolability of innocent human life and the consequent immorality of deliberately taking it. A canonical sign of this pastoral approach is the universal understanding of 1983 CIC 1184 § 3 to allow ecclesiastical funerals to be accorded those committing suicide, a change from 1917 CIC 1240 § 1, n. 3, that expressly prohibited such funerals (although the older law was applied more leniently than it read).

But two suicide scenarios, I have argued, do not lend themselves to a generous interpretation of Canon 1184: first, murder/suicide (especially mass-murder/suicide, as in the case of ‘family annihilators’) where I think strong objections to treating murderer and victim(s) alike are at hand; and second, suicides committed in accord with civil euthanasia laws. A key point of these laws is to rule out suicide motived by depression, mistaken prognosis, third-party pressures, and so on. In other words, the observance of these laws eliminates the very factors upon which ministers can base their doubts about one’s personal culpability for self-slaughter and grant the Church’s funeral rites to those killing themselves. We have to face it: sometimes, people do gravely evil things and leave the rest of us with no basis to conclude other than that they did so deliberately. That calls for no judging of souls; that’s just taking seriously one’s observable conduct.

Deaf twins in Belgium, middle-aged and by all accounts in good health, recently learned that they were, at some unspecified point in the future, to go blind (Usher Syndrome?) Apparently in full compliance with Belgium suicide laws, they arranged for and committed suicide together. In so doing, I think, they plainly and publicly committed a gravely sinful act, left a horrid example to others facing these or similar physical challenges, and contributed mightily to society’s growing assumption that the disabled are better off killing themselves.

News reports don’t indicate whether the twins were Catholic. If they were, though, nothing in those reports suggests any basis for according them the Church’s liturgical commendations into the next life. Prayers for their souls, certainly (even Mass intentions, per Canon 901), but not our public rites. Not if the law on funerals means anything, and not if we care about persons facing similar, or even worse, trials in this life.


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