Q: A friend’s sibling died by suicide about 20 years ago while in high school, after struggling with depression for years, despite getting treatment, counseling and a lot of family support. The family was, and still is, devastated. At the time, the family’s priest said something about suicide being a sin, which added to the family’s hurt and turned them away from the Church.
I fully support respect for life, but I think I remember reading that the Church has changed its thinking about depression-related suicide in recent years and now relates it to an illness that might not be a sin in those circumstances. Is that correct, and do you have any suggestions for helping the family think about getting back to church?
(I don’t want to add to the family’s pain or be seen as meddling, so please withhold my name and city. I have been praying and just want to help if possible.)
A: I commend you for your concern, and for your prayers for that family. The hurt from a suicide lasts a long time, and I will pray for them, too. Your question arrived in my email during the same week that I was involved in a funeral for a suicide victim.
I have explained to this family that, when I was first ordained (in the 1960s), the common practice of the Church was not to celebrate a funeral Mass for someone who had chosen to take his own life.
But that is no longer true; the Church has grown wiser since then and now understands that grave psychological anxiety can sometimes mitigate, or even remove, a person’s capacity to make decisions and his moral responsibility for those choices.
Based on that, the Catechism of the Catholic Church now says, “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives” (No. 2283). This family, I believe, has found some comfort in knowing that.
Father Kenneth Doyle writes the Catholic News Service column “Question Corner.” He is based in Albany, New York.