Does Suicide violate the Fifth Commandment?
by Msgr. Stuart Swetland, STD
Q Dear Father:
Several well-known people have committed suicide in the last few years. I thought suicide was forbidden by the Fifth Commandment. What does the Church teach regarding those who take their own lives?— Anonymous
The Catechism of Catholic Church answers your question in paragraph 2325: “Suicide is seriously contrary to justice, hope, and charity. It is forbidden by the fifth commandment.” But this very accurate and succinct answer must be explained if we are going to have any real appreciation of the suffering involved for those who are tempted to end their own life and an understanding of how to care for them and the family members and friends who have lost a loved one to suicide.
First, we must always remember that God is the author of life. We do not “own” our own lives, but like everything in creation, we are entrusted with the gift of life and are called to be “good stewards” of the gift of life (see CCC,2280). Being a good steward of life means that we honor and respect the gift by protecting it and using it as it was meant to be used.
We are grateful to the author of life (God) and our parents, and we honor and respect them. God wishes us to “have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Each of us was “wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). God knitted us in our mother’s womb (see Psalm 139:13) with a purpose in mind.
We are each unique and uniquely loved with an unrepeatable vocation that God has planned for each of us. One of the great tragedies of injustices like abortion is that so many unrepeatable lives, each with their own part to play in salvation history, are lost before they can even begin to play their unique role.
The act of suicide is the direct taking of one’s own life. Not only does this violate the Fifth Commandment (“thou shall not kill”) by intending one’s own death, but it is also an injustice to God and oneself (see CCC, 2281). Suicide offends God because it is an act of ingratitude and an attempt to usurp his role as the Lord of life. It is an injustice to others because it deprives them of their relationship with the person who commits suicide and deprives the world of the vocation they were meant to fulfill. It is also a direct violation of the command to properly love oneself. Remember, to love is to want, will, and work for the true good of the beloved. To properly love oneself is to want, will, and work for one’s true good, which is always to become the saint one was meant to be — and this means living life to the fullest.
In my priesthood, some of the most painful and difficult moments have been around the act of suicide. So often, the person believes (always wrongly!) that “everyone would be better off without me.” But this is neverthe case. Everyone is always devastated and greatly hurt. These wounds can be some of the most difficult ones to heal. Many wrongly blame themselves, and some carry these wounds for the rest of their lives.
There is always a better way. If you are ever tempted to commit suicide, recognize that this temptation is a lie from the “Father of lies.” Reach out to someone; do not keep these feelings to yourself. If there is no one else around, you should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (SuicidePreventionLifeline.org) or dial 911. Suicide is never the answer. Death is never a solution to a problem. Jesus has conquered this ancient enemy of humankind, and we as Christians are a people who have embraced life and rejected death.
The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives
When famous people commit suicide, it can “trigger” vulnerable people to contemplate imitating them. National statistics do show that suicides increase when suicide is in the news. Thus, all those who work with a potentially vulnerable population (parents, priests, religious, teachers, coaches, counselors, and others) should be aware and even more vigilant at these times. Friends can be particularly helpful in sympathizing or caring for someone who is tempted to end their life. This is one area in particular where a strong and healthy community can help one another in times of need.
All this being said, the Church recognizes that in many, if not the vast majority, of suicides, the person might not have been fully free when they acted. As paragraph 2282 of the Catechism says, “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.” Thus, we should not judge the person, but rather pray for them.
It is the pastoral practice of the Catholic Church today to allow funeral services, including burial in consecrated ground, for victims of suicide unless they notoriously acted in contempt of the Church’s teaching on life or salvation.
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 repen-tance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives. (CCC, 2283)
Thus, while suicide is a very grave sin, we still keep solidarity with its victims and their loved ones by providing prayer, comfort, and support. We hold out hope for their salvation, and we offer prayer and sacrifices, most especially the holy sacrifice of the Mass, for them.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
National Institute of Mental Health:
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