I had planned on using today’s post to advertise my most recent video, a look at the first stop on this summer’s mission tour in Cedar Lake, IN. If you are interested, you can check it out here. But that’s all I’ll say about that.
More immediate to my attention are the suicides of two prominent celebrities this week: fashion designer Kate Spade, 55, and television chef/travel guide Anthony Bourdain, 61. Admittedly, I did not know much about Spade, but Bourdain was a favorite of mine for many years and his death yesterday came with great surprise and sadness. When I heard the announcement on the radio, I audibly gasped.
Maybe the most tragic thing about their deaths is that such situations are far from rare. In fact, they are indicative of growing epidemic. As the CDC reports, suicides in America are up 30% over a 17 year period. In 2016, it claimed the lives of nearly 45,000 people. Those are staggering and somewhat demoralizing numbers that really need to be thought about to sink in.
30% increase over 17 years.
45,000 suicides in 2016.
For me, there is absolutely nothing more tragic than someone taking their own life and there has never been a time that I have heard that word or thought about it that I didn’t immediately produce a tear in my eye. To think that it occurs with such frequency—and is getting worse—saddens me to my core.
It is because of this that this weekend’s Gospel fills me with anxiety and worries about what homilies people might hear. The passage comes from the Gospel of Mark, and towards the end of the reading Jesus is quoted in saying: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an everlasting sin.” Given our history in the Church regarding suicide—and given what I have already seen in the past 24 hours on social media—I fear that some priests will equate the two together, exhorting their congregations to work to prevent suicide “because those who commit suicide go straight to hell.”
I have a sick feeling in my stomach just thinking about it.
Besides being pastorally inappropriate and potentially devastating to those affected by such a horrible event, it is absolutely wrong from a theological perspective. While some in the Church might have said this before, it is absolutely not the official teaching. Looking to the Catechism, two paragraphs are of great importance:
2282 (2) Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.
2283 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 repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.
Nowhere in our faith do we condemn anyone to hell; nowhere in our faith to we say that a sin is unforgivable. Everywhere in our faith do we say that our God is loving and merciful; everywhere in our faith do we say that our God knows the inner workings of our hearts and treats each one as s/he deserves. To judge someone on a single moment of their lives—a moment, not to mention, that is fraught with distress, pain, despair, and diminished freedom of will—is to forget the very essence of our faith: God’s hand is always open to those who need love and mercy.
And so should ours.
For me, one is too many suicides in a year. 45,000 is just unfathomable. As devastating as the deaths of two recent celebrities are, my hope is that their deaths may bring new life in those left behind. That from their tragedies, more will be awakened to the epidemic before us, moved with compassion to care for those who battle inner demons on a daily basis, and work to prevent every last case from happening.
If you know someone who needs help, let them know that you love them, and do not hesitate to step in and help. They may not know that they need help until it is too late.
For those who are having suicidal thoughts, feelings of despair, or struggling to find meaning in life, know that you are not alone and there are plenty of people who can help. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s website has plenty of great resources, and their free number (1-800-273-8255) is completely confidential.
I have been a Psychiatric Nurse in the UK for 30 years. Due the nature of my work, I have experienced contact with too many people who, sadly, have taken their own lives. Every time it has happened, I have said a prayer for them and those they have left behind.
As a Catholic, I am sure that God looks with compassion on these people who could find no other way out of their turmoil than taking their lives.
Please continue your great work in this and the many other areas you deal with.
As a Psychiatrist in the UK I was going to say much the same thing. I cannot imagine a merciful God will punish the mentally ill.
I’m far grateful to God for bringing me through 2017 and being able to see your blog in 2018. This subject is what I wanted to speak out on but since I did not do so, I am glad , through you shedding light on it, I too am reminded to share my voice. 🙂 thank you brother , all lives are in my heart. May God’s loving grace be with all effected.
I very rarely leave a comment on any post, but I really want to thank you for this post and what you have said about suicide and sin. As a retired clinical social worker, I have sat with many people who contemplated suicide. I could sometimes understood their despair and why they were considering such a tragic action. None of these individuals was thinking about where they were going after death, and none of them would have even thought about whether the Church (or anyone) thought it was a sin. All they could get in touch with was their pain. What they all needed was understanding, compassion, and some sense of hope. If someone hears a negative message from the pulpit this weekend, I pray that someone else will pass on what you have written here. It is critical that all Catholics understand what the Church teaches. If there is anything I believe strongly, it is that God has unlimited compassion, love, and mercy for everyone.
Thank you again!
Thank you for writing this. I know the pain of depression and the feeling that life is too hard. Fortunately, my friends come to my aid when I need it. Forcing me to move forward a little ar a time. To see again the beauty that is part of my life. When caught in depression, you are in a dark place and can’t see the way out. Please be aware of where your friends are emotionally and mentally. Let’s try to treat each other with more kindness and let’s try to be more other than into ourselves. Your awareness might mean the difference between life and death for someone. The fact that people are around others and functioning does not necessarily mean they are ok. You can be lonely in a room full of people. We, myself included, need to touch people’s lives with a gentle touch that says they matter.
Brother Casey, thank you for your extremely senditive and compassionate blog. I am no stranger to suicide. It seems to run particularly strong on my father’s side. I have lost three close relatives to it.
We simply cannot understand the mindset of someone who rebels against the basic instinct of self preservation.
How can we condemn what we have no understanding of?
So well said and thank you, my new brother, for posting this. We pray for those who have gone before us…. and for those who are in distress that that they will feel God’s loving embrace (and possibly one of our loving embraces as well). Your words of loving one another and not being quick to judge … are so important in today’s world.
Catholic teaching on suicide has changed over the years like so many of its past mean and cruel ones. There are current mean and destructive ones, such as, calling gays intrinsically disordered and telling women they can’t use artificial birth control. Previously, Catholics who committed suicide were denied church funeral masses and burial in a Catholic cemetery. It was considered a disgrace. There was a tacit understanding that they went to hell. Only through education and the demand of lay people have these superstitions been discounted and the teachings modified. Finally, where is the compassion in not allowing a person to die who chooses to do so as they suffer in unquenchable pain from a terminal disease? Those who suffer from long term emotional agony are difficult to recognize as having a terminal disease. But our compassion should be extended to those who choose to end their lives to escape what they see as endless suffering. There is no need to condescendingly mention that you will pray for them because they have not done anything wrong.
I don’t think I’ve ever left a comment on your writing before, but I had to comment here. I’ve been there once before, working out how to do it and how to get my affairs in order. Sometimes life does seem beyond us; and compassion literally saves lives. Kindness and gentleness to strangers costs nothing, but it has immense value; thank you for this post and the depth of understanding you’ve conveyed.