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Fighting Suicide Today

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It is good news to read that globally the rates of suicide are falling, meaning fewer human beings are killing themselves. The number of suicides, however, is still very high worldwide. Well, one individual committing suicide is too many: not just a number but a person with a name, a family and a country, a member of humanity, a brother or sister!

Unfortunately, suicide is still a tragic reality today.  We are told that about 800.000 people die from suicide, every year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people (between 15-29 years old). It is the primary cause of loss of life in some developed countries in West Asia.   

In a study from the World Health Organization (WHO) on the dark reality of suicide in the world, the authors conclude: “Although there has been progressing in the reduction of mortality due to suicide in the last decades, suicide continues to be a preventable cause of death in the world.” (Cf. WHO, September 2019, in Bioethics Observatory, Institute of Life Sciences, UCV; posted on October 20, 2019).

ETHICS OF SUICIDE  

Suicide, or taking one’s own life (killing oneself), has been generally rejected by people from the beginning of human history, although not by all. Today, some non-believers present and defend suicide – euthanasia in particular - not as an evil, but as an autonomous and free ethical choice

Albert Camus affirms at the beginning of his famous Myth of Sisyphus that the only serious philosophical problem is a suicide, that is, to think if life is worth living if there is meaning to life. Commenting on this, writer and philosopher Pedro Garcia Cuartango thinks that the question of suicide is very much linked to the meaning of life. He thinks furthermore that suicide can be an option for the human person because he is free. Hence, when there is a conflict between life and freedom, “rational” suicide chooses death (Cuartango, ABC: Sept. 6, 2019).

 The Judeo-Christian Fourth Commandment states “You shall not kill” - yourself and others. Is the command absolute?  It is, but its application was not so for a long time: “You shall not kill” was interpreted as “You shall not kill the innocent.”  This explains why the death penalty for “the guilty” was almost absolutely approved by the Church up to the last decades of the twentieth century.

From a faith perspective, a basic argument against suicide is, God is the author of life and the Lord of life and death: “In his [God’s] hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being” (Job 12:10). St. Augustine comments:  “You shall not kill” refers to all, including oneself. Why no to taking one’s own life? By reason of love of one-self and love of others – and love of God.

St. Thomas Aquinas presents clearly the teaching of Christian tradition on the matter. His three reasons against suicide are considered to still relevant for our time (cf. STh, II-II, 64, 5). He asked himself: Utrum alicui liceat seipsum occidere (Is it licit to kill oneself?). The Angelic Doctor answers in the negative: (1) Each person loves his/her life: killing oneself is against the first principle of natural law or the law of being human. (2) Taking own life is also against charity, against the principle of solidarity. It is against the community, for every human being, a free person with absolute value is part of the community. Out of charity, of perfect charity, one may give his/her life for the salvation of others. Suicide is, moreover, (3) Against God. Therefore, there is no good suicide, except the one prompted by the Holy Spirit (II-II, 64, 5 ad 4).  

Direct suicide is against justice: against the inalienable right to life. It is against the love of neighbour and solidarity: against the loving unity of own family in particular (suicide makes the family suffer much); against the wider community and the world: each person is an individual and a social being, a citizen of a nation and of the world. Suicide is, more radically, against God our Creator. Suicide is against the human and Christian virtues of courage and hope. Courage disposes firmly the possessors to resist the fear of dangers in life. This is why martyrdom is the highest expression of courage or fortitude. Suicide is also against the virtue of hope because it usually implies despair.

Vatican II refers to suicide as “willful self-destruction.” It is with genocide, murder, abortion, euthanasia, etc., infamy that poisons human society, and “a supreme dishonour to the Creator (Gaudium et Spes, GS 27). St. John Paul II writes: “Suicide is as morally objectionable as murder. The Church’s tradition has always rejected it as a gravely evil choice.” Furthermore, as we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “to assist a person to commit suicide is an inexcusable injustice, a form of gravely immoral cooperation in evil: “Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law” (CCC 2282). Assisted suicide does not manifest true mercy but “a perversion of mercy” (Evangelium Vitae, EV 66)

CCC presents a summary of the classical teaching of Christian faith on suicide (cf. CCC 2280-2283): only God is the Lord of life and death; human beings are stewards, not owners of their own life, and therefore they cannot dispose of their own lives as they want but care for it from its beginning up to its natural end (cf. CCC 2280). Suicide is contrary to just self-love, and to love of neighbour. It is, radically, against our love for God, who created us to his image and likeness and accompanies us through life (cf. CCC 2281).

            MORE POSITIVE ACTION NEEDED  

Taking own life continues to be a grave social and moral problem in the world.  To address it properly, transparency is needed to know truly the reality of suicide and its many forms.

From an ethical and particularly from a Christian perspective, suicide is objectively immoral, an evil to be condemned. But suicides are done by persons, by subjects in their concrete situations. Subjectively, the evilness of suicide may not be perceived or evaluated as such by the one who takes his/her own life - due to psychological, cultural and/or social conditions. Writes Pope John Paul II: “Even though certain psychological, cultural and social conditioning may induce a person to carry out an action which so radically contradicts the inner inclination to life, thus lessening or removing subjective responsibility” (Evangelium Vitae, EV 66; cf. CCC 2282). Often, the one who commits suicide is – or feels like - a victim in one way or another. Probably, most suicides are committed with limited freedom and responsibility.

Why do people take their own lives? There is a variety of reasons. An important and frequent reason: Life has no worthy meaning. Other reasons: despair, depression, shame, anxiety, guilt, taboos, a chronic and progressive serious illness, family or social pressures, financial difficulties, loneliness, a form of protest, a mortal hunger strike, fear of harassment, etc.

Those problems are being addressed by professional and medical experts, social and religious associations. Much is being done and, indeed, much more has to be done! Persons with problems, including mental and/or social problems, are to be helped through life so that suicide will not take place. The families in particular, ought to give as much help as possible by loving all, by witnessing love for life, for others, for God’s creation. They ought to care particularly for those who might be inclined to attempt suicide. Likewise the schools, different associations and peer groups. (Cf. José-Román Flecha, 2009). The mass media of communication could help more, perhaps, by reporting faithfully the data of suicides but prudently: without going into some details that might lead others so pre-disposed to take their own life.

In the context of suicide, we see the need of a good education, education in values and virtues, including the search for and finding a worthy meaning to life – and suffering and death. Society is obliged to provide a good education in values - freedom, truth, justice and love, tolerance, compassion. It ought to provide, perhaps, more counselling and medical services that offer integral mental health and social integration. WHO has proposed a national plan to prevent the occurrence of suicide.

The Church, Christian families and associations are committed to help all practice love and solidarity and in a concrete manner those who may be inclined to attempt suicide. In a pastoral letter on the matter, Archbishop Jose Advincula of Capiz, Philippines, suggest something very important: the Church is called to cultivate a “culture of presence," above all among the young.

Questions of conscience: How responsible is the one who commits suicide? How responsible is society? How responsible are we when we could have been there and where not? Hyper-individualism in particular is a hindrance to being concerned and caring for one another.  

A hopeful note: the current practice on the burial of those who commit suicide (exceptions, CIC, 1983, c. 1184) is an appeal to God’s mercy and the prayers of the Church. “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. Byways knew to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for the persons who have taken their own lives” (CCC 2283). Another important point: Christian faith asks believers not to judge others but to be merciful. And always hopeful.

Christian faith is hopeful. Christians and others are asked by their humanity and faith to be witnesses of hope in the world, to give hope to those who have little or none. Hope saves from suicide. The poet Tibullus says in a poem that he did not take his own life because hope in better days impeded it (quoted by Leandro Rossi). We are asked to hope in God and in His infinite mercy—also for those who opt for suicide.

            In closing, we remember the old classical saying: Hate the sin where there is sin, love the sinner. Love means understanding, accompaniment, solidarity, care, compassion – and prayer.

By Fausto Gomez Berlana, OP.

(original text)