To be or not to be — parsing the implications of suicide

Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk

In recent years we have witnessed a growing tendency to promote suicide as a way of resolving end-stage suffering. Physician-assisted suicide is now legal in a handful of states and a number of other jurisdictions are considering laws to legalize the practice. A few years ago on Nightline, Barbara Walters interviewed an assisted suicide advocate who summed it up this way: “We’re talking about what people want. There are people who, even suffering horribly, want to live out every second of their lives, and that’s their right, of course, and they should do it. Others don’t want that. Others want out!”

Those favoring physician-assisted suicide argue that getting out of our final agony means essentially redeeming a “get out of jail free” card through committing suicide. At first glance, taking this step would indeed appear to end our troubles definitively. But what if this view of things is dead wrong, and we don’t actually end up escaping our sufferings? What if we, instead, end up in a new situation where our trials are still present, and maybe even more intense, on account of the willful decision we made to end our own life?

I was recently reminded of this serious flaw in the “suicide solution” after watching a remarkable video adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, with Campbell Scott co-directing and starring in the title role. Listening once again to Hamlet’s timeless soliloquy “to be or not to be,” I was struck by how carefully Shakespeare addresses the vexing question of intense human suffering and the perennial temptation to commit suicide.

Hamlet muses about whether it is better to put up with the bad things we know about in this life than to step into the strange new land of death’s “undiscovered country,” a country about which we know very little, and from which no one returns. This leaves us, in Hamlet’s words, “puzzled” and in “dread of something after death.” He wonders aloud about the hidden purposes of suffering when he asks himself, “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” than to “take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.” He concludes by asking whether we shouldn’t rather “bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of?”

Among those who end up committing suicide, whether physician-assisted or otherwise, many will face extenuating circumstances including severe depression or other forms of extreme mental pain. In such cases, it is clear that their moral responsibility will be greatly diminished, as fear and anguish constrict their ability to think and reason clearly. But this is not always the case, and some people, with clear mind and directed intention, do choose to end their lives, as appears to have been the case for Britney Maynard. She was the young woman in California who in the early stages of her brain cancer carefully arranged and orchestrated her own physician-assisted suicide, establishing months in advance the date and setting, who would be present in the room, what music would be playing as she did it, etc.

Such a decision is always a tragedy, and every life, even when compromised by disease or suffering, remains a great gift to be cared for. When freely chosen, suicide is a form of serious wrongdoing and is, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations.” It leaves behind loved ones to contend with unresolved guilt, shame, and pain.

While ending our life may seem to offer an “escape valve” for the serious pressures and sufferings we face, we do well to consider the real effects of this choice both in this life, and in the life to come. In the next life, a preceding act of suicide may deny us the very relief we were seeking, and may, in fact, lead to harsher purification in a new situation of our own making, or, heaven forbid, lead to a fate far worse than purgatory.

Our Lord and his Church care profoundly for those who commit suicide, and even though this act clearly involves grave matter, the Catechism reminds us that, “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.”

Suicide affects us not only in the here and now, but has significant, even eternal, implications for the journey to that “undiscovered country” that awaits us.

COMING UP: Should the Church talk about money? If we follow Christ’s teaching, yes.

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

In Luke Chapter 3, three different groups asked John the Baptist what they should do to bear the fruit of repentance. John gives three answers: 1) Everyone should share clothes and food with the poor; 2) Tax collectors shouldn’t pocket extra money; and 3) Soldiers should be content with their wages and not extort money. Each answer John gives is related to money and possessions, but no one asked him about that! They only ask how to demonstrate the fruit of spiritual transformation. They don’t grasp John the Baptist’s perspective, that he could not talk about spirituality without talking about how to handle money and possessions.

Jesus puts some harsh words in God’s mouth in the “Parable of the Rich Fool.” In Luke 12:20, we hear: “But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong? Thus will it be for one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.”

Alternatively, Jesus provides some great promises on both sides of that parable. In Luke 11:41: “…give alms and behold, everything will be clean for you.” And in Luke 12:33: “…give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven.”

When my wife Cathy and I were experiencing our conversion to the Lord in the early 1990s, we decided we were going to try to live out our Catholic faith to the full: in our attending Mass every Sunday, in our family and in our checkbook.

So, despite four young kids and no way of knowing if we could afford to send them to Catholic school or college, we started tithing. One thing it dramatically did was contribute to our growth in faith and trust in God. We truly believed in God’s promise that He never will be outdone in generosity. And now, 25 years later, we can only rejoice that we still are doing fine despite paying for Catholic schools, colleges and three daughters’ weddings! So what, that we are driving two cars that have 365,000 miles between them!

When we created our will back then, we decided to leave 10% of our assets to the Church. After I became President of The Catholic Foundation in 2012, we became aware of the concept to “treat the Church like one of your children.” We thought that made a lot of sense, so we changed our will to do just that … such that our four children and The Catholic Foundation will each receive 20% of our estate.

Today, we are not sure how our kids will be able to do what we did; with Denver’s crazy housing market, how will they be able to afford Catholic school for their kids, future colleges and, someday, weddings? It looks daunting for them. Shouldn’t we leave them 100% instead of just 80%? For us, it was an easy decision—better to give them a portion with God’s blessing than to think they’d be better off with it all. Besides, they are helping themselves have the best chance possible.

How? By doing their own tithing! I remember years ago, when the business manager at our parish called me to ensure that it was okay that our daughter had made a large contribution to the parish. Cathy and I were unaware she had done so. What had she done? She had tithed her high school graduation gift money. You can imagine how proud we felt.

A “planned gift” through a will or another avenue is the easiest gift to make because it only gets made when we can’t use it anymore – at least, not in this world. Maybe it can be better used by God and his Church. Listen to Revelation 14:13: “I heard a voice from Heaven say, ‘write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, said the Spirit, let them find rest from their labors, for their works accompany them.’ ”

Cathy and I want our works to accompany us, as we are sure you do, too. We have been saved by Jesus for eternal life – let us make sure our faith in that is manifested in our living and in our giving.

Would you prayerfully discern how God is calling you to steward the assets He has entrusted to you? We hope we and you hear these words someday from Jesus (Matthew 25:34): “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Deacon Steve Stemper is CEO & President of The Catholic Foundation. Please contact him at (303) 468-9885 if you would like a meeting to discuss how your planned giving can be used for God’s Kingdom.