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: Forming mind and heart in faith

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“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

People tell me pretty regularly that we should not over-intellectualizing the faith — making the Church simply about ideas, doctrines, and rules. I agree that this can be a problem, but we also have to guard seriously against an opposite problem — emotionalizing and privatizing faith. We are blessed with a reasonable faith that can be studied in harmony with the truth of the natural world. Faith and reason strengthen one another, together leading our minds to conform to the mind of the God who is our Creator and Redeemer. In the midst of a secularism which pits science against the faith, it is important that we form our minds in the truth. Being rooted in the truth of our faith does not lead to abstract ideas, but to an encounter with the living God which sets our hearts on fire with His love.

The Dominicans have a long history of teaching the faith, founded originally to preach to those who had fallen into the dualistic heresy of Albigensian and producing the Common Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas. The papal theologian, who advised the pope, by tradition comes from St. Dominic’s Order. One of the most renown Dominicans teaching in the United States, Father Thomas Joseph White, has recently been called to Rome to teach at the Angelicum, the Pontifical University of the Dominicans. Father White, though a profound scholar, has produced a clear and accessible overview of the Catholic faith.

Father White’s book, The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism (Catholic University of America Press, 2017) offers a serious overview of the Catholic faith. It is not a scholarly work, but one that does challenge us to enter more deeply into the theological tradition of the Church, flowing from the Bible and Catechism, the Fathers, and especially the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Part of the genius of the book is how it uses the theological tradition to address contemporary concerns such as evolution, sexual ethics, and relativism. The book contains seven major sections—Reason and Revelation, God and Trinity, Creation and the Human Person, Incarnation and Atonement, the Church, Social Doctrine, and the Last Things—as well as a robust epilogue on prayer.

Father White challenges us to “to be an intellectual. . . to seek to see into the depths of reality” (1). As intellectual beings, we have been created in the image of God and are called to enter into his truth and life. Therefore, White reminds us that “every person has to accept risk in truth’s call to us. Even religious indifference is a kind of risk, perhaps the greatest of all, for if nothing is ventured, nothing is gained. The mind is reason’s instrument, but the heart its seat” (5). Therefore, the ultimate questions lead the mind into prayerful contemplation of the truth. Theology cannot remain an intellectual enterprise alone, but must lead us to encounter God in prayer: “Prayer is grounded in our natural desire for the truth. When we pray we are trying to find God, to praise him, and to see all things realistically in light of him. In a sense, then, prayer stems from a search for perspective” (288).

Our faith forms us as a whole person and shapes our feelings and desires according to what is highest. Father White rightly points out that “heart and intelligence go together” (49). When it comes to God, intellectual theory is not enough, as he calls us to know him in a “concrete, personal, affective relationship” (48). This does not mean that we can dispense with theology. Quite to the contrary, “we want to get right who God is, and what the mystery of Christ is, so that we can be in living contact with divine love” (42). God speaks to us so that we may come to know him by exercising our minds to know the truth given us through the Church (36).

Knowing God is the work a lifetime and our eternal vocation. We can strengthen our faith by studying theological truths and deepening our capacity to contemplate divine things. Father White’s book will help us all to be theologians, entering into the practice of theology as faith seeking understanding. As we come to know God more, it should lead us to fall in love with him more deeply, strengthening our relationship with him and preparing us to see him face to face.