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: New pipe organ installed at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary

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If a seminary’s primary role is to form the priests of tomorrow – a divine task – then it’s only fitting that the instrument used for adoration and worship during that formation be equally as divine in nature.

A brand-new pipe organ was installed at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in January, replacing the electric organ that’s been there for the past 20 years. The organ contains over 1,500 individual pipes that fill Christ the King Chapel with the sounds worthy of an angelic choir and was custom-made by Kegg Pipe Organ Builders based out of Hartsville, Ohio. The organ cost $500,000 to build and was funded entirely by private donors.

The electric organ was in dire need of replacement after a dead squirrel was discovered in its components and was causing all sorts of malfunctions.

Pipe organs are a much more practical instrument to have than an electric organ, said Mark Lawlor, associate professor at St. John Vianney. Pipe organs last at least 100 years as opposed to the typical 20-year lifespan of an electric organ.

“We’d be buying four electric organs for [what will last 100 years],” Lawlor said.

More than just practical, there is a distinct difference in the sound produced by a traditional pipe organ versus an electric organ. Electric organ sounds are produced digitally; the pipes on a pipe organ are produced organically with air, similar to the way a human voice speaks, and in the case of the Kegg organ at the seminary, it allows for a wide range of sonic dynamics that allow the faithful to enter into more ardent worship.

Mark Lawlor performs on the new pipe organ installed in Christ the King Chapel at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary during the blessing ceremony Feb. 13. (Photos by Andrew Wright)

“It surrounds you with the sound,” Lawlor said. “But as loud as it can be, it can also be so hush, and so angelically soft.”

In addition to the organ’s principal sound, its console contains a variety of different knobs that enable the player to produce a wide range of sounds that fall within the woodwind family of instruments, from a clarinet to a flute. However, the organ also features a trumpet and a brighter-sounding pontifical trumpet, which Lawlor says he only plays for Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila and Cardinal J. Francis Stafford.

The six-man crew from Kegg built the organ at their workshop in Ohio, then essentially disassembled it, brought it to the seminary and rebuilt it there. They spent two weeks voicing each pipe individually so they all sound even.

It truly is a sight – and sound – to behold.

“It’s custom-made for [Christ the King Chapel], and that’s where the artistry comes in,” Lawlor said. “The master builder was the one who did that. He has great ears, knows what will fit the room and he did it specifically to the men’s voices.”

Christ the King Chapel is utilized many times in the weekly activities of the seminary – from seminarian formation to permanent diaconate formation to various retreats and workshops – which means that the organ is also used a fair amount in any given week.

What’s exciting to me is if you were a priest and graduated from [St. Thomas Seminary] in the 1950s, you will hear some of the same sounds as the guys in 2050, because we’re still using that organ. We’re tying the whole institution together.”

“We use [the organ] three to four times per day,” Lawlor said.

The organ is an integral part not only to the seminary, but also to the Catholic Church as a whole. Along with the voice, the organ is the preferred instrument for liturgical music. The way an organ functions is congruent with how the human voice functions, and they complement each other perfectly, Lawlor said. Plus, where else do you find an organ besides a church?

“You don’t hear the organ anywhere else, and that’s what makes it special,” Lawlor added.

The original St. Thomas Seminary had a pipe organ made by Kilgin that was replaced with the electric organ in 1997, but many of the original pipes were still intact and were used to construct the new organ. This organ contains 900 new pipes constructed by Kegg, while around 600 of the pipes are from the original 1930s Kilgin organ – meaning some of the same sounds from the 1930s are still being echoed throughout the seminary today.

“What’s exciting to me is if you were a priest and graduated from [St. Thomas Seminary] in the 1950s, you will hear some of the same sounds as the guys in 2050, because we’re still using that organ,” Lawlor said. “We’re tying the whole institution together.”