The following paper expresses my own convictions about suicide and appropriate pastoral care in the Anglican tradition. I do not speak for my diocese, the Anglican Diocese of the South, nor for its bishop or assisting bishop.
AN ANGLICAN PASTORAL THEOLOGY OF SUICIDE AND HOPE
Fr. John A. Roop
Canon Theologian, Anglican Diocese of the South
I am the resurrection and the life, says the Lord.
Whoever believes in me,
though he die, yet shall he live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me
shall never die (John 11:25-26, BCP 2019, p. 249).
O God, without whose beauty and goodness our souls are unfed, without whose truth our reason withers: Consecrate our lives to your will, giving us such purity of heart, such depth of faith and such steadfastness of purpose, that in time we may come to think your own thoughts after you; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen (Book of Common Prayer 2019, pp. 668-669).
The rite of The Burial of the Dead in the Anglican Church in North America’s Book of Common Prayer 2019 (BCP 2019) — and in prior editions — is an exercise in hope: the certain hope of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ by which he “broke the bonds of death, trampling Hell and Satan under his feet” (BCP 2019, p. 133), and the sorrow filled hope for the resurrection of our own beloved dead to the life of the blessed. The former hope is sure and may be known to all. The latter hope is an admixture of light and shadow, faith and wonder, and may be known truly and fully to God alone. There are, of course, signposts pointing toward that hope: baptism, faithfulness, fruit of the Spirit, a life well lived, a race well run, a holy death. But what of the contrary: storms of doubt, a spare harvest, a life of struggle, a stumble at the finish line, a troubled and troublesome death? What then? May we — dare we — continue in hope, pray in hope, commend such a one to the arms of God in hope? What of suicide? Is there hope on the far side of this seemingly most hopeless act?
Following is a brief pastoral reflection on the Church’s historical understanding of suicide with special consideration of the influential thought of St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas. Perhaps more than any others, these two theologians have shaped the Western Church’s response to suicide, though it is quite possible that the questions they asked are not our questions, the issues they faced not our issues — at least not fully so. It is, thus, also perhaps the case that these two great saints and thinkers have, through no fault of their own, exerted undue influence on our own pastoral theology of suicide and inadvertently inculcated a spirit of hopelessness in the face of such tragedy.
Since the thought of both St. Augustine and St. Thomas are reflected in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that document also is germane to this reflection.
Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430)
St. Augustine penned his classic The City of God early in the 5th century in response to the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 and the public condemnation of Christians as major contributors to the downfall of the Empire. The book includes a brief but influential discussion of suicide, a discussion occasioned largely by the brutal treatment of Christian virgins during the invasion. Though St. Augustine did not express his concern in these terms, his theological analysis of suicide focused on this essential question: Is there any rational Christian moral calculus that would condone, justify, or advocate for suicide? His answer is found in Book 1, Chapters 17 through 27.
St. Augustine considers several possible justifications for suicide. The questions following each chapter heading below are this author’s summary of Augustine’s consideration.
Chapter 17: Of Suicide Committed Through Fear Of Punishment Or Dishonor
May a Christian virgin commit suicide to avoid the certain violence and concomitant dishonor of rape?
Chapter 18: Of The Violence Which May Be Done To The Body By Another’s Lust, While The Mind Remains Inviolate
May a Christian virgin commit suicide to avoid defilement of the body through the lust and sin of another?
Chapter 19: Of Lucretia, Who Put An End To Her Life Because Of The Outrage Done Her
May a Christian virgin violated by rape commit suicide as a act of expiation of shame?
Chapter 22: That Suicide Can Never Be Prompted By Magnanimity
May a Christian commit suicide to avoid the ills of life, the hardships of misfortune, or the loss of honor due to the sins of others?
Chapter 25: That We Should Not Endeavor By Sin To Obviate Sin
May a Christian who is so thoroughly dominated by sinful passions commit suicide to avoid sin?
Chapter 26: That In Certain Peculiar Cases The Examples Of The Saints Are Not To Be Followed
May a Christian commit suicide — put an end to this life — to expedite inheritance of the better life to come?
To all these questions St. Augustine answers no. In a general comment regarding the propriety of suicide under any circumstance, St. Augustine writes:
Chapter 20: That Christians Have No Authority For Committing Suicide In Any Circumstances Whatever
It is not without significance, that in no passage of the holy canonical books there can be found either divine precept or permission to take away our own life, whether for the sake of entering on the enjoyment of immortality, or of shunning, or ridding ourselves of anything whatever. Nay, the law, rightly interpreted, even prohibits suicide where it says, “Thou shalt not kill.”
In summary, for St. Augustine there simply was no rational Christian moral calculus to condone, justify, or advocate for suicide. Suicide is a gravely sinful act in violation of God’s expressed commandment.
Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)
In his magnum opus Summa Theologiae (Part 2-2, Question 64, Article 5) St. Thomas considers whether it is lawful to kill oneself. After a typically thorough analysis of all positions contrary to his own — in which there is considerable resonance with St. Augustine — he concludes:
I answer that, It is altogether unlawful to kill oneself, for three reasons. First, because everything naturally loves itself, the result being that everything naturally keeps itself in being, and resists corruptions so far as it can. Wherefore suicide is contrary to the inclination of nature, and to charity whereby every man should love himself. Hence suicide is always a mortal sin, as being contrary to the natural law and to charity. Secondly, because every part, as such, belongs to the whole. Now every man is part of the community, and so, as such, he belongs to the community. Hence by killing himself he injures the community, as the Philosopher declares (Ethics. v, 11). Thirdly, because life is God’s gift to man, and is subject to His power, Who kills and makes to live. Hence whoever takes his own life, sins against God, even as he who kills another’s slave, sins against that slave’s master, as he who usurps to himself judgment of a matter not entrusted to him. For it belongs to God alone to pronounce sentence of death and life, according to Dt. 32:39, “I will kill and I will make to live.”
Here, St. Thomas presses beyond St. Augustine: not only is there no moral justification for suicide, but the act itself is always a mortal sin “as being contrary to the natural law and to charity.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the distinctions between venial and mortal sins explicitly, a distinction not as prominent in Anglican theology, but one essential to this discussion:
1855 Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, which is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.
Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.
1856 Mortal sin, by attacking the vital principle within us — that is, charity — necessitates a new initiative of God’s mercy and a conversion of heart which is normally accomplished within the setting of the sacrament of reconciliation:
When the will sets itself upon something that is of its nature incompatible with the charity that orients man toward his ultimate end, then the sin is mortal by its very object…whether it contradicts the love of God, such as blasphemy or perjury, or the love of neighbor, such as homicide or adultery…But when the sinner’s will is set upon something that of its nature involves a disorder, but is not opposed to the love of God and neighbor, such as thoughtless chatter or immoderate laughter and the like, such sins are venial.
1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter,” i.e., matters specified by the Ten Commandments (ref. 1858), “and which is committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”
1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of sin.
It is not necessary to embrace the whole of Roman Catholic moral theology to note the significance of the three prerequisites for mortal sin to any discussion of suicide; more on this will follow.
Catechism of the Catholic Church
In its discussion of suicide, this catechism draws heavily upon the previously referenced thought of both Saints Augustine and Thomas.
2280 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.
2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is 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. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.
St. Augustine concluded that there is no rational Christian moral calculus to condone, justify, or advocate for suicide. It is, rather, a gravely sinful act in violation of God’s expressed commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”
Expanding on St. Augustine’s thought, St. Thomas Aquinas condemned suicide as a mortal sin, i.e., as a sin contrary to the natural law and charity.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church a mortal sin — a sin whose object is a grave matter, and one committed with full knowledge and complete consent — turns man away from God and necessitates a conversion of heart and a new initiative of God’s mercy generally through the sacrament of reconciliation.
Without imposing the full weight of Roman Catholic moral theology upon Anglicanism, it is not difficult to see this line of reasoning reflected in the following rubric from The Order For the Burial of the Dead in the BCP 1662, the acknowledged “standard for Anglican doctrine and discipline” (BCP 2019, p. 767):
Here is to be noted, that the Office ensuing is not to be used for any that die unbaptized, or excommunicate, or have laid violent hands upon themselves.
The adjoining of perpetrators/victims of suicide to the unbaptized and the excommunicate is particularly significant in view of the catechism in the BCP 1662:
How many Sacraments hath Christ ordained in his Church?
Answer. Two only, as generally necessary to salvation; that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.
Thus, the suicide is placed in the camp of those who have, through ignorance or conscious choice, separated themselves from the two Sacraments deemed “generally necessary to salvation.”
From this there seems little prima facie room or reason for hope in the face of suicide and little to be offered by way of pastoral care to those impacted by suicide beyond general words of comfort. And yet, a closer reading and consideration of these texts may point a way forward.
St. Augustine is clear that there exists no rational moral justification for Christian suicide. In fact, that is the overall impression his writing makes upon the reader — just how reasonable it all is, as if he is sitting beside a Christian in discussion or writing to one who is calmly and rationally weighing the ethical pros and cons of committing suicide for one or more of the reasons St. Augustine presents. He presents a theological argument and that presumes a rational interlocutor.
St. Thomas is not only as reasonable as St. Augustine, but is also quite “natural” in pointing out that “everything naturally loves itself” and thus “naturally keeps itself in being.” Hence, suicide is “contrary to the inclination of nature.” This assumes that the one who is contemplating suicide — if, indeed, contemplation applies — is in a “natural” state and not in one terribly unnatural and disordered.
So, the arguments of Saints Augustine and Thomas would seem to apply primarily — and perhaps exclusively — to a reasonable person in possession of natural judgment and balanced in the natural faculties of body, mind, and spirit. For such a one who makes a conscious and deliberate decision to end his/her life with full knowledge of and complete consent to violate God’s commandment, suicide constitutes mortal sin. Perhaps, here, there truly is little room or reason for human hope, though it is God’s hidden judgment that always prevails. In Old Testament parlance, this one has committed a “high handed sin” for which no sacrifice was ordained. One might perhaps hope for God’s mercy, but one could not assume it or place firm confidence in it.
Where might the arguments of Saints Augustine and Thomas be applicable and helpful pastorally? Not a few of our parishioners struggle with progressive diseases of mind and body, diseases which will severely and increasingly diminish their mental and physical capacities. Is it morally sound for such a Christian to plan for “death with dignity,” i.e., for suicide, prior to and in order to obviate the ravages of the disease? This is a rational, moral calculus precisely of the kind addressed by St. Augustine. Suicide in such a case and for such a reason is a grave sin, and the Church must counsel against it, all the while providing Biblical meaning and hope in the face of inevitable decline:
2 Corinthians 4:16–18 (ESV): 16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
Just as Saints Augustine and Thomas proscribe death at one’s own hand, following their reasoning the Church must also proscribe assisted suicide and euthanasia — either the receiving or providing of assistance to end a life.
In summary, Saints Augustine and Thomas are applicable and helpful before the act of suicide in cases where rational moral evaluation and discernment is possible.
But what of the victim/perpetrator of suicide who is not at that moment rational, who is not at that moment in possession of balanced natural faculties of body, mind, and spirit, who is not at that moment acting with full knowledge and consent? What of suicides that British crime dramas describe as “death with the balance of mind disturbed?” In such cases — after the fact — Saints Augustine and Thomas provide little, if any, direction; such is not the context of their arguments. Here the theological ground is less firm, but that is often the case when dealing with hope and not certainty.
What is the nature and content of pastoral care in the face of such suicide? It may be helpful to remember that Psalm 88 is neither excluded from the Psalter nor from the praying lips of the faithful, to remember that sheep wander from the flock and do not come back of their own volition but are always sought by the Shepherd, to remember that Jesus was himself derelict on the cross and plunged head-long fully into the depths of human despair to save us from it. It may be — must be — hopeful to remember that save for blasphemy against the Holy Spirit every sin may be forgiven. It falls to the Church and to the family and friends of the deceased not to judge, but to love, remembering that:
1 Corinthians 13:7 (ESV): 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Where there is the love of God, there must also be the love of the Church — a love that hopes all things. In recognition of this, the Catechism of the Catholic Church provides this hope:
2282 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.
It is, perhaps, that last statement that is most significant. The Church never assumes the role of Satan, the accuser of the brethren. Rather the Church always assumes the role of Paraclete, the advocate of the brethren and thus always prays in hope.
The Book of Common Prayer 2019, while standing in solidarity with the BCP 1662, no longer contains the prohibition against using the rite of The Burial of the Dead in the case of suicide. Rather, for all those baptized and professing the Christian Faith, the Church prays in hope and commits them into the hands of the One who is the Resurrection and the Life:
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant N. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen (BCP 2019, p. 256).
Family members struggling to come to terms with death by suicide grapple not only with sorrow and perhaps even a sense of guilt and shame, but also with a sometimes barely concealed anxiety about the eternal destiny of their loved one: is paradise lost, or my they yet hope for heaven? Here it may be helpful for the church and the priest to speak with the words of St. Paul:
1 Corinthians 4:1–5 (ESV): 4 This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. 3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
It does not fall to the church, much less to any individual, to pronounce judgment about such matters. Rather, the church commits her beloved dead into the hands of God asking our merciful Savior to acknowledge a sheep of his own fold, a lamb of his own flock, a sinner of his own redeeming (see BCP 201, p. 256). We do not judge; we pray, hope, and trust in the One who died and rose again victorious over death.
For the priest, there is the liturgical question of whether, and if so how, to adapt the Burial Office for a suicide. The rubrics point a clear way forward:
This Burial Office is intended for those who have been baptized and profess the Christian Faith. Portions of this Office may be adapted for other circumstances (BPC 2019, p. 248)
The questions are straightforward: (1) Was the deceased baptized? (2) Had he/she publicly professed his/her faith, whether in adult baptism, confirmation, renewal of baptismal vows, or confession of the Creed? (3) Had he/she publicly renounced his/her faith? There is no question about the means of death. If the deceased was baptized and had publicly professed the faith without subsequent renunciation, the Burial Office — the full Office — is appropriate. It is not insignificant that in the early centuries of the church, one who was under penance and thus not allowed to join in the Eucharist was released from his/her penance and restored to full fellowship in a case of critical illness, precisely so that he/she could die in the church.
In more complex and ambiguous cases where the deceased’s state of mind and/or faith is less certain, prayerful discernment by family, priest, and bishop may well be required when considering the Burial Office.
And always, we pray:
Thou, who with thine own mouth hast told us that at midnight the bridegroom shall come: Grant that the cry, “The bridegroom cometh!” may sound evermore in our ears, that so we be never unprepared to meet him, or forgetful of the souls for whom he died, for whom we watch and pray. And save us, O Lord. Amen (BCP 2019, 678).
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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