The Fourth Sunday of Advent (A)
Dear brothers and sisters,
Yesterday morning, His Excellency Bishop Thomas John Paprocki celebrated the rites of Christian burial for the former mayor of Springfield, Timothy Davlin. The tragic circumstances of his death notwithstanding, the offering of a funeral Mass for the repose of his soul has been the talk of many kitchen tables and water coolers.
There seems to be a great misunderstanding regarding the Church’s teaching on the sinfulness of suicide. Because of the confusion I think it wise to provide an explanation today of what the Church teaches.
Most people of good will recognize the great seriousness of suicide and see it as a mortally sinful act, which is true, to a certain extent. What, then, is a mortal sin?
We know that, first of all, committing a “mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1861).” The Lord God has given us the tremendous gift of our free will so that we might choose to love him and to love our neighbor. We are free to choose what is good, but we know all too well that we do not always choose the good; we sometimes choose to do evil, either explicitly by what we do or implicitly by what we fail to do.
When we fail to choose the good we choose the evil - by word or deed, by action or inaction – which we call sin. Some sins we call venial. Venial sin weakens our love and “manifests a disordered affection for created goods; it impedes the soul's progress in the exercise of the virtues and the practice of the moral good (CCC, 1863).” Venial sins wound our friendship with God, but do not deprive us of his friendship, of his sanctifying grace, by which we grow in holiness and love. Of these sins we are all guilty; we are all sinners. A denial of sin is a denial of reality.
Other sins we call mortal, because they deprive us of God’s friendship. Mortal sin “destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him (CCC, 1855).”
The Lord Jesus has given us the Sacrament of Penance for the forgiveness of sins, both venial and mortal. He longs to forgive our sins and waits for us in this most sublime sacrament.
We also know that if a mortal sin “is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness,” that is, if it is not confessed, “it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back (CCC, 1855).”
There is no limit to God’s mercy, but we are free to refuse his mercy; he will not force someone who refuses his friendship to be with him in eternity.
At the moment of death, our life choice for God or against him is definitive. “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell.’"
We must, then, consider what is necessary for a sin to be mortal. For an act to be mortally sinful, three conditions must be: the act must involve grave matter; it must be known to be grave; and it must be freely chosen (cf. CCC, 1857). If one of these three conditions is not met, the act is gravely wrong, but not mortally sinful.
The first condition, then, is easily met in cases of suicide, because the act itself is the taking a human life.
We know that “everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him (CCC, 2280).” Because we have not given ourselves life, we cannot claim a right to this life we have; we did not choose to be born and so we cannot morally choose when to die. “We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not our to dispose of (CCC, 2280).”
The second condition is also easily met because “suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life (CCC, 2281).”
Though the first two conditions are easily met regarding suicide, the third condition of a free and deliberate choice is another matter.
We know that “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide (CCC, 2282).” This we learn from modern psychology; only rarely does someone commit suicide with the full and deliberate consent of their will. Consequently, we cannot say definitively whether one who commits suicide does so freely and deliberately; without a free and deliberate choice, the sin is not mortal and a Christian burial can rightly be celebrated for the deceased.
We see, then, that “although we can judge that [the act of suicide] is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons [who commit suicide] to the justice and mercy of God (CCC, 1861).” While we can judge the objective sinfulness of an act, we cannot judge it subjectively; only God can read and judge the soul.
For this reason, the Church teaches 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 (CCC, 2283).”
The greatest prayer of the Church is the Holy Mass, through which the sacrificial death of Christ Jesus is re-presented to the Father for the salvation of all mankind. Through her funeral rites, the Church “commends the dead to God’s merciful love and pleads for the forgiveness of their sins (Order of Christian Funerals, 6).” It is fitting, then, that a funeral Mass be offered for the deceased and the repose of his soul.
It is in moments such as these, when we are confronted with the stark reality of the human condition and our sinfulness, that we recognize our great need for Savior. Seeing our plight, in his great love the Lord promised through this prophet Isaiah, “the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). The Son that is born of the Virgin – “God is with us” – will “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
Let us then commend all the dead into the just and merciful love of God who desires to raise us out of the mire of our sin. Let us look with confident and eager hope to the East, to the Morning Star, whose coming will bring us the light of his holiness. Come, Lord Jesus; come quickly, and do not delay! Amen.