Can suicide be forgiven?

Q. I need an answer. Our son had been suffering from clinical depression since he was 4 years old. All of the doctors and all of the medications we tried over the years seemed to do little to help. One year ago, his own son died in an auto accident

Q. I need an answer. Our son had been suffering from clinical depression since he was 4 years old. All of the doctors and all of the medications we tried over the years seemed to do little to help. One year ago, his own son died in an auto accident at the age of 24, and that seemed to be more than our son could handle. Last week we received a phone call that our son, aged 50, had taken his own life.

The priest from our church spent that evening with us. He told us that our son was forgiven because it was mental illness that caused him to take his life. Since my sister found out about my son’s self-inflicted death, she has refused to speak with us. I am wondering whether she believes that someone who commits suicide, no matter what the reason, is condemned forever.

I am writing to you because I would like to have someone who is removed from the scene tell me what the Catholic Church’s thinking is on this subject. (City of origin withheld)

A. Suicide, objectively, is a grave sin. God has gifted us with life. We are only its stewards, not its masters. But in reminding us of that, the Catechism of the Catholic Church in No. 2282 is quick to note that the moral responsibility for a suicide may be diminished because the inner turmoil a person was going through precluded sound reasoning.

The catechism goes on to say in No. 2283 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.”

In contrast to older versions of the Code of Canon Law, Canon No. 1184 no longer lists a person who died by suicide as someone who should not be given a Christian funeral.

Moral judgment in such cases is best left to God. The Church’s approach to the tragedy is pity, not condemnation, and your parish priest had a sound basis for the comfort he offered you.

Q. Is it still required to abstain from meat on all the Fridays of the year? I was in Minnesota and read in a parish bulletin that this was true (i.e. all Fridays, not just during Lent.). Recently my daughter was visiting from Virginia and said that she had heard the same thing. What is the truth? (Breese, Illinois)

A. The simple and direct answer to your question is “no.” Catholics in the United States are not required to abstain from meat on Fridays. But the full and fair response is more complicated. Catholics throughout the world are obliged to observe each Friday as a day of special penance in recognition of the fact that Jesus died for us on that day. The Church’s Code of Canon Law (specifically Nos. 1251 and 1253) grants national conferences of bishops the authority to determine what, specifically, that penance might entail for Catholics of their countries.

In 1966, the bishops of the United States issued a “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence” in which they removed the obligation for American Catholics to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year. (The bishops said that on the Fridays during the season of Lent, they were preserving the tradition of abstinence from meat “confident that no Catholic Christian will lightly hold himself excused from this penitential practice.”)

In 2011, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales restored year-round Friday abstinence as the rule for those countries. The US bishops have not done so, although in their 1966 statement, people were strongly encouraged to adopt such a practice on their own. (“Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance which we especially commend to our people for the future observance of Friday, even though we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin … we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law.”)

Lost in much of the discussion — and, I would guess, in the understanding of many American Catholics — is this: Abstaining from meat on Fridays is optional; doing penance on Fridays is not. If you choose to eat meat on Friday, you should — in fidelity to Church law and to Church tradition — substitute some other practice of self-denial. In this way, Christ’s passion and death on Good Friday is highlighted and honored.

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