Suicide and forgiveness; heaven for those B.C.

| Father Kenneth Doyle | September 24, 2015 | 0 Comments

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; at age 50, he took 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 would like to have someone who is removed from the scene tell me what the Catholic Church’s thinking is on this subject.

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. Human remains have been found that are 50,000 years old. But Christ came to earth only 2,000 years ago. Are all those “pagan” people before Jesus now in purgatory? And why did he wait so long to come?

A. My first instinct is to quibble with your use of the word “pagan” to describe all those who lived on earth before Jesus. My dictionary defines “pagan” as “a follower of a polytheistic religion” or “one who has little or no religion and who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods.” I hardly think that definition fits the Jews — who fought to defend monotheism, had a strong commitment to prayer and a strict code of personal morality.

But on to your question. Catholic theology has traditionally taught that the righteous who came before Jesus were in the “limbo of the fathers,” a sort of spiritual waiting room where they remained until “in his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church in No. 637.

As to why Christ “waited so long” to come to earth, that is a matter of perennial speculation — to be answered, I suppose, only in heaven when we can ask the Lord ourselves. One theory is that the Roman Empire provided the optimal setting, because by then common roads and a common tongue united the known world and the message of the Gospel could spread more quickly. (By that same reckoning, though, others would argue that the present day would have been better, since Twitter offers a worldwide system of instantaneous communication.)

Father Doyle writes for Catholic News Service. A priest of the Diocese of Albany, New York, he previously served as director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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