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To be or not to be -- parsing the implications of suicide

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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.

Father 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.

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River and serves as the Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia,

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