A couple of months ago, I wrote a column suggesting that we still have too many misconceptions about suicide. Among other things, I stated that many, perhaps most, people who die from suicide are, in the really meaning of those terms, not morally or otherwise responsible for their own deaths but are victims of a disease, not unlike cancer or heart failure. Suicide, understood in this way, is not the act of despair that it has too often been seen to be. Moreover, if this is true, then we need have no extra anxiety about the eternal salvation of those who are its victims.

The piece drew a mixed response. On the one hand, there were a number of sympathetic letters, particularly from people who had personally lost loved ones to suicide. Conversely a number of people wrote and challenged my view by quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church which states that “suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life” and is thus “gravely contrary to the just love of self.” (Catechism, 2281)

What’s to be said about this? Does the Catechism of the Catholic Church contradict what I said about suicide? Is suicide an act that is always “gravely contrary to the just love of self”? There is no simple answer to that question because everything depends upon how we format the word “suicide”. What does it mean “to commit suicide”? Does it always mean the same thing or are there perhaps radically different things being referred to by one and the same phrase?

We could help ourselves, I submit, by making a distinction between something that we might aptly call “suicide” and something else that might more properly be called “killing oneself”. What’s the difference? In the former case (“suicide”), a wounded, over-sensitive person, is over-powered by chaos and falls fatally victim to an illness; while in the latter instance (“killing oneself”), an arrogant, pathological narcissist, acting in strength, refuses to submit to the commonalities of human existence. Not everyone who dies by his or her own hand dies for the same reason, not by a long shot.

We can speak of someone as “a victim of suicide”. The terminology is natural and apt. In a “suicide” a person is taken out this life against his or her will. Why do I say this? Because in fact most of the victims of suicide that you and I have known fit that description. They were claimed by a disease which they didn’t choose. The act that ended their lives was not a freely chosen one. It’s truer to say that suicide was something they fell victim to than to say that it was something that they inflicted upon themselves. Most especially it was not an act of arrogance, strength, or pride on their part. Every victim of suicide that I have known personally has been the very antithesis of the egoist, the narcissist, the strong, over-proud person who congenitally refuses to take his or her place in the humble, broken structure of things. It’s always been the opposite. In every case that I have known, the victim of “suicide” has had problems precisely because she or he was too-sensitive, too wounded, too raw, too bruised, or too weak to find the resiliency needed to absorb some of life’s harshness. In the end, they succumbed to a disease more than they actively did anything positively to harm themselves.

I remember a comment heard at a funeral of a suicide victim some years ago. The victim had been an over-sensitive young man, pathologically self-effacing, who suffered from clinical depression. The priest who presided at the funeral had hinted during the homily that this suicide was somehow the man’s own fault. At the reception afterwards, I overheard a man make this bitter remark: “There are people who should kill themselves – but those never do! This boy was the most sensitive person I’ve ever known. He’s the last one of us who should have committed suicide!” The remark speaks volumes.

“Killing oneself”, as distinct from falling victim to “suicide”, is something quite different. It’s how a man like Hitler passes out of this life. Hitler was not a victim in any sense. By every indication, he killed himself. In his case, and in instances like his, the issue is not that a person is too-sensitive, too self-effacing, too-bruised, and too clinically depressed to cope with normal life (though obviously too we are dealing with a very wounded person whose heart only God can judge). Rather the opposite appears true. Killing oneself, in this instance, is an act of strength, an act that roots itself in a pride, an intellectual arrogance, and a pathological narcissism that, like Lucifer, sets itself before the schema of things and says: “I will not serve!” 

It’s in cases like these, but only in cases like these, that suicide fits what is condemned as morally deficient in the  Catechism of the Catholic Church.