Thursday, August 4, 2011


This is an essay I wrote back in July of 2005, but a friend suggested that I re-print it in light of the suicide of another Mobile Archdiocesan Catholic priest, Fr Ernie Hyndman.  And so here it is, with the slightest of re-working to make things a bit clearer.

I have had to face the issue of suicide as a pastor 4 times in the last 12 months [of 2004-2005], and it is one of the hardest things to do: the families are filled with so many conflicting emotions—grief, confusion, anger, fear, and so on. I also have several friends who battle mental diseases of one kind or another; I know the way they are ravaged by their illnesses. I recently received an e-mail from someone who is struggling to bring a bit of light to the tragedy of Fr. [Michael] Labadie’s death. I want to share an excerpt from it, and then to offer some comments of my own, in presentation of the Church’s teaching. The person wrote to me, in part, as follows:

“Church members who work with me have met me in the hallway, restrooms etc. have exclaimed, "But he was a priest! How could this happen?" My first reaction is to explode, but then I get my composure and try to educate them in a more gentler way. (I can't begin to address the topic that priests are human too…) Even after this, these individuals only remember our early teachings in religion classes that suicide is a mortal sin and you go to Hell for it. I pray for the Labadie family because they will face even more judgmental comments since their son was a priest.”

This is certainly, and very unfortunately, true. We all remember when suicide and many other things were classified as mortal sins, any one of which, even once, could consign a person to Hell. What was the context out of which this view emanated?

Until very recently, it was believed that actions done were actions chosen with sufficient freedom to make them sinful, and the person was by definition morally culpable (blameworthy). This is the view that led people to believe that alcoholism, for example, was simply a moral weakness that a person could overcome with sufficient effort and desire. But when the Church began to take seriously the insights of psychology, it became clear that our freedom to choose is often far more limited and compromised than we had previously thought. We learned that there are more kinds of compulsions than external, physical ones.

We learned also that mental illnesses like depression or bi-polar disorder can lead to behaviors that usually are seen as malicious when in fact they are the acting-out of the disease, often with little or no free choice involved in the persons, who cannot understand why they are compelled to feel and act as they do.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognizes all of this. Its teaching is clear. Suicide, if freely chosen, is indeed “gravely contrary to the just love of self,” and is mortally sinful. We can rationalize our way to evil, and it remains evil. Yet, the Catechism also teaches: “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. …God can provide…” (CCC ##2281-2283). We know two things for certain: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1), and God is a God of love, mercy, forgiveness and healing.

Priests are human beings and are subject to illnesses of all kinds, physical and emotional. When a priest (especially a priest whose intense desire is to be holy and to be united with God forever in Jesus Christ) commits suicide, therefore, it is the strongest evidence that the disease took over the person, much as cancer or heart disease might. What I am saying here applies in general terms also to others, not ordained, who succumb to the ravages of mental illnesses of whatever kind. The choice is not free, and to the extent it is not free, to that extent it is not mortally sinful (even if it is devastating).

The Gospel for the 14th Sunday of Cycle A (Matthew 11:25-30, just this past Sunday) reminds us that Jesus calls us all, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will give you rest.” Sometimes the burdens we carry, self-inflicted or laid on us by circumstances, are too great to be relieved in this world. As Jesus is the one who makes the promise, though, He will be the ultimate source of eternal healing for us all: those who suffer from mental illnesses (even leading to suicide), those who suffer physically (from diseases like cancer or diabetes or cerebral palsy), and those who struggle morally with temptations like materialism, lust for power, self-centeredness of any kind. Our God is an awesome God, who can take us all up in His hands—to bless, to heal, to love. May we all fall into those hands!


  1. Beautiful, as always. Much love to you Father D ~ Robin E.

  2. Well said Father. Enjoyed this piece.