Three thoughts on the letter by Eastern Canadian bishops about assisted suicide

To celebrate any sacrament while in a state of mortal sin and/or with the express intention of committing a mortally sinful act in the future is sacrilegious.

The Atlantic Episcopal Assembly (i.e, the Roman Catholic bishops of Eastern Canada) has written a short document to and about Catholics who are considering and/or preparing for “medically assisted dying” (i.e., suicide in accord with recent Canadian law). The AEA document reads quite differently from the superb letter on legalized suicide that the Western Canadian bishops penned a few weeks ago, but, as Rod Dreher has already written a good critique of the Eastern Canadian bishops’ missive, I won’t repeat those points here; instead, I address three, I fear, serious omissions from the AEA letter about the celebration of sacraments with Catholics planning to kill themselves.

The key paragraph reads: The Sacrament of Penance is for the forgiveness of past sins, not the ones that have yet to be committed, and yet the Catechism reminds us that by ways known to God alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance (CCC, no. 2283). The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is for strengthening and accompanying someone in a vulnerable and suffering state. It presupposes one’s desire to follow Christ even in his passion, suffering and death; it is an expression of trust and dependence on God in difficult circumstances (CCC, no. 1520-3). The reception of Holy Communion as one approaches the end of this life can assist a person in growing in their union with Christ.

Now, keeping in mind that suicide is a mortal sin (CCC 2281, 2325) and that Canon 392 § 2 directs bishops “to exercise vigilance so that abuses do not creep into ecclesiastical discipline, especially regarding … the celebration of the sacraments …”, let’s examine three points.

1. The Sacrament of Penance is for the forgiveness of past sins, not the ones that have yet to be committed…

Okay, but, for the validity, not to mention the efficacy, of the sacrament of Penance, one must have, at the time of confession, what is known as a firm purpose of amendment, that is, a resolve not commit mortal sin again in the future. See Halligan, ADMINISTRATION OF THE SACRAMENTS (1962) 220: “The contrition necessary for forgiveness…must also include the resolution, or a fixed and firm determination, not to sin again….This resolution is the best indicator of true contrition…” Or Cappello, DE SACRAMENTIS II (1944) n. 126: “Sorrow must be universal such that it extends to all sins committedand not yet absolved; resolve [not to sin again], on the other hand, must be universal such that it extends to all and every mortal sin even if not yet committed” original emphasis. See also, e.g., Davis, MORAL AND PASTORAL THEOLOGY (1941) III: 366; Prümmer, HANDBOOK OF MORAL THEOLOGY (1957), nn. 660-661.

For someone to go to confession, therefore, while harboring the intention to commit suicide voids the attempt at the sacrament; indeed, it renders such an attempt sacrilegious (CCC 2120). A “pastoral letter” from bishops about the sacrament of Penance, written to and about Catholics preparing to kill themselves in accord with civil law, should teach this pastorally vital point.

2. The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is for strengthening and accompanying someone in a vulnerable and suffering state.

Yes, but, the sacrament of Anointing is, according to the universal opinion of experts, NOT to be celebrated for those facing death as a result of ‘exterior factors’ such as war, dangerous activities, the death penalty, and—I guess we need to say it—suicide. See, e.g., Canons 1004-1006; Halligan 348; Cappello III, n. 232. Moreover, to celebrate any sacrament while in a state of mortal sin and/or with the express intention of committing  a mortally sinful act in the future is—here’s that word again—sacrilegious. A “pastoral letter” from bishops about the sacrament of Anointing, written to and about Catholics preparing to kill themselves in accord with civil law, should teach this pastorally vital point.

3. The reception of Holy Communion as one approaches the end of this life can assist a person in growing in their union with Christ.

Indeed, but, the reception of Holy Communion by one who is consciously preparing to kill himself is objectively gravely sinful, and—once again—a sacrilege. See, e.g., Canon 916; CCC 1355, 1415, 2120; Halligan 110; Prümmer n. 593. A “pastoral letter” from bishops about the sacrament of holy Communion, written to and about Catholics preparing to kill themselves in accord with civil law, should teach this pastorally vital point.

Ps: For some thoughts on ecclesiastical funeral rites for Catholics committing suicide, go here.

(This post originally appeared on the “In the Light of the Law” blog under a slightly different title; it is reposted here by kind permisssion of Dr. Peters.) 

About Edward N. Peters 81 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.