Time to head off confusion in Canada

Not everyone who kills himself does so under conditions that would permit him to be accorded ecclesiastical funeral rites and at least two sets of suicides should be denied ecclesiastical burial.

Regarding the Christian burial of suicides the Pio-Benedictine Code differed from the Johanno-Pauline Code in that the former law expressly listed suicides as among those “public and manifest sinners” ineligible for ecclesiastical burial (1917 CIC 1240), while the current law refers, in pertinent part, only to “manifest sinners who cannot be granted ecclesiastical funerals without public scandal of the faithful” (1983 CIC 1184). Because, however, Catholic tradition has long recognized self-murder as objectively gravely evil (CCC 22802281), there is no doubt that Catholics who kill themselves risk deprivation of ecclesiastical funeral rites (including a funeral Mass, per c. 1185) even though suicide is not expressly mentioned in the new law.

That said, something has changed in the Church’s approach to pastoral issues raised by suicide. Her recognition of the depravity of self-murder remains, but her awareness of the impact that various psychological factors, including a sense of loneliness, isolation, abandonment, and so on, might play in diminishing one’s personal, subjective culpability for having committed suicide (CCC 2282) is at work, too. I know of no canonist or moralist who holds that a Catholic who, on his own and often with little warning to others, simply and suddenly kills himself, should be deprived of ecclesiastical funeral rites. To the contrary, such persons should be prayed for (CCC 2283) and a Mass intention for such a one may be accepted (c. 901).

Nevertheless, not everyone who kills himself does so under conditions that would permit him to be accorded ecclesiastical funeral rites and I suggest at least two sets of suicides who, under canon law as it currently reads, should be denied ecclesiastical burial.

The first are those (usually) men whom science describes as “family annihilators”, men who murder their families and then kill themselves. I have written about these kinds of cases before and hold today the views I expressed in 2008: murdering-suicides should be refused ecclesiastical burial.

Second are those who commit suicide in accord with evil civil legislation and/or court rulings that provide a legal process for killing oneself while providing exculpatory protection to those assist in such suicides. Self-murder committed in accord with civil law differs plainly and significantly from the isolated individual who kills himself.

As I noted in some detail in 2009, persons who kill themselves in accord with civil law perform a number of public, verifiable steps that—if the laws are being applied as they are written—all but eliminate any ‘pious presumption’ of diminished culpability for one’s self-murder. The ‘benefits of the doubt’ that we want to accord to ‘traditional suicides’ can hardly be offered to those who kill themselves under civilly-approved circumstances. To accord to such persons ecclesiastical funeral rites indistinguishable from the liturgies the Church grants to the faithful who die natural (sometimes even heroic!) deaths cannot but give scandal to the faithful. Indeed, to use the sacred rites of the Church for such ends is, I suggest, to commit a grave liturgical abuse, one savoring of sacrilege (CCC 2120).

The bishops of western Canada (acting as bishops are supposed to act under, among other norms, c. 392 § 2) showed true pastoral solicitude for their faithful when they upheld and re-explained, in these terribly confused times, the Church’s doctrine and discipline concerning (among other things) ecclesiastical funeral rites. Some bishops in eastern Canada, in contrast, have said only that they “don’t plan specific directives aimed at refusing … the celebration of funerals.” Now on the one hand, refusing “specific directives” leaves, one would think, the universal law intact, so, no ecclesiastical funeral rites in the wake of one’s assisted suicide; on the other hand, confusion over the moral and canonical impact of killing oneself ‘legally’ seems every bit as troublesome in eastern Canada it is in western, so a more forceful reiteration of Church teaching and a pastoral explanation of canon law might be needed lest episcopal silence be misunderstood or ambiguous comments misconstrued.

Finally, ‘assisted suicide’ is, along with ‘legal abortion’ and ‘compassionate infanticide’, one of the three heads of that cerberus known as the Culture of Death. Precisely insofar as the modern death cult is cultural, it permeates everything and can appear anywhere. It must be quickly recognized for what it is and confronted wherever it manifests itself. If that means, in part, invoking the salutary admonitions of canonical discipline against manifest sinners and protecting the faithful community from the danger of scandal, so be it.

That’s what the law is there for.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Edward N. Peters 120 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.