Until the late 20th century, suicide was considered by the Catholic Church to be one of the worst sins a person could commit. According to the influential 13th century priest and theologian Thomas Aquinas, it was the only sin for which one could not repent, making salvation impossible. Even as Enlightenment thinking in the 17th and 18th centuries inspired many throughout Europe to re-examine the issue of suicide, Catholic beliefs on the topic held firm.
Early Beliefs About Suicide
Suicide was made an official sin largely as a result of the writings of Aquinas, and the church’s stance would remain consistent for the next seven centuries. Aquinas reasoned that suicide harmed the community, and that it was an overreach of authority –- only God should determine death, he concluded. Further, the church’s view was that God had authority over the human body, and a body was only an individual’s to use as an earthly vessel in service to God. Aquinas decided that to commit suicide was to violate this agreement.
The church believed that, since people who committed suicide would die in a state of sin, they could not repent and could never achieve salvation. Even those who had committed other mortal sins, including murder, were not considered to be beyond salvation, since they could still arguably repent for their sins.
After the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, and the subsequent separation of Protestant churches from the Catholic Church, this view of suicide remained not only within the Catholicism, but in all mainstream Christianity.
18th-Century Thoughts on Suicide
In the 18th century, long-held views about taking one’s own life became a topic of philosophical discussion in a way that had long been taboo. Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire explored the subject, often arguing for an individual’s right to take his own life. Shakespeare depicted many of his characters opting for suicide, and the poet John Donne wrote a defense of suicide that was published after his death in the 18th century.
But the Catholic Church did not waver in denouncing suicide as a sin, and was clear in its message that anyone who took his own life would be denied a funeral mass and could not be buried in a Catholic cemetery, or in any grounds that were associated with the church. Denial of burial was largely a deterrent act, meant more to emphasize the dire spiritual consequences of suicide than to punish the deceased.
It was not uncommon for the Catholic Church of the 18th century to weigh the circumstances around a suicide and, if there was evidence of mental illness or other exceptional circumstances, to grant the deceased a funeral mass and burial in consecrated grounds.
For this reason, the church made distinctions between what it termed “direct” and “indirect” suicides. A direct suicide was caused by self-destructive behavior intended to cause one’s own death, while an “indirect suicide” was the result of putting oneself in harm’s way, or failing to properly care for oneself, but without the intention of causing one’s own death. Other forms of suicide that were seen as noble -– like martyrdom -– were also considered an exception.
Attitudes Toward Suicide: Then and Now
The Catholic Church's attitude toward suicide in the 18th century is markedly different from the church's modern-day approach to the issue. While the Catholic Church still condemns suicide, it accepts a more nuanced understanding to the circumstances surrounding such an act. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes an individual's responsibility for his own life, but also assures the possibility of grace and mercy for those who have committed suicide -- and it clearly states the church's commitment to pray for those who have died by their own hands. A change to canon law in 1983 permitted funerals rites, including mass and burial in consecrated grounds, to those who had died by suicide.