Is Suicide Lawful?

Originally published in the Catholic Mind, March 8, 1916, pp. 136-139.

A CORRESPONDENT writes to the Bombay Examiner and Ernest R. Null responds:

Sir: Read the famous (or infamous) lines from 'Barrack Room Ballads' (by Kipling): When you're wounded and lying on Afghanistan's plains And the women come out to cut up what remains, just roll to your rifle, and blow out your brains And go to your God like a soldier.  Has any leading Catholic opinion ever been given with regard to this piece of philosophy, if I may call it such?  I can assure you that there are men now who would 'roll to their rifles and blow out their brains' did the necessity arise.  In fact it has already been done, as you know.  Would you kindly give us some advice with regard to this, as I have heard every view, except the Catholic one, very cleverly expounded at different times.

The practice of suicide seems to have gone through several phases in human history.  First comes the purely natural and unsophisticated instinct of self-preservation, the love of life no matter what evils may attend it.  Then comes the idea, arising from a noble instinct, of sacrificing one's own life for the sake of others, for the saving of one's family, friends or country, of which we have some signal instances in early Roman history.  Then, as civilization grows artificial, there arises a keen, proud sense of honor which leads to abuse.  Thus in the corrupt later times of the Roman Empire it was quite an ordinary thing for a man to commit suicide, either because he had suffered disgrace, or in order to avoid disgrace which was impending.

Christianity rectified this crooked idea by emphasizing the principle that a man's life was not his own, but was a thing given to him in trust by God; and therefore it was not to be done away with at will.  Christianity still approved of self-sacrifice in the interests of justice and right, where such self-sacrifice was calculated to bring benefit upon a noble or just cause.  But such self-sacrifice was not suicide; it was the willing acceptance of death from others in the act of championing the right.  In consequence of Christian teaching, suicide in medieval Christendom was an extremely rare thing, and one which, when it did occur, was looked upon with horror as a deadly crime.

The revival of pagan ideals through the Renaissance brought suicide to the fore again, as one of the expedients of a 'great soul' to avoid disgrace, dishonor or disaster; and in proportion as belief in God and the ethical principles of Christianity have declined, so in proportion has suicide increased.  Moreover, on account of the fact that every instance is now reported in the newspapers, people have got quite used to it.  Suicide has become quite an ordinary expedient and resource for any one who finds himself in a quandary.  If an officer in the army suffers a defeat, or a statesman finds himself confronted with failure or disgrace, or a manager or cashier has defalcated and is on the point of being found out; or if any one suffers a financial loss, or the bereavement of a wife or child; or even if a man is in ill-health or pain or depression of mind, there is always one obvious way out of it-either to blow one's brains out, or take arsenic, or cut one's throat, or hang oneself with a halter, or throw oneself into a well.  Then the police are called in, and an inquest is held, and everybody says, 'How sad!' and all is over and soon forgotten.

Is suicide of this kind an act of bravery or an act of cowardice?  In one sense it is an act of bravery, that a man should have the courage to proceed so violently against himself, overriding the instinct of self-preservation and love of life.  But on the other hand it is an act of cowardice, because it means shirking the hardships of life instead of facing them bravely like a man.  Even as an act of bravery it is a virtue misplaced, and applied to a wrong object.  But in any case one thing is certain.  There still survives among right-thinking mankind a deep conviction that suicide is an essentially unreasonable act.  This is conclusively proved by the strenuous endeavors made at every inquest to bring in a verdict of 'temporary insanity,' the implication being that so long as a man is of sound mind, he will never dream of such an act.

Suicide is essentially immoral.  We can admire all instances in which a man exposes himself to certain death in order to save the life or honor of some other person, or to promote the well-being of his family or country, or to stand up for his religion.  But this does not mean suicide; it does not mean killing oneself, but accepting death from another.  Suicide is the deliberate taking away of one's own life, or assuming to oneself that dominion over life and death which belongs properly to God alone.  And no matter what the motive, this is never allowed.  Hence the sentiment quoted in the verses of Kipling must be condemned as pure and simple paganism, and a total contravention of the elements of the moral law.