CHURCH FUNERAL FOR THOSE WHO COMMIT SUICIDE?
CHURCH FUNERAL FOR THOSE WHO COMMIT SUICIDE?
Rev. Fr. Michael ‘Leke BANJO
NCCLDF Seminar: November 6, 2017.
The above topic is informed by my encounter with priests of different dioceses in Nigeria who have had to deal with the case of their parishioners committing suicide. While very few of those I met have gone ahead to accord the deceased Church funeral, others have done otherwise. Upon further probing, I realized that some of them were not abreast of the teaching of the Church on this matter.
One of the main concerns of this group, Canon Lawyers Platform, should be the dissemination in our various localities of the correct position of the Church as expressed in the magisterium and Canon Law. As such, it is expected that this discourse will have a ‘butterfly effect’, creating significant increase in the level of awareness on this subject and helping to foster unity in our response to such a pastoral issue.
- SUICIDE IS A GRAVE SIN
Suicide, the deliberate taking of one’s life, remains a grave sin in the teaching of the Church. God, the Creator of life, has entrusted our lives to us that we may preserve and use it in harmony with His own design. At no time does God cease to be the ultimate Master of human life. “Human life… remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end”. As such, any form of wilful destruction of human life – suicide, abortion, murder, euthanasia, capital punishment, all forms of killing of embryos – by persons is an assumption of God’s authority as the One who has absolute dominion over human life. To wilfully commit suicide is to claim to be the master of that life and, as such, to fail to acknowledge God as the Sovereign Lord of one’s life.
The CCC is unambiguous in its description of suicide as an act that goes contrary to the natural predisposition of persons and the demands of just love for oneself, for others and for God:
Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbour because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.
In other words, wilfully taking one’s life is gravely sinful because it violates the greatest of all the commandments – love; love of self, love of the other, love of the family, love of the society and love of God.
- CANONICAL LEGISLATION (1917 and 1983 codes of canon law)
Under the 1917 Code of Canon Law, those who wilfully commit suicide are numbered among those to be denied Church burial. According to Canon 1240 §1 of this 1917 code, “unless they gave before death a sign of repentance, the following are deprived of ecclesiastical burial:
- Notorious apostates from the Christian faith, notorious adherents of a heretical or schismatic sect, or of masonic order or other societies of this sort.
- Excommunicates or those under interdict after a condemnatory or declaratory sentence
- Those who killed themselves by deliberate counsel
- Those who died in a duel or from wounds received in it
- Those who ordered that their body be handed over for cremation
- Other public and manifest sinners
Canon 2350 §2 of the same 1917 code reiterates the regulation of denying Church burial to those who commit suicide: “persons who lay hands on themselves shall, if death ensues, be deprived of ecclesiastical burial in accordance with precept of Canon 1240, n.3…”
So strict was the disposition of the 1917 code against those who commit suicide that the corpse of such persons were not only prohibited from being brought into the Church, pastors were also forbidden to have any form of prayers over them or to intern them in Church cemeteries. It was generally believed that persons who committed suicide condemned themselves to hell.
In the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the above regulations on suicide have been excluded. Canon 1184 §1 of the 1983 code (the equivalent of Canon 1240 §1 of the 1917 code) provides thus:
“Church funerals are to be denied to the following, unless they gave some signs of repentance before death:
- Notorious apostates, heretics and schismatics
- Those who for anti-Christian motives chose that their bodies be cremated
- Other manifest sinners to whom a Church funeral could not be granted without public scandal to the faithful
With the above provision of the 1983 code, therefore, the act of wilful suicide, while remaining an objectively grave sin, is no longer specifically or explicitly listed among the impediments to ecclesiastical burials. However, caution needs to be exercised as some cases of suicide may fall within the category mentioned in Canon 1184 n. 3 of the 1983 code; i.e., “other manifest and unrepentant sinners to whom a Church funeral could not be granted without public scandal to the faithful.” An example of such is cited in the CCC: “if suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal” (CCC, 2282). Under such circumstances, as long as the individual did not give any sign of repentance before death, Church funeral may be denied him/her.
- THE JUSTIFICATION FOR ACCORDING CHURCH FUNERAL TO THOSE WHO COMMIT SUICIDE
Crime, just like sin, cannot be committed unless one has carried out the sinful action out of freewill. This is why in Canon Law, there can be no penalty for one who has done what is objectively wrong unknowingly or involuntarily. In order for a crime or a sin to be committed, the individual must be morally responsible for that particular criminal or sinful action at the very time it was carried out. According to canon 1321 §1, “No one can be punished for the commission of an external violation of a law or precept unless it is gravely imputable by reason of malice or of culpability.” In other words, to be held morally responsible, the individual must have acted out of malice; that is as a result of a deliberate intention to act contrary to the law. A person would, therefore, not be said to be morally or juridically responsible for the violation of a law if such a person lacked, temporarily or habitually, the use of reason at the point the law was violated.
In relation to suicide, the Church puts into consideration the internal disposition of persons who commit such acts. Persons often commit suicide as a result some mental or psychological imbalances or some extremely difficult life circumstances that gravely overwhelms them. This fact of mental or psychological imbalance explains why canon 1041, n.5 ranks those who have attempted suicide among persons that are irregular for the reception of orders. It has been established that a majority of persons who take their own lives or attempt to do so are acting not freely but under some form of compulsion. Some are not mentally stable. As such, they cannot be held responsible for their actions. In this regard, the CCC enumerates such factors which, if present in an individual, render him/her incapable of acting freely and, therefore, diminish the responsibility of the one who has committed suicide. These include:
- Grave psychological disturbances
- Grave fear of hardship
This teaching finds expression in the magisterium of Pope St. John Paul II when he affirmed that “a certain psychological, cultural and social conditioning may induce a person to carry out an action which so radically contradicts the innate inclination to life, thus lessening or removing subjective responsibility…”.
Therefore, in handling cases of suicide, except when it is evident that an individual deliberately intended to commit the act, the benefit of the doubt – on whether any of the above factors that diminish moral responsibility was present or not – is given to the victim. The provision of canon 18 cannot be ignored that “Laws which prescribe a penalty, or restrict the free exercise of rights, or contain an exception to the law, are to be interpreted strictly.” To deny one who has committed suicide Church burial, there is to be some form of certainty that the rational faculties (intellect and will) of the perpetrator are intact: that the person’s intellect is illumined appropriately by the right understanding of the sanctity of life and the sinfulness of suicide and that the will was deliberately exercised in a way that is contrary to the truth which resides in the intellect. To go ahead to grant Christian funeral to such a person who rationally committed suicide will cause scandal among the faithful, giving them the impression that the Church approves of such anti-life acts.
As we have seen, the 1983 code of canon law excluded the provision of canon 1240 §1 n. 3 in relation to not granting those who wilfully commit suicide Ecclesiastical funeral. While that remains the case, looking at the wording of the pertinent canon of the 1917 legislation (Those who killed themselves by deliberate counsel), one sees that the spirit of that canon, 1240 §1 n. 3 (CIC 1917), remains implicitly in force to some extent under the 1983 code of canon law. It is our duty, as experts in Canon Law, to teach what Canon Law stipulates. Let it be widely known that there cannot be an a priori denial of Church funeral to those who commit suicide. To be on the safer side, where there is uncertainty regarding the motive behind the commission of the act, the provision of canon1184 §2 should be adhered to: “If any doubt occurs, the local Ordinary is to be consulted and his judgment followed.”
Very apt in wrapping up this write-up are the words of CCC, no. 2283:
We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.
Once again thanks for the enlightenment. In some part of Nigeria, if not all, Christianity is still being regarded as a foreign religion by some people till date. That is the reason for the combination of both the traditional religious practices and Christian religious practices. In a culture where the burial of a person who committed suicide, no matter the reason, is forbidden, what can the Parish Priest do, knowing that the people will not participate at the burial however he tries to convince them?
 This is a modification and update of a publication I did in 2013.
 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Vitae, no. 5.
 Except when it is the only way of protecting the lives of others from being harmed by the unjust aggressor – CCC, no. 2267.
 Cf. Evangelium Vitae, no. 66; CCC, no. 2280.
 CCC, no. 2281.
 Mt. 22:35-40
 Cf. CCC, no. 2282.
 Evangelium Vitae, no. 66
 Emphasis is mine to buttress the point that under the 1983 code, those who take a rational decision to commit suicide (kill themselves by “deliberate counsel”) are not given Christian funeral.