Question 54:

As I understand it, in the Christian religion too, committing suicide is considered a major sin, and a person who commits suicide is (or was) refused a Christian funeral and he will is (or was) buried outside the cemetery. How is it possible that Hannelore Kohl, the wife of the former German Chancellor, has been buried in a Christian grave when she committed suicide?


Answer: According to the law book of the Catholic Church (Codex Iuris Canonici=CIC) which was valid from 1917 to 1983, people who committed suicide were denied a Christian burial. Such people were considered "public sinners". When the norms of the CIC of 1917 were updated in the new law book of the Catholic Church, the CIC of 1983 (Canon 1184), an additional criterion to evaluate the denial of funerals for this group of people was introduced. It was the compulsory individual assessment whether, based on the known personal circumstances of the decreased and the religious-ethical views of the members of the parish concerned, a Christian funeral would be expected, or whether it had to be assumed that public disquiet would be the result. With a Christian funeral, the local parish serves the deceased in brotherly love. Within the given parameters, it, or better, the local bishops and parish priests, therefore have certain powers to make their own decisions.

The following thoughts from the Church about suicide make up the background for these rules. Conscious and voluntary suicide, even when there are high-minded motives, is not morally justified. Free, desired suicide, through which one consciously wishes to document one's autonomy is simply by its nature a denial of God's "Yes" to mankind. It is also a denial of love of oneself, of the natural desire for life, and of the responsibility one has for justice and love of one's neighbor and mankind.

Our Christian faith counters the glorification of voluntary suicide with a view of life that is grounded in faith. Our faith tells us that God can always find us again in any situation in our lives, whether this situation be our own fault or brought about by unsuccessful relationships in our environment.

The philosophical debate about freedom and the moral justification voluntarily to take one’s own life assumes that such a free and voluntary decision is indeed possible. The theological grappling to shed light on this phenomenon has not resulted in the fundamental rejection of such a possibility. In former times, pastoral reality meant that people who had committed suicide were refused a Christian funeral. This stipulation has not been included in the new law book of the Catholic Church, because it is impossible to prove that in committing suicide, a person has truly pronounced their final no to themselves and to God, and because the church condemns the sin of suicide, but not the person who committed it, because it is not certain that he was in the state of mind to freely commit suicide.

With this position mind, the Church has accepted the results of more recent research into suicide. This research has empirically shown that suicide is often the last stage of a developmental period that is strongly connected with a restriction of the mental control of oneself and is the expression of an overwhelming life crisis and/or low self-esteem. Most people who commit suicide do not commit a voluntary act, but rather, they find themselves in an extraordinary situation in which everything leads to suicide. For this reason, anyone who takes his life or attempts to do so, may not a priori be held fully responsible for their actions (see “Katholischer Erwachsenen-Katechismus, Band 2: Leben aus dem Glauben”. Freiburg, 1995, S. 282-284).

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