Does someone who has taken their own life have a chance of going to heaven?
What prevents a person from entering heaven or not (i.e., to be saved or not) is to die in a state of grace, in other words, to die without mortal sin. For someone to commit mortal sin, there are necessary conditions:
1 – that there is grave matter (this is the objective element of all sin),
2 – that one has full knowledge that it is grave and
3 – that one perfectly consents to the grave act (these last two conditions are the subjective elements that are required for there to be a substantially human act).
In the case of suicide, it is certainly a grave matter since human life (one’s own and that of others) are fundamental goods of the person guarded by the commandments of the natural law and by the ten commandments of the divine law. It must then be seen, in each particular case, whether the person was in full possession of his faculties to perform a fully human act. In the following I will try to outline the general principles in order to be able to make an approximate judgment of this painful phenomenon (the follow can be seen in St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, q64, a5; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2280-2283).
Suicide properly consists of killing oneself on one’s own initiative or authority, either by action or omission.
It is divided into direct suicide and the indirect taking of one’s own life, depending on whether death is attempted directly or only allowed in pursuit of another purpose (such as someone who, trying to save another person, risks his life and dies).
It was considered lawful on philosophical principles by Hume, Montesquieu, Bentham, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and some stoics such as Seneca. Closer to our times, existentialism made it a positive value, as the ‘ultimate freedom of life’ (Jaspers). Some have defended it as a matter of patriotic, military, or personal honor.
The statistics are chilling, even considering that the official data is lower than the reality. The relationship usually established between actual suicides and attempts varies according to the various authors consulted. Some says that there is one suicide every three attempts; others affirm that for every suicide there are ten failed attempted. Therefore, as an average it can be said that for every suicide there are at least five unsuccessful attempts. The WHO (World Health Organization) indicated in 1976 that every day 1,000 people in the world take their lives (which would indicate that another 4,000 or 5,000 attempt it). Approximately 500,000 people die by suicide each year (and therefore 2,500,000 attempts).
Christian tradition, the doctrine of the Magisterium and theological reflection have had no double about the moral inadmissibility of the taking of one’s own life. If there has been any evolution, it has only been regarding the evaluation of the guilt and the subjective responsibility of the person who commits or attempts this act.
In order not to make an erroneous judgment, it is necessary to distinguish between the ‘objective’ judgment of taking one’s life and the judgment of the ‘subjective responsibility’.
a) Objective assessment of suicide
As St. Thomas has already indicated, direct suicide, objectively considered, is a gravely illicit act, for three main reasons:
1 – Because it is contrary to the natural inclination (natural law) and to the charity by which one should love oneself.
2 – Because it does injury to society which man belongs and which his act maims: it unjustly deprives it of one of its member who should collaborate for the common good.
3 – Because it offends God: “life is God’s gift to man, and is subject to His power, Who kills and makes to live. Hence whoever takes his own life, sins against God, even as he who kills another’s slave, sins against that slave’s master…For it belongs to God alone to pronounce sentence of death and life” (St. Thomas, ibid)
Pius XII described it as a ‘sign of the absence of faith or Christian hope’ (speech of 2/18/58). The Second Vatican Council placed it with other crimes that threaten life itself, judged as “…these things…are infamies indeed…they are supreme dishonor to the Creator” (Gaudium et spes, 27). The Declaration on Euthanasia (5/10/1980) affirms: “Intentionally causing one’s own death, or suicide, is therefore equally as wrong as murder.” The entire doctrine of the Magisterium has been summarized by the Catechism in articles 2280-2283.
Sacred scripture does not deal with it, but it is legitimate to see it included in the commandment that says: Do not kill (Ex 20:13). St. Augustine has interpreted it in such a way: “It is not lawful to kill oneself, since this is to be understood as included in the precept Do not kill, without any addition. Do not kill, therefore, neither another nor yourself. For indeed, he who kills himself, kills a man” (De civitate Dei, I, 20).
As for the so-called indirect taking of one’s life (i.e., the person who loses his life because of another action, such as the doctor or the religious who is seriously infected while attending to the sick and dies for this reason) is also illicit, unless the cause is seriously proportionate. Although the action that indirectly brings about death may not be bad or even good (as in the example given: the charitable act of caring for a seriously contagious patient), just and proportionate cause is required to permit one’s own death. It is permissible to take risks by appealing to the principle of double effect; in this case, the conditions that the action must meet in order to be lawful are:
- That the action or omission is good or indifferent
- That a good effect also follows (and with the same or greater immediacy of the bad)
- That only the good is intended
- That there is a proportionate cause (such as the good of the country, the spiritual good of others, the exercise of a virtue, etc.).
b) Judgement on subjective responsibility
Another thing is the evaluation of the moral responsibility of taking one’s life. Until last century it was common to judge one who committed suicide as responsible for his act, and therefore guilty. Nowadays, both the social situation and the moral formation of modern man force us to have other criteria of evaluation.
In other words:
1 – given the social situation potentially fraught with a suicidal mentality;
2 – given the high number of psychically fragile and even mentally disturbed subjects;
3 – and given, finally, the scarce or almost non-existent moral values that can counteract the prevailing antilife mentality…
…it could be admitted that: in cases where there are no elements to judge that a suicide is fully voluntary, it can be presumed that the persona who has taken his own life has not enjoyed sufficient moral responsibility, or even, in some cases, has been totally irresponsible. It could be said that, in many cases, what must be demonstrated is the ‘total responsibility’ of the suicide.
In any case, it must be said that in many cases there are certain elements that can serve as a guide to elaborate a particular judgment on the objective responsibility of the taking of one’s life (leaving, of course, the ultimate judgment to God alone). Thus, for example, the following indicate full responsibility: the fact that the act has been prepared for a long time, or with precise motivation, or by a psychically healthy person. Also, that the decision has matured within a conception of life in which there is no place for God or in which there is no meaning to life based on philosophical principles.
On the other hand, the follow are indications of incomplete responsibility: when the act is done impulsively, under the shock of a tragedy, occurring in contrast to a whole life or conception of life in which there seems to be no place for it or lastly, when the one who takes their own life suffers from a psychic disturbance.
Society itself is largely responsible for the phenomenon of suicide, insofar as it exerts or allows influences that lead to such an outcome. Among these elements it is worth mentioning:
- The breaking down of primary groups, especially the family; the disappearance or at least the weakening of family relationships (with the consequent predominance of functional and utilitarian relationships) leads to the isolation of individuals, condemning them to face their deepest personal problems alone.
- the “value” propositions that do not satisfy the deepest demands of the soul (well-being, personal affirmation, wealth, hedonism, cult of personality, idolizing or deification of certain public figures).
- The negligence in forming the character of its members with an authentic human education. This, instead of strengthening the psychic structures, weakens them. Noticeable psychic weaknesses arise from this.
Fr. Miguel A. Fuentes, IVE
 See also: LINO CICCONE, Non Uccidere, Ed. Ares, Milán 1988, p. 107ff;