Moral Briefs – Chapter LXIX – Is Suicide A Sin?

cover of the ebook 'Moral Briefs' by Father John Henry StapletonMost people no doubt remember how, a short time previous to his death, Col, Robert Ingersoll, the agnostic lecturer, gave out a thesis with the above title, offering a negative conclusion. Some discussion ensued in public print; the question was debated hotly, and whole columns of pros and cons were inflicted on the suffering public by the theologues who had taken the matter seriously.

We recall, too, how, in the height of the discussion, a poor devil of an unfortunate was found in one of the parks of the Metropolis with an empty pistol in his clinched fist, a bullet in his head and in his pocket a copy of the thesis: Is suicide a sin?

To a Christian, this theorizing and speculation was laughable enough; but when one was brought face to face with the reality of the thing, a grim humor was added to the situation. Comedy is dangerous that leads to tragedy.

The witty part of the matter was this: Ingersoll spoke of sin. Now, what kind of an intelligible thing could sin be in the mind of a blasphemous agnostic? What meaning could it have for any man who professes not to know, or to care, who or what God is?

If there is no Legislator, there is no Law; if no Law, then no violation of the Law. If God does not exist, there can be no offending Him, Eliminate the notion of God, and there is no such thing as sin. Sin, therefore, had no meaning for Ingersoll; his thesis had no meaning, nothing he said had any meaning. Yet, people took him seriously! And at least one poor wretch was willing to test the truth of the assertion and run his chances.

Some people, less speculative, contend that the fact of suicide is sufficient evidence of irresponsibility, as no man in his right senses would take his own life. This position is both charitable and consoling; unfortunately, certain facts of premeditation and clear mindedness militate so strongly against such a general theory that one can easily afford to doubt its soundness. That this is true in many cases, perhaps in the majority of cases, all will admit; in all cases, few will admit it. However, the question here is one of principle, and not of fact.

The prime evil at the bottom of all killing is that of injustice; but in self-destruction where the culprit and the victim are one and the same person, there can be no question of injustice. Akin to, and a substitute for, the law of justice is that of charity, by which we are bound to love ourselves and do ourselves no harm or injury. The saying “charity begins at home” means that we ourselves are the first objects of our charity. If therefore v/e must respect the life of our neighbor, the obligation is still greater to respect our own.

Then there is the supreme law of justice that reposes in God. We should remember that God is the supreme and sole Master of life. Man has a lease of life, but it does not belong to him to destroy at his own will. He did not give it to himself; and he cannot take it away. Destruction supposes an authority and dominion that does not belong to any man where life is concerned. And he who assumes such a prerogative commits an act of unquestionable injustice against Him whose authority is usurped.

By indirect killing we mean the placing of an act, good or at least morally indifferent, from which may result a benefit that is intended, but also an evil – death – which is not intended but simply suffered to occur. In this event there is no sin, provided there be sufficient reason for permitting said evil effect. The act may be an operation, the benefit intended, a cure; the evil risked, death. The misery of ill health is a sufficient reason for risking the evil of death in the hope of regaining strength and health. To escape sure death, to escape from grave danger or ills, to preserve one’s virtue, to save another’s life, to assure a great public benefit, etc., these are reasons proportionate to the evil of risking life; and in these and similar cases, if death results, it is indirect suicide, and is in nowise criminal.

The same cannot be said of death that results from abuses or excesses of any kind, such as dissipation or debauchery; from risks that are taken in a spirit of bravado or with a view to winning fame or lucre. For a still better reason this cannot be said of those who undergo criminal operations: it is never permitted to do what is intrinsically evil that good may come therefrom.

All this applies to self-mutilation as well as to self-destruction; as parts of the whole, one’s limbs should be the objects of one’s charity, and God’s law demands that we preserve them as well as the body itself. It is lawful to submit to the maiming process only when the utility of the whole body demands it; otherwise it is criminal.

One word more. What about those who call upon, and desire death? To desire evil is sinful. Yes, but death is a moral evil when its mode is contrary to the laws of God and of nature. Thus, with perfect acquiescence to order of Divine Providence, if one desire death in order to be at rest with God, that one desires a good and meritorious thing and with perfect regularity; it is less meritorious to desire death with the sole view of escaping the ills and troubles of life; it would even be difficult to convict one of mortal offending if he desired death for a slight and futile reason, if there be due respect for the will of God. The sin of such desires consists in rebellion against the divine Will and opposition to the providence of God; in such cases the sin is never anything but grievous.