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Human life is a precious gift from God and must be preserved with supreme care from its beginning (conception) to its end (natural death). Note well — none of us owns his own life; rather, each life belongs exclusively to God. We are mere beneficiaries and custodians of this precious good.
Many bishops have therefore spoken with great clarity on the matter of medically assisted suicide, with the national bishops' conference of Switzerland stating that the priest "has the duty to physically leave the patient's room during the suicide act."
But the head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Abp. Vincenzo Paglia, has a different view. He commented, "A society that rushes toward a point of view that justifies suicide or a point of view that abandons those who are not good is a cruel society. ... I am convinced that no one must ever be abandoned, no matter what situation they are in." Paglia's idea is that priests should hold the hand of the person committing suicide and accompany him in his grave act against earthly life, God and eternal life.
But it was seen as lawful by some pagan philosophical schools, such as the Stoics (some of whom saw something valuable in suicide). Some of the Epicureans believed suicide was justifiable under limited circumstances. Many centuries later, it was also viewed favorably by the humanists who, in the Renaissance period, revived principles of ancient paganism.
On the other hand, Catholic popes, saints and moral doctors have absolutely —and always — condemned suicide.
Christian morality does admit the possibility of some extremely special and serious circumstances in which a person can lawfully practice an act that indirectly causes his death, where death is not sought as either a means or as an end in itself.
Catholic moral doctors call it the principle of double effect. Essentially, when a moral act has both a good and an evil effect, provided the good effect overweighs the unavoidable bad one, it may be lawful to do the act under certain conditions. The conditions for invoking double effect have been distilled by National Catholic Bioethics Center as follows:
An example of double effect in operation is St. Gianna Molla. The saint was expecting a baby when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The doctors could have operated to remove the tumor, but she would risk losing the baby. The intention was never to abort the baby, but only to remove the tumor. The possible death of the baby would be a secondary, unavoidable effect — thus the surgery would have been morally permissible (in the end, she preferred not to risk the child and thus eventually became a patron saint of the pro-life movement).
Then there are cases of apparent suicide where the person does not seek to directly kill himself but seeks and wants a great good that leads to accidental death. There are cases among the girls and women of the early Church, when, in order to avoid being raped, they threw themselves from a high window or ledge and died as a result. They were martyrs. They did not jump to kill themselves, as a suicidal person does. They jumped in an effort to escape an impending evil that otherwise could not be avoided — perhaps knowing there was a high chance of injury and death, but not actually intending to kill themselves.
A similar logic applies when a soldier in combat protects, with his own body, the life of his general. He knows that, for the good of the homeland, the life of the superior is more important than his own. That's the stuff of which true heroes are made.
In days of pests and epidemics, there were good and faithful priests and nurses who risked the contagion in order not to let the sick perish without the sacraments. Again, these were great acts of heroism that made great saints. Father Damien of Molokai was a Belgian Catholic priest and saint who freely volunteered to live in a leper colony in order to provide spiritual assistance to the lepers. He knew that he might become one of them, given the proximity to terrible disease — and he did. He died a leper, just like the people he wanted to serve.
These were unsung heroes who put to shame the bishops and priests of today (who close the churches and impose unjust regulations in order to avoid the contagion of a disease that has less than a 5% fatality rate).
Always worth mentioning is the great St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who, in August 1941 in the Auschwitz concentration camp, heroically offered himself to replace 1 of 10 men condemned to die of starvation (they would be thrown into an underground prison without light, water or food). Saint Maximilian Kolbe wanted to accompany the other nine who, in their slow agony, would otherwise die deprived of religious assistance and end their lives in despair. He was praised for his gesture and canonized by the Catholic Church.
What a great difference between this accompaniment carried out by St. Maximilian and today's "accompaniment" of people living in adultery, sodomy or with suicidal intentions.
In the Old Testament, we have the classic example of Samson, the strong judge who killed over 3,000 Philistines by overthrowing a building, which fell on them and on himself (Judges 16:22–31).
Another is the example of Eleazar Avaran, who, in the battle of Beth-zecariah, narrated in the First Book of Maccabees, was killed beneath a huge elephant on which King Antioch Eupator supposedly sat. He perished crushed under the weight of the elephant and is praised in the Holy Scriptures as one who "sacrificed his life to deliver his people and to acquire an immortal name" (1 Maccabees 6:32).
Much discussed also is the case of the martyr St. Apollonia of Alexandria, who, during the persecution of emperor Decius in the third century, had all her teeth broken by pagans enraged against Christians. She was carried before a great bonfire and threatened with death by burning, if she did not utter blasphemy. Before the aggressors threw her into the fire, she herself took the initiative to jump into the flames, in a determined statement that she was willing to accept death before blaspheming her loving God.
In each of these cases, there was no suicide or cowardly escape from life, but, rather, a voluntary holocaust — an act of supreme heroism characterized as martyrdom and officially recognized as such by the Church.
Suicide, on the other hand, is when the person takes his own life by a deliberate act because he wants to stop living. Judas Iscariot epitomizes this mortal sin of despair. It is a gravely sinful act because it involves not only cowardice, but a deep lack of trust in God.
Undoubtedly, psychiatric and emotional disorders can, to a greater or lesser extent, mitigate the moral responsibility accompanying suicide. But suicide, in and of itself, is always a sin of great gravity.
Therefore, it is of fundamental importance that every Catholic layman — and even more so priests and bishops — study the encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae to know and defend the gospel of life and to avoid the ambiguities that reign supreme in our day, even in the Church.