Third Irish Roman Catholic priest commits suicide
"The death by suicide of Belfast-based Fr Matt Wallace has stunned many people. He is the third Irish priest to take his own life in the last 18 months. People are understandably shocked by the particular circumstances of each tragedy. But when the dust settles around the death of Fr Wallace, and his brother-priests and parishioners begin to pick up the pieces, it’s vital that some good can be brought out of this tragedy. There is a danger that when the shock dies down, we all get back to business as usual and there is no discussion about the wider questions."So writes Michael Kelly, editor of The Irish Catholic, in a profoundly moving and sensitive piece entitled 'We need to talk about priests'. Please read it. In fact, read it before reading this post any further, or what follows in matters of theology or ecclesiology will be devoid of emotional, psychological and sociological context.
This is not the suicide of one priest in 10 years, which would be statistically irrelevant. It is not even the suicide of two or three priests globally over three or four years, which may find more correlation. We are talking here about the suicide of three priests in Ireland alone over a period of just 18 months, which researchers may hypothesise suggests correlation if not a causal relationship.
According to Émile Durkheim (Suicide, 1897), Protestants are more inclined to commit suicide than Roman Catholics. A more recent study corroborates Durkheim's findings:
"The way we came to work on this issue in the first place," Becker explained, "is we read about Durkheim's thesis where he made the point that Protestants more often have an individualistic religion than Catholics and Catholics more often rely upon the congregation as a group so that in times of trouble, Protestants are more on their own than Catholics."The theology of grace is perhaps of greatest relevance. Roman Catholic teaching on suicide is clear. As set out in John Paul II's Evangelium Vitae (#66):
In addition to this hypothesis, Becker and Woessman also suggest that the different suicide rates may be due to different emphases in Catholic and Protestant understandings of grace. Catholics will more often emphasize the rewards that come with good works or the punishment that comes with sin. Protestants, on the other hand, will more often note that God's grace cannot be earned through good deeds. As a result, it may be that Catholic teachings on suicide are stricter and those teachings become internalized among Catholics.
A third hypothesis has to do with Catholic confession, or the act of regularly confessing sins to a Catholic priest. Protestants do not recognize this sacrament. Since suicide is the only sin that could never be confessed to a priest, a Catholic who finds confession important to avoiding Hell may be less inclined to commit suicide.
Suicide is always as morally objectionable as murder. The Church's tradition has always rejected it as a gravely evil choice. Even though 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, suicide, when viewed objectively, is a gravely immoral act. In fact, it involves the rejection of love of self and the renunciation of the obligation of justice and charity towards one's neighbour, towards the communities to which one belongs, and towards society as a whole. In its deepest reality, suicide represents a rejection of God's absolute sovereignty over life and death, as proclaimed in the prayer of the ancient sage of Israel: "You have power over life and death; you lead men down to the gates of Hades and back again" (Wis 16:13; cf. Tob 13:2).His Grace took this to mean that suicide is a mortal sin. If it be not only 'as morally objectionable as murder', but 'always' so, it is difficult see understand how it might be forgiven before the Throne of Judgement.
But Louise Mensch (via Twitter) set His Grace right on the matter. These priests who commit suicide may not possess an informed intellect (ie know that suicide is wrong); and they may not have given full consent of the will (ie intended to commit the action). If they killed themselves out of fear or psychological imbalance or emotional stress, there cannot be full consent since these impede the exercise of the will and mitigate responsibility. The Catechism states: 'Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide' (#2282). Louise Mensch is right in this: although suicide is a 'gravely immoral act', it is not necessarily a mortal sin. Thanks to Mrs Mensch, His Grace is enlightened.
But in these three suicides over 18 months there is something which ought to alarm the Roman Catholic Church at the very highest level. If we were talking about the third suicide in 18 months of the oppressed sweatshop slave in India or China, there would be rather more noise from the anti-capitalist media. We would hear an awful lot from the BBC and the Guardian about how Apple or Microsoft or Nike treat their workers 'inhumanely, like machines'. But there's not a lot of concern about Irish Roman Catholic priests. Are they worth less than iPad manufactures in Shenzhen and Chengdu? Is the Roman Catholic Church less culpable than Apple?
All suicide is tragedy. We who daily find the will to go on living cannot begin to grasp the depths of despair, hopelessness and loneliness which must be felt by those who resort to the ultimate rejection of God's absolute sovereignty over life and death. But does it not bear a little consideration that this desperate loneliness might be slightly eased by permitting those priests who wish to marry to do so? No doubt Church of England vicars occasionally commit suicide, but is not a life-long partnership of mutual companionship, love and support more likely to guard against intolerable sexual, emotional, psychological and social burdens? As God said: "It is not good for man to be alone." He did not exempt the priesthood. If this were an Apple or Microsoft condition of employment, there would be outrage. It is merely man-made tradition, first mandated at the First Lateran Council of 1123. So, yes, 'We need to talk about priests'. But let us not do so apart from institutional systems, outdated dogma and overbearing hierarchy.