Since 2000, Ottawa Archbishop Marcel Gervais has expressed his opinion on a variety of faith topics. These texts were initially published in the "Ask the Religion Experts" column which appears every Saturday in The Ottawa Citizen. As of June 2005, Msgr. Patrick Powers, Vicar General, will be taking on the responsibility of the weekly articles.

If a person commits suicide, are they guilty of sin? Or has society, particularly their faith community, failed in some way?

Of course, we are all accountable to God for our lives - after all, he is the one who gave them to us. We receive life with gratitude to God and are called to preserve it. In this sense, we are stewards, not owners, of the lives which have been entrusted to us. Hence, the Church teaches us that we cannot dispose of our lives.

Objectively speaking, suicide is "materially" sinful, however, the culpability of the act depends on the state of mind of the individual at that moment. Illness, even depression, can diminish greatly the persons freedom in making that decision. Although the 1917 Code of Canon Law denied ecclesiastical burial to those who committed suicide (c. 1240), the Churchs pastoral approach in these matters has greatly evolved over the years. Today, great discretion is allowed in granting the full Rites of Christian burial in these cases.

Suicide always breaks our ties of solidarity with family, nation and other human societies. In this way, it never fails, whenever this tragedy occurs, that everyone around the individual concerned, feels they have let them down. That is why the Church devotes so much attention to helping those who have been left behind. At the end of the day, for whatever psychological reason, the individual has decided that there is no other solution to their situation.

Taking this into account, the Church calls for deep reflection and great sensitivity in these cases. It centers its thinking on that grave psychological anguish, or the grave fear of suffering which actually diminishes the responsibility of the one who takes his own life. As the Catechism reminds us, in no. 2283, "We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance."