In this post here on the blog recently, I wrote about attending a memorial service at a Catholic Church for a young woman (in her 20s) who had committed suicide.
In response, a representative of Paraclete Press, a Catholic publishing house, asked if I'd be interested in reading Fr. Ronald Rolheiser's 2018 book on the subject, Bruised & Wounded: Struggling to Understand Suicide. I agreed to do just that.
It's only 77 pages long so it's a really quick read. And I very much like Rolheiser's approach, which emphasizes the reality that people who commit suicide have something like a disease that they can find no way to cure. It's similar to understanding mental illness as a disease that, like a broken leg or cancer, needs treatment. But sometimes no treatment works and the result is a sad and disastrous death.
Rolheiser is right that "suicide is still perhaps the most misunderstood of all deaths. We still tend to think that because it is self-inflicted it is voluntary in a way that death through physical illness or accident is not."
As a Catholic priest, Rolheiser is naturally interested in conveying a word of hope and comfort to those who are grieving the loss of someone who died by suicide, and he gives it a sincere shot, particularly in light of Catholic teaching found in the Catechism on the subject. It says, "Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God."
Rolheiser does his best to soften and even ignore that view, but, in the end, he finds himself not quite able to offer the comfort that particularly Catholic families certainly seek when one of their members dies by his or her own hand. There's always a small hedge to Rolheiser's attempt to assure families that the person who died is safely in God's loving hands forever.
For instance, he writes that "in most cases, we should not worry about the victim's eternal salvation." I can imagine a grieving family hearing that and immediately wondering whether the person they lost is one of the exceptions to that "most cases" rule. In another place he writes that "we need not worry unduly about the eternal salvation" of those who commit suicide. Worry unduly? How much worry would be enough? And does that mean that someone without "eternal salvation" will spend eternity in a lake of fire, as proposed by those who believe in the physical reality of hell?
And yet Rolheiser comes close again and again to offering the kind of comfort that families need at such a time. He writes, for instance, that "no God worth worshiping could ever condemn any of these persons to exclusion from the family of life simply because of the manner of their deaths." Well said. But if that's the case, what's with the use of "in most cases" and not worrying "unduly"?
At one point Rolheiser tries to make a distinction between "suicide" and "killing oneself." A suicide, he says, means that "a wounded, oversensitive person is overpowered by chaos and falls fatally victim to an illness." By contrast, killing oneself refers to a case in which "an arrogant, pathological narcissist, acting in strength, refuses to submit to the commonalities of human existence."
Tellingly enough, when Rolheiser wants to offer an example of someone who dies by his own hand but not of an incurable depressive situation or other emotional disaster, the one he comes up with is -- wait for it -- Adolf Hitler, almost always the terrible example of any sin or grievous behavior and surely, therefore, someone who deserves to go to hell. It strikes me that in any self-inflicted death, those left behind can never, ever fully understand the motive. But Rolheiser is convinced he knows why Hitler killed himself 74 years ago. It was what he calls an act of "strength, an act that roots itself in a pride, an intellectual arrogance and a pathological narcissism that, like Lucifer, sets itself before the schema of things and says, 'I will not serve!'"
So here he is talking with grieving readers again about hell and the manager of the property, Lucifer. How comforting. I suppose it's inevitable when the author believes in -- and perhaps feels obliged to believe in -- the reality of such eternal punishment. So he offers this to the grieving: ". . .nobody goes to hell out of weakness, out of a broken heart, out of a crushed spirit, out of the misfortune and unfairness of never having had the sense of being truly loved. Hell is for the strong, for those with a spirit so arrogant that it cannot be crushed or broken, and so is unable to surrender."
All of this sidetracks what Rolheiser wants to be his primary message, which is that "God is not a God of punishment, but a God of forgiveness."
If that's true of God -- and as a Christian I certainly believe it to be so -- then perhaps we should rethink the idea of eternal, cruel punishment for some. And that's exactly what the Christian Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart has done in his important forthcoming book, That All Shall Be Saved. The book won't be published until Sept. 24, however. But watch for my review of it here in my Sept. 21/22 blog post.
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ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS ON JOURNALISM ABOUT RELIGION
Yesterday here on the blog I mentioned some good investigative journalism done by The National Catholic Reporter. But that kind of journalism about religious communities also can -- and should -- come from outlets that are not religious in nature. A good example is the Chicago Tribune's recent look at finances on the Catholic Church in its area. The reporter who did that writing, David Heinzmann, was interviewed recently on National Public Radio. Here is that interview. Faith traditions make up part of the whole social fabric and, therefore, should be covered by traditional journalism in the way that it also covers politics, education, sports, economics and other subjects.