Does the Catholic Church teach that anyone who commits suicide goes to hell?

We all know of someone who has committed suicide, sometimes very closely. It is always a terrible tragedy. We recently got an email that asked:

Does the Catholic Church teach that if you commit suicide you go to hell?

I’ve often been told, usually by someone who has fallen away from the Catholic faith, that the Church teaches that a person who commits suicide automatically goes to hell. It's held up as an example of the Church's intolerance.

Does the Church teach that committing suicide automatically results in hell? The short answer is “no”. The Church has NEVER said ANYONE is in hell. The Church has not even made a pronouncement on Hitler or Judas.

Even the punishment of Excommunication does not mean the Church proclaims the sinner is automatically going to hell either. Excommunication is a serious warning, that can only apply to a baptised Catholic (you can't ex-communion-icate someone who's never been in communion). It warns them that they are on the wrong track, and they are in grave danger. However, that's a completely separate subject.

The slogan “The Catholic Church teaches that suicide=hell” is a popular anti-Catholic slogan found in Quebec, where the suicide rate is among the highest in the world. In all fairness, they have good reason to think that the Church teaches this, due to bad formation of priests in the 50’s. But it’s just not like that. The Catechism has this to say:

2282 “…Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.”

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. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”

All life belongs to God. Even a person’s own life does not belong to them, but rather it was created by God, and although we have free will to do as we wish, we are subject to universal spiritual laws. One of those laws taught by the Catholic Church is that it is wrong to take a life under any circumstance, even your own. Now having said that it is wrong, we have to contemplate what the consequence of that wrong action might be. Well it depends on if it is a grave sin (mortal) or not. For a sin to be mortal it must have three characteristics.

  • It is a gravely wrong action
  • The person knew it was gravely wrong
  • The person did so out of free will

Hell is the consequence of unrepentant Grave (or mortal) sin. It's not “grave” unless all of these factors are present.

Modern court has degrees of guilt for the taking of a life. In all cases the life has been lost, but there are degrees of guilt (1st , 2nd , manslaughter, gross negligence, insanity etc...) based on the intention, heart and circumstances of the person who committed the action.

The spiritual world is not much different. If someone commits suicide; it is likely that they are experiencing a state of insanity of some sort, even if it is temporary insanity, and it is quite possible that one of the three criteria of a mortal sin are missing and therefore, not a mortal sin.

The Church does not teach that it has any power over who goes to hell, or even to guess who is in hell. The only thing the Church can claim is the authority to declare the characteristics that constitute grave or mortal sin (Mat 16:18), and to offer the Sacraments of Reconciliation for those who repent.

For those who have committed mortal sin, and are still alive, there is always repentance. God loves us so much, and he wants us to turn to him.

Suicide is a particularly difficult issue, because it is the ONLY sin for which a person cannot repent. The issue of assisted suicide adds another layer of complexity because the person presumably has had council with others, has discussed it with their doctor and has had time time to think through the consequences, all of which increase their culpability should they choose to go through with it.

Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.
Amen