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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

'It was simply the end of what I could bear': Resetting Christian Theology on Mental Illness and Suicide


Suicide’s relationship to mental illness has long been recognized by the general psychiatric community. Treating suicide as an effect of mental illness goes a long way toward approaching it less as a personal choice and more as an extension of an illness -- a tragic symptom rather than a social sin. This approach, Elizabeth Antus claims, is a way forward for Catholic moral theology, where suicide has long been seen in terms of personal and social wrongdoing rather than as the unfortunate result of deep physical, mental, and spiritual suffering. In her February 21st luncheon colloquium, Antus, a professor of the practice of theology at Boston College, suggested ways that Catholic doctrine be reoriented to destigmatize those who die by suicide without forgetting the damage that suicide does to self, community, and society. Even if the aim of current Catholic teaching on suicide is well intended, namely, to prevent suicide and emphasize its painful and wide-ranging effects on those left behind, the focus on a person’s actions rather than on the social and psychological reasons for those actions threatens to dehumanize and unjustly condemn suicide victims. In her remarks, Antus advocated creating a space to grieve and remember well those who have died by suicide. This both recognizes the tragedy of the event while raising up and remembering those who have passed. Antus used the German Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz to support her argument, saying that, for Metz, theology must be conducted in the midst of theodicy. The question of suffering is omnipresent and cannot be answered, only recognized. This mindset makes rightly remembering the dead essential: recognizing suffering and believing in the saving truth of God means hoping that no one is lost to God because of worldly suffering and the stain of sin. As Antus put it, we must hope that “even suicide decedents are in the communion of saints.” If Catholic theology seeks to engage the issue of suicide more pastorally and with greater mercy, it must begin to see suicide as “simply the end of what I could bear,” a line taken from Kay Redfield Jamison’s Night Falls Fast. “Is it a sin to buckle?” Antus asked. If there simply is no more strength left to hold oneself upright, how can we condemn someone for faltering? Taking this compassionate approach is the first step toward reorienting Catholic teaching on suicide, Antus maintained. A lively question and answer session followed her presentation, which touched on the ways universities fail to offer adequate mental health counseling to students and how to teach about suicide in the Catholic moral theological tradition, among others.