Whether or not Epstein committed suicide remains to be confirmed. But federal data shows that suicide rates in the U.S. are at the highest they’ve been since World War II, and even higher than they were during the Great Depression, according to a report from TIME magazine.
The Catholic Church teaches that suicide is a violation of the 5th commandment “Thou Shall Not Kill,” and a mortal sin.
CNA spoke with three moral theologians about suicide, on the hope for salvation that the Church holds for those who take their lives, and the obligations of the state to protect prisoners from themselves.
Grave matter and mortal sin
David Cloutier is a moral theologian and associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Cloutier told CNA that when considering suicide, it is important to remember that it is taught by the Church to be a grave sin.
“(That) means all things considered, this is a serious matter, and to make a choice against life is to choose against God, who gives everyone the gift of life, and to also choose against your obligations to others,” Cloutier told CNA.
In a section on suicide, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that God is the master of life, and that human beings “are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of. Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life.”
The Catechism adds that suicide “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.”
While suicide is grave matter, the Catechism also notes that in order for a person to commit a mortal sin, three conditions must be a met: that the sin is grave matter, and that the person commits the sin with “full knowledge and deliberate consent.”
There could be mitigating factors, such as mental illness or some other kind of great distress, that might relieve a person of at least some culpability in committing suicide, Cloutier said.
The hope for salvation
Even given the gravity of suicide, Christians should always hope in the love and mercy of God in cases of suicide, Scott Hefelfinger, a moral theologian and assistant professor of theology at the Augustine Institute in Denver, told CNA.
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“If we lose all hope with respect to this person's salvation, we could in fact be sort of repeating the same emotional disposition of despair that afflicted the person who did commit suicide. So we're counseled to hope rather than despair,” he said.
“We put our trust in God's mercy.”
Furthermore, Cloutier said, the Catechism itself is “pretty straightforward” in saying that those who commit suicide are not necessarily denied eternal salvatinon, because the state of their mind and soul at the time of committing the act is a factor.
If the person was in “some kind of emotional stress, or depression, or other various ways in which a person’s emotions get in the way of fully knowing what they’re doing,” their responsibility is at least somewhat mitigated, he said.
Fr. Edward Krasevac, OP, is a professor of theology, and the theology department chair at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California.
Krasevac said that because the will to live is such a basic human instinct, it seems possible that many cases of suicide are committed by people who are influenced by serious clinical depression or other mental illnesses or psychological factors that would impair their judgment and mitigate to at least some degree the consent of their will.