The Catechisms on Suicide

Gravestones 1

A couple of weeks ago I followed a brief discussion about suicide on Facebook. This got me thinking about suicide, especially in light of the ability to prolong life in our medically advanced culture. Is a refusal to take medicine the same as suicide? This and some other thorny questions arise as we consider the issue of suicide. A wise place to begin exploring these questions is the teaching of our fathers in the faith. Here are the teachings of various catechisms and commentaries on catechisms on the commandment, “You shall not murder.” I have put in bold certain lines that pertain to the issue of suicide.

Luther’s Small Catechism 

What does God forbid in the 5th Commandment? God forbids us to take the life of a fellow man and our own life? God forbids us to hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, that is, to do or say anything which may destroy, shorten, or embitter his life.Westminster Larger Catechism

Q135: What are the duties required in the sixth commandment?
A135: The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves  and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.

Heidelberg Catechism

Q: 105. What does God require in the sixth commandment? A: That neither in thoughts, nor words, nor gestures, much less in deeds, I dishonor, hate, wound, or kill my neighbor, by myself or by another: but that I lay aside all desire of revenge: also, that I hurt not myself, nor willfully expose myself to any danger. Wherefore also the magistrate is armed with the sword, to prevent murder.

John Flavel 

Q. 4. Doth this command only respect the lives of others?
A. No; it primarily respects our own lives, and forbids us all things that tend to the shortening and ruin of them; Ephesians 5:29. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord doth the church.

Q. 5. How many ways may men sin against this command, with respect to their own lives?
A. A man sinneth against his own life, not only by destroying himself, as the jailor would have done; Acts 16:27. And the keeper of the prison awaking out of his sleep, and seeing the prison doors open, he drew out his sword, and would have killed himself, supposing that the prisoners had been fled; but by refusing food or physic to preserve life, or macerating our bodies with excessive sorrows; 2 Corinthians 7:10. But the sorrow of the world worketh death. Or envy at others felicity; Proverbs 14:30. But envy, the rottenness of the bones.

Thomas Watson

Thou shalt not hurt thy own body. One may be guilty of self-murder, either 1. Indirectly or occasionally. Or, 2. Directly and absolutely. [1] Indirectly and occasionally; as

(1) When a man thrusts himself into danger which he might prevent. If a company of archers were shooting, and one should put himself in the place where the arrows fly, so that an arrow kills him, he is accessory to his own death. In the law, God would have the leper shut up, to keep others from being infected. Lev 13:4. If any should be so presumptuous as to go to a leper, and get the plague of leprosy, he might thank himself for his own death. (2) A person may be guilty of his own death, in some sense, by neglecting the use of means for preserving life. If sick, and he uses no remedy; if he has received a wound, and will not apply a cure, he hastens his own death. God commanded Hezekiah to lay a ‘lump of figs upon the boil.’ Isa 38:21. If he had not done so, he would have been the cause of his own death. (3) By immoderate grief. ‘The sorrow of the world worketh death.’ 2 Cor 7:10. When God takes away a dear relation, and any one is swallowed up with sorrow, he endangers his life. How many weep themselves into their graves! Queen Mary grieved so excessively for the loss of Calais, that it broke her heart. (4) By intemperance or excess in diet. Surfeiting shortens life. Plures periere crapula, quam gladio [More perish by drink than by the sword]. Many dig their grave with their teeth. Too much oil chokes the lamp. The cup kills more than the cannon. Excessive drinking causes untimely death.

{2] One may be guilty of self-murder, directly and absolutely.

(1) By envy. Envy is tristitia de bonis alienis, ‘a secret repining at the welfare of another.’ Invidus alterius rebus macrescit opimis. ‘An envious man is more sorry at another’s prosperity, than at his own adversity.’ He never laughs but when another weeps. Envy is a self-murder, a fretting canker. Cyprian calls it vulnus occultum, ‘a secret wound;’ it hurts a man’s self most. Envy corrodes the heart, dries up the blood, rots the bones. Envy is ‘the rottenness of the bones.’ Prov 14:30. It is to the body what the moth is to the cloth, that eats it and makes its beauty consume. Envy drinks its own venom. The viper, which leaped on Paul’s hand, thought to have hurt Paul, but fell into the fire itself. Acts 28:3. So, while the envious man thinks to hurt another, he destroys himself. [Watson sees envy as a sort of suicide. Very interesting! P.J.]

(2) By laying violent hands on himself, and thus he commits felo de se; as Saul fell upon his own sword and killed himself. It is the most unnatural and barbarous kind of murder for a man to butcher himself and imbrue his hands in his own blood. A man’s self is most near to him, therefore this sin of self-murder breaks both the law of God, and the bonds of nature. The Lord has placed the soul in the body, as in a prison; and it is a sin to break open this prison till God opens the door. Self-murderers are worse than the brute-creatures, which will tear and gore open one another, but not destroy themselves. Self-murder is occasioned usually by discontent, and a sullen melancholy. The bird that beats itself in the cage, and is ready to kill itself, is a true emblem of a discontented spirit.

[2] In reference to ourselves. The commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ requires that we should preserve our own life and soul. It is engraven upon every creature that he should preserve his own natural life. We must be so far from self-murder, that we must do all we can to preserve natural life. We must use all means of diet, exercise, and lawful recreation, which, like oil, preserves the lamp of life from going out. Some have been tempted by Satan to believe they are such sinners that they do not deserve a bit of bread, and so they have been ready to starve themselves. This is contrary to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt do no murder,’ which implies that we are to use all proper means for the preservation of life. ‘Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake.’ 1 Tim 5:23. Timothy was not, by drinking too much water, to overcool his stomach, and weaken nature, but to use means for self-preservation – to drink ‘a little wine,’ &c.

The Roman Catholic Catechism 


2276 Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible.

2277 Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable. Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator.  The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.

2278 Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted.The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected.

2279 Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted. The use of painkillers to alleviate the sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days, can be morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means, but only foreseen and tolerated as inevitable. Palliative care is a special form of disinterested charity. As such it should be encouraged.


2280 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him.It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We 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.

2281 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.

2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal.Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law. 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 live

7 thoughts on “The Catechisms on Suicide

  1. I look forward to your analysis of many of the standards in these catechisms in light of (1) the modern ability via medical technology to prolong life past the point where medical technology can restore health, and (2) the deployment of, or refusal to deploy, legal tools such as directives to physicians and durable medical powers of attorney.

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    • I got several more coming. One on why the intentional killing of one’s self is murder. One on hard questions, such as is it forgivable. And one on the issue he mentions: Is the refusal to prolong life as far as possible the equivalent of suicide? I will address that along with issues surrounding it. I am not sure how much I will get into advance directives, etc.


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  3. Pr. Peter,

    If you address the ethics of a decision to forego medical products and services which prolong life beyond the point where the absence of such products/services would likely result in death, you’ll have already addressed things like medical directives, which simply memorialize such decisions by a person in advance of situations where such a decision might be made by the person. The directive anticipates a person’s inability to communicate this type of decision to his physician or other medical servants. Current law makes his advance decisions binding on those medical servants.

    “Decisions” is an appropriate term here, for medical directives can be (and often are) quite detailed, specifying with precision when, how, and if a great many medical services should be withheld.


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