Last rites for last wrongs: Pastoral accompaniment of Catholics who have requested euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide

David Albert Jones explores pastoral guidance provided by Catholic bishops in different countries for sacramental and liturgical practice in cases of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide.

Suicide and Christian burial
To take your own life is to take the life of a human being. It is not only an act of self-harm but also has a harmful, sometimes devastating, impact on others. It deprives the world of a unique and irreplaceable person. From a theological perspective, it is both a failure to accept one’s life as a gift from God and a failure to accept death when God wills, not when I will. It is a failure to die to oneself. In former centuries, the Church, in an effort to discourage suicide and aware of the spiritual damage that it causes, denied those who died in this way a Christian burial.

Since the early modern period, however, and especially in the twentieth century, there has been a development in the Church’s theological understanding and pastoral practice in this area. Theologians have become increasingly aware that suicidal thoughts and actions are typically an expression of a disturbed mind rather than a conscious rejection of the gospel. In the words of the Catechism (2282–3):

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

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