For centuries, the official stance of the Catholic Church prohibited funerals and burials of individuals who committed suicide. Although a few distinctions allowed for burials in exceptional circumstances, Catholics generally denied funerals as a means of discouraging the act of suicide. In recent years, however, the Church has reversed its prohibition and has taken a more lenient view on suicide.
The Church's Stance
Although the Catholic Church had long prohibited funerals for suicide cases, dissenters began to challenge the taboo in the twentieth century. Following a discussion within the Church, a papal decree reversed the Church's official position on suicide in 1983, allowing Catholic families to bury their loved ones according to Catholic rites regardless of cause of death. The Church has not changed its official stance against suicide, but it does not wish to cause further aggravation to the family of the deceased. Furthermore, according to the Catholic United for the Faith website, the Church recognizes the role mental health and external factors can play in the decision to commit suicide.
Prior to 1983
Historically, the Catholic Church has held various positions regarding suicide. Although the early Church did not prohibit funerals for suicide victims, suicide was denounced as a sin in the fourth century. This didn't prohibit funerals officially, but made suicide a taboo in the Catholic Church. It wasn't until Saint Thomas Aquinas claimed that suicide was one of the most grave sins -- since an individual cannot repent for it -- that the Church solidified its position. The ban was not meant as a punishment, but rather as a discouragement for individuals contemplating suicide.
Even when the Church banned funerals for suicide victims, it did make certain exceptions based on the distinction between direct and indirect suicide. The Church always banned direct suicide, defined as suicide committed when the individual actively and knowingly wanted to die. However, according to the New Advent website, the Church often permitted funerals for victims of indirect suicide, such as when a soldier who does not want to die willingly goes into a battle that he knows will likely result in his death.
Funerals for suicide victims often do not differ significantly from other Catholic funerals. In many situations, the family may not want to endure a scandal, and the priest may avoid mentioning the cause of the individual's death. In other situations, the priest and the family pray for forgiveness for the act of suicide. However, according to the Global Catholic Network, although the Catholic Church's official stance has changed, the Church does not force priests to hold funerals for suicide victims, and in many cases, the final decision about the funeral is made by a local bishop.
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