The Robin Williams suicide was so unsettling and the lack of perspective in the press so total that it’s terrifying. It’s certainly a jolt that someone like Williams, whose business it was to bring hope and joy, and who was so gifted and accomplished; would brutally hang himself. It’s not surprising that he had demons since he was brilliant at pushing the culture into the pit. Even if he had been unaware of the powerful negative effect of his work, the reality was still there and it would have weighed on his spirit. He did not have the Faith and practice to save him.
There is a deep misunderstanding of suicide in the West, of despair, and of the gravity of sin. There’s almost nothing about them in the Williams commentaries and that silence screams out death and Hell for the culture. Suicide is rampant and escalating. Twenty U.S. veterans killed themselves on the same day as Robin Williams. Calls to suicide hotlines skyrocketed last week.
There’s very little guidance for souls coming out of the American Church. In fact there’s misdirection. The USCCB’s Catholic News Service (a more official American Catholic source you won’t find) reports:
After 35 years of providing counseling and a Catholic outreach to families with a loved one who died by suicide, Father Charles Rubey has consulted on more than his share of the resulting funerals or wakes. A suicide priest. I didn’t know they had those.
The priest is the founder and director of a Chicago-based ministry called Compassionate Friends, which later evolved into Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide, or LOSS, an entity of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
He still bristles when he occasionally hears misinformation or outdated notions concerning suicide and church teaching. Why be hostile?
“The church’s official teaching in the catechism still lists suicide as a sin but they do add that in most instances there are extenuating circumstances that could severely impair culpability,” said Father Rubey told Catholic News Service in a phone interview.
Twice recently he heard of someone suggesting to surviving families members that their loved one would be automatically deprived of eternal life as a result of completing suicide. Here is a straw man. How is God’s judgment an automatic thing?
The incidents prompted the priest to draft an advisory memorandum for best practices in dealing with and discussing suicide situations in local parishes, and how best to minister to families already feeling the stigma of suicide and the mental illness that often attended the deceased. Make sure those parishes don’t teach that suicide is a grave sin at the moment of death, when you have the least chance of repentance, and it’s impossible to confess to a priest!
“The church’s standing is to be pastoral to the survivors: They feel stigmatized anyway … and so we shouldn’t do anything more because it is a suicide, nor should we do anything less because it’s a suicide,” Father Rubey said. “We do the normal rites and burial, not treating the situation any differently.” Every time someone in the Church wants to be ‘pastoral’, it means looking the other way at sin so the faithful are well-scandalized and ready to imitate. Williams’ older brother also killed himself by the way.
The question remains, if it was common practice throughout Church history to deny funeral rites to suicides, was it not in order to refrain from scandalizing the family and community? The self-deceased would be deprived of the graces of the Mass, but people could always pray for them in a way that would not give so much scandal. If loved ones grieved that there was no funeral, it wasn’t the Church’s fault. It was the fault of the person who took his own life.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that suicide “is seriously contrary to justice, hope, and charity. It is forbidden by the Fifth Commandment (and) contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. … Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.”
What the church no longer teaches is that suicide automatically condemns the deceased to damnation, while denying family members access to a Catholic funeral and burial privileges for their loved one. Again, the Church never taught that suicide automatically condemns to damnation. It always taught that if you die with an unrepentant unforgiven mortal sin on your soul you will go to Hell. This hasn’t changed. It’s not a new Church. I’ve heard so many people say the Church no longer teaches this or that lately!
The catechism notes that “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives.” This quote from the Catechism may lead some to believe that salvation is likely for suicides especially if there are mitigating circumstances (as if that were not usually so), but the truth is to ‘not despair’ means to remain open to a possibility no matter how slight.
“By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The church prays for persons who have taken their own lives,” it states. The commonly used tag line that, “God can do anything” doesn’t really help us learn and keep the Faith though. Of course God can do anything, but He gives us His teaching and His Church to guide is in what WE do, and to help us understand what we can expect from Him.
The Aug. 11 death of actor-comedian and Chicago native Robin Williams has reignited questions about suicide, now the 10th leading cause of death in America. It is thought to often be accompanied by factors such as mental or other illnesses, substance abuse, the pain of social disconnect and other underlying problems.
Father Rubey, whose LOSS program has counseled thousands of family members of the years, said he is saddened but understanding at hearing of William’s apparent suicide and that he hopes people don’t think less of the actor as a result. The is the best suicide priest ever.
Williams, who was reportedly found dead by asphyxiation in his California home, was suffering from longtime bouts of depression and a history of substance abuse about which he spoke publicly and often with humor.
“Does it make sense to me? No, but I understand that he battled with this all his life and he got tired of the pain. [Depression is pain over something that doesn’t concretely exist. Imagine how much more understanding we should be of suicides by people with actual physical pain!] I feel badly for the wife, and all of his fans,” Father Rubey said. “He died of an illness and that is the important part of it, just as a person might die from a car accident or from a cancer. But with mental illness they look like everyone else (on the outside) and it may not be apparent.” Way too much is made of mental illness. These things are almost entirely spiritual, a consequence of vice and lack of Faith. It’s a distracting lie.
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Bill Schmitz Jr., board president of the American Association of Suicidology, a Washington-based research and prevention nonprofit organization, said he grew up in Boulder, Colorado, not far from the house used in William’s “Mork & Mindy” TV sitcom, which aired in the late 1970s.
Fans were flocking to the house in the days following the actor’s death to pay their respects.
“My heart goes out to his family,” said Schmitz, a clinical psychologist with the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System. “This touches all of the entertainment industry, just as it can an entire church congregation (in other cases). I think Williams was really trying to find answers, and I would have loved the opportunity to sit with him.”
Schmitz told CNS that faith communities can and do play an important role in offering support groups and local networks for surviving family members. Churches can be part of the social cohesion that keeps people from completing suicide in the first place. If they could have a support ministry for people who committed suicide they would.
“For a lot of people faith life is a buffer and protector against suicide — one of the key components I look at is a sense of belongingness and a sense of community, and church communities are a powerful buffer against suicide because they fill that need so well,” he said.
“Spiritual, physical and mental health are all interrelated and interdependent. [Make sure you slide that ‘mental’ in there and give it a good shake.] A sense of belonging is more than just saying, ‘I attend services.’ [Services? Does that mean Mass?] It is really about that connection.”
Where there has been a suicide, Father Rubey urged survivors not to make it “the family secret,” and instead talk about it rationally [Not like those outdated notions of the old irrational Church] just with any other tragedy — especially if there is a history of occurrence of suicide in a given family.
“Children have a right to know what is in their genes and it is part of the family history. It can be a very healthy learning experience: that this is not how you handle life’s problems,” the priest said. It’s that suicide gene! I feel so healthy now that I know.
When loved ones ask him the inevitable question: is my loved one in heaven? “That’s a common question people have. My response is always: ‘Sure they are.'” But suicide priests can lie.