What the Hell?

Catholic doctrine used to teach that people who committed suicide were condemned to hell. No forgiveness; no redemption. Suicide victims were refused Catholic burial rites and Catholic burial grounds. But then the sciences of psychology and psychiatry provided insight into the human person. Catholic priests no longer judge suicide, counseling instead that only God can judge the degree of freedom and therefore responsibility for such an act. Catholic suicides are now offered Catholic funeral rites and allowed a place in a Catholic cemetery.

Did God’s mind change? No, the Catholic Church changed its mind. Did the suicide victims the Catholic Church previously condemned to hell get released when the Church changed its teaching? That question assumes that the Catholic Church had the authority to condemn anyone to hell, which would suggest it was God. Obviously not. If they aren’t in hell now they weren’t in hell before. So, what does this all mean?

It means that God’s love and forgiveness and justice were never controlled by Catholic (or any other religion’s) doctrine. It means that we don’t know the ultimate consequences of suicide or any other harmful act, because only God can know what is in our hearts and minds, and therefore only God can ultimately judge us. But if we understand God through the lens of Jesus of Nazareth we know that God is compassionate and loving and forgiving, even when our doctrine is not.

I know in my heart that my son is at peace and with God. Or I choose to believe it, at least. Because if there is a God, and today I am inclined to believe there is, then God knows my son’s heart and witnessed my son’s pain and welcomed him home, even though it can’t have been the way God wanted things to work out for my son.


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