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Suicidal loopholes

November 19, 2012

I’m a few months late picking up on this, but it’s too fascinating not to post here. Back in August NPR’s “This American Life” did a piece on death and loopholes consisting of two stories, one from 18th c. Austria, one from the last few years. The first one is of particular interest for our purposes (though the second one is worth listening to/reading as well).

To summarize: say you’re depressed and want to commit suicide, but you fear going to hell. One solution is to take a slow-acting poison and get to confession before it actually kills you. But the dosage can be hard to get right, and you need to be really careful: if you take too much, you won’t get a chance to confess, and will go to hell. A more reliable way:

She decides, I’m going to murder a child.

You kill a child; the child, being before the ages of reason and therefore innocent, goes to heaven; you turn yourself in to the authorities and confess to a priest before being executed, and so don’t go to hell; everyone’s happy. Absurd, you say? Apparently there are records of nearly 300 such incidents.

I’m not sure what to make of this. Surely no moral system should make the consequences of suicide be worse than the consequences of suicide-by-infanticide?:

Well, the pastor will say to the person being executed, do you think God can be fooled in this manner? You know that by doing this, you actually have committed suicide and so forth. And so the pastors really do address that theological problem, that this is a loophole. You’re trying to cheat God. But because they have enough time, the condemned criminal can say, oh, yes, I was trying to cheat God. I was trying to commit suicide, and I repent. So confession takes care of it all.

Many would see this as a proving the absurdity of traditional Catholic moral teaching re: confession, or re: suicide, or re: punishment. I’m not sure what to think of it. I don’t think those things are absurd, but I do agree they give rise to serious difficulties, difficulties I don’t know how to solve. Among them:

Re: confession, the priest is, on one level, right; these women can’t seriously expect to be forgiven, given that their asking for forgiveness was built into the sin they committed. At the same time, if confession didn’t forgive sins despite them being committed with the intention of confessing them later, it would be almost useless: one need only confess sins committed with full knowledge of their sinfulness; if one sins with full knowledge, one invariably tries to justify/excuse oneself; and among the most obvious such justifications/excuses is the thought “well it’ll be OK I’ll just confess it later.” This confessional circularity seems in many ways similar to the circularity of humility, how one cannot be consciously humble without taking pride in one’s humility and thus falsifying it.

Re: suicide, it’s true that these sorts of incidents could be prevented if we stopped saying suicide was unforgivable. And, in point of fact, that’s basically what modern Christianity does; at least, it says it a whole lot less. But the Christian prohibition of suicide (and of infanticide–and it’s interesting how these stories are so horrific because they involve not just murder, but infanticide, something the ancients would have considered no more horrific than suicide itself) can’t be simply removed. The Christian approach to mortal life is centered around an almost unbearable tension: life is a “vale of tears,” and yet we cannot reject it, and indeed must “be fruitful and multiply.” Unfortunately, these prohibitions end up stringing up those whom it seems most cruel to subject to this tension. Most people who commit suicide aren’t Dostoevskian over-men, they’re just people suffering from mental illness, and most who commit infanticide aren’t McCarthian judges, they’re just mothers who can’t deal with another child.

Re: punishment, the modern Christian response tend to be a plea for mercy; suicide and infanticide are sins against the self, not crimes against the city; our response should not be secular punishment, but rather a religious plea for repentance. It’s true that, by not executing infanticides, we can continue to forbid suicide without pushing desperate people into suicide-by-infanticide. And it’s possible that, by not punishing attempted suicide, we make people tempted towards suicide more willing to seek help. But no one will believe that Catholics are serious in calling abortion murder so long as they don’t want to prosecute the women who get them; and not making suicide a crime seems to lead almost inevitably to euthanasia, such that, instead of people committing suicide secretly, believing that no one cares if they live or die, they commit suicide publicly, knowing that no one cares if they live or die.

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