Conversations about suicide can be awkward. A number of my friends have said that they don’t understand what would cause someone to make that decision. But there’s an answer within Catholic theology.
Pope Benedict XVI wrote that “man can only accept himself if he is accepted by another. He needs the other’s presence, saying to him, with more than words: It is good that you exist. … Only if it is accepted, can it accept itself.” From this acceptance, man can come to understand and know his acceptance by God. Perhaps this is why Fr. John Navone suggests that the pure of heart have a radical vision of acceptance: “To enjoy the beatitude of the pure heart means that wherever you look, whatever you are looking at, what you see is God.”
There’s also a dark side to Benedict’s words. Just as man can only learn to accept himself through acceptance by another, he can only learn a rejection of the self through rejection by another. Benedict continues: “If ever man’s sense of being accepted and loved by God is lost, then there is no longer any answer to the question whether to be a human being is good at all. Doubt concerning human existence becomes more and more insurmountable.”
In Catholic theology, God’s acceptance and rejection are intimately tied to the activity of members of the Church. “Body of Christ” is not merely analogical or metaphorical, but is a reality of such depth that the activity of each Christian can be the literal activity of God. The Catechism teaches about a mysterious union, such that “whomever you exclude from your communion will be excluded from communion with God.”
Acceptance and recognition by others is central to reconciliation with reality. Perhaps as a corollary to Benedict, Romano Guardini writes: “What I do not perceive does not belong to my world.” Just as God sustains the existence of all things by being mindful of them, in a way we can personally annihilate those things that we work to forget, overlook or reject. Then, “They wish I was gone,” can translate to, “I wish I was gone.” Benedict writes, “The moral drama, the decision for good or evil, begins with our eyes, when we choose whether or not to look at the face of the other.” It ends when we look away.
This might help explain the high suicide rates among LGBTQ people. Nearly one in three Americans who commit suicide are LGBTQ, a number as disproportionately high as LGBTQ rejection. A 2012 study found that 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT, and more than 40 percent of these kids either ran away because of family rejection of sexual orientation or gender identity or were forced out of their homes by their parents because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Many perceive religious influences as the source of this social and psychological rejection. More than 60 percent of Americans believe that “negative messages” from places of worship “contribute either a lot or a little to higher rates of suicide among gay and lesbian youth.” This perception is perhaps validated by a recent study finding that, while treatment from mental health or medical providers had no effect on suicide attempt rates for LGB people, faith-based counseling was associated with increased attempt rates.
G.K. Chesterton writes: “[A] suicide is the opposite of a martyr. A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life. A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything.” But for many LGBTQ people, suicide can be a response to Christian family or friends who want to see the last of them. Or it can be a response to the fear that a disclosure of certain parts of their lives would incite such a desire.
Whether right or wrong, it’s a response following a certain kind of logic driven by Christian platitudes about protecting the “traditional family” or condemning “aberrations” to “God’s design.” The Catechism states that suicide “offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity,” but suicide is sometimes a response to ties that have already been broken by others. Just as Evangelium Vitae, “The Gospel of Life,” insists that “every man is his ‘brother’s keeper,’” there’s a gospel of death that corresponds to those who are not kept.
I suspect as mainstream American culture establishes stable places for LGBTQ people to seek fulfillment in society, we will more often tend towards those spaces than the tenuous positions established in conservative Christian communities. If Christian communities want to do more than simply walk the line between life and death for LGBTQ people, we’ll need to create a new paradigm for sexual ethics. As Guardini writes, the moral life becomes impoverished when it is “a mere matter of routine.” It needs, rather, “the creative realization of something which does not as yet exist.” But people might get tired waiting around for it.
This column was published in The Observer on Thursday, December 10, 2015.