Is Suicide, Even in War, Always Wrong?

DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS: The Catholic Church has taught since the apostolic period that intentional self-killing — suicide — is wrong, not only when done for trivial reasons, but for any reason.

A Japanese Zero Kamikaze crashes into the sea after trying to hit the aircraft carrier USS Essex (CV-9) off Okinawa, May 14, 1945. The vessel in the background is a U.S. Navy Cleveland-class light cruiser.
A Japanese Zero Kamikaze crashes into the sea after trying to hit the aircraft carrier USS Essex (CV-9) off Okinawa, May 14, 1945. The vessel in the background is a U.S. Navy Cleveland-class light cruiser. (photo: U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)

Q. I recently watched a show on the underground network in Czechoslovakia during World War II. The network provided its members with cyanide capsules should they be captured and tortured. Would the network members have done something immoral if they took the capsules to protect their fellow patriots? What does Church teaching have to say about this? — Barry, Linfield, Illinois

A. The network members were undoubtedly courageous. And it is likely they were ignorant of any wrongdoing on their part. But it is important to understand that the Catholic Church has taught since the apostolic period that intentional self-killing — suicide — is wrong, not only when done for trivial reasons, but for any reason.

Pope St. John Paul II teaches:

“If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain ‘irremediably’ evil acts; per se and in themselves they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person” (Veritatis Splendor, 81).

In this scenario, the suicide is a kind of mercy-self killing (self-euthanasia). In the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II condemns euthanasia:

“I confirm that euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person” (65). Earlier in the encyclical he taught the general norm, “the deliberate killing of an innocent human being” (which self-killing with cyanide involves) “always constitutes a grave moral disorder” (62).

Now this case with the cyanide capsules is different from the soldier who jumps on a grenade in a foxhole to save his friends. In that case, his aim is not (we presume) to kill himself, even though he knows he’ll likely die. His aim is to protect his friends by providing a barrier from the blast with his body.

The threatened Czechoslovakian patriot, however, needs himself dead. His act does not just result in his death, like the soldier in the foxhole. His act intends his death. Intentional killing of the innocent always involves a bad will.

You might be tempted to reply, “So what, you want him to be tortured!?” Such a reply is not helpful. It caricatures the situation. No upright person wants him or anyone else to be tortured. What we want is for moral truth to be respected even in difficult situations. “But that’s what you’re essentially saying, isn’t it?” No, what I’m saying is that among the many or few alternatives for acting in this crisis situation, one alternative that should always be excluded is suicide.

In fact, this is a first principle of moral decision-making: Whenever we are contemplating doing anything, we should exclude at the outset from our deliberations any wrongful alternative. Only then may we rightly proceed with deciding what we should in fact do.

This teaching is based upon the truth that we should always reverence human good and refuse under any circumstance to willingly destroy or attack certain goods for the sake of other goods. St. Paul says the first requirement of Christian morality is “Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10). This means a good end does not justify an evil means; and that so-called “lesser evils” should not be chosen.

The dominant moralities today all say that if there is good to be gained by doing some evil, do the evil and gain the good. If morality were only about maximizing beneficial results this might be plausible.

But morality, the Church teaches, is chiefly concerned with the goodness of the acting person, with the moral self-determination that free choice realizes in people’s characters:

“Human acts are moral acts because they express and determine the goodness or evil of the individual who performs them” (Veritatis Splendor 71).

If I do evil to achieve good, I become evil:

“If the object of the concrete action is not in harmony with the true good of the person, the choice of that action makes our will and ourselves morally evil, thus putting us in conflict with our ultimate end, the supreme good, God himself” (72).

In the Catholic Church today there are many who advocate a theory called Proportionalism. Proportionalists do not treat human good as inviolable. They say that when a sufficiently great good is at stake, it becomes legitimate to do what otherwise would be wrong and unreasonable.

For example, the U.S. government has held a policy of nuclear deterrence for 60 years. This requires the real willingness to wipe out, not 100, or 1,000, but many millions of innocent people. If push came to shove, our leaders are willing to press the proverbial button. They hope push never comes to shove, that the deterrence works, but they are willing to strike population centers if necessary (if they weren’t willing, the threat would not be credible). They figure they have to be willing to do this to protect the country. We see the Proportionalist assumption at work: When a sufficiently great good is at stake, it becomes legitimate to choose to do what otherwise would be wrong, even unthinkable.

What makes Proportionalism plausible is that in the fallen world there are always cases in which doing what is really good, what’s consistent with moral truth, is going to have bad results, sometimes very bad results. Look at what happened to Jesus. All he did was live a good human life and refuse to lie about his true identity when he went to Jerusalem that fateful Passover, and the results were disastrous.

But Jesus’ life offers us a lesson in Christian morality. It teaches that some actions — such as lying and killing — always constitute a disorder of the will and so never can be pleasing to God. This is a hard teaching, I know. But not all the teachings of the Gospel cause warm feelings.

Because Proportionalism was (and is) so prominent among theologians and Churchmen, John Paul II knew he had to publicly and forcefully condemn it. And so he taught in Veritatis Splendor:

“Such theories … are not faithful to the Church’s teaching, when they believe they can justify, as morally good, deliberate choices of kinds of behavior contrary to the commandments of the divine and natural law. These theories cannot claim to be grounded in the Catholic moral tradition” (76).