A priest's jarring homily after teen dies by suicide: The missing link in USA Today's viral story

USA Today has an email newsletter to share its “Most Social” story.

Typically, it’s a viral headline such as “Jennifer Aniston responds to Dolly Parton’s outrageous threesome joke” or “Twitter users mercilessly mock Mike Pence for ‘Elf on the Shelf’ performance in the Oval Office.”

Congrats on our interest in real news, America!

Seriously, though, an actual piece of hard news occasionally crosses my screen via that newsletter: That happened this past weekend with the story of a Catholic priest’s jarring homily at the funeral of a teen who died by suicide:

DETROIT – They lost a teenage son to suicide, then sought compassion from their priest.

Yet, at the packed funeral on Dec. 8, the Rev. Don LaCuesta delivered words so hurtful that Catholic officials in Detroit apologized in a statement emailed to the Detroit Free Press.

Not good enough, the youth's parents said. They want their parish priest removed from his post in Monroe County, south of Detroit.

"Everybody seems to understand but the Catholic Church," said Jeff Hullibarger, father of 18-year-old Maison, a straight-A student and outstanding athlete who ended his own life on Dec. 4. The priest told mourners at the funeral that the youth might be blocked from heaven because of how he died, the couple said.

The extremely sad story was picked up from the Detroit Free Press, a part of the USA Today network of Gannett papers.

Read the whole thing, and it’s made even sadder by a “bully” high school football coach who apparently has been relieved of his duties.

But here’s the question raised that sparked this post at GetReligion: What does the Catholic Church believe concerning suicide?

To its credit, USA Today offers some insight related to that obvious question:

For centuries, suicide was considered an unforgivable sin by Catholic leaders, who denied funeral masses and Catholic burials in such cases, although the church recently softened its position and now finds that suicide can be forgiven when occasioned by extreme stress, according to a 2014 article in the online Catholic Digest. 

A few immediate clues that the writer is not a Godbeat pro (read: religion reporting specialist). First is the lowercased “masses,” which is not proper style, as the Associated Press Stylebook notes:

Mass

It is celebrated, not said. Always capitalize when referring to the ceremony, but lowercase any preceding adjectives: high Masslow Massrequiem Mass.

In Eastern Orthodox churches the correct term is Divine Liturgy.

A reader who commented on the story in an email to GetReligion makes a second, more crucial observation:

How about the Catechism of the Catholic Church, anyone? Paragraphs 2280-2283 deal with this topic directly. This article paints the Catholic Church as bullies when it comes to suicide. Instead this was one poorly catechized priest.

The link embedded with the USA Today article does go to a piece that cites the Catholic Catechism, and that piece includes more links that offer the full text mentioned by the reader:

2280 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.

2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.

2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. 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.

But the fact that USA Today mentions a Catholic Digest article as opposed to the Catholic Catechism is a legitimate criticism. (The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops answers frequently asked questions about the Catechism.)

The story sparked an aggregation rewrite from the Washington Post, which quotes the Detroit Free Press and other news sources. But amid the aggregation, the Post does offer important theological context that USA Today missed — including pointing out exactly how “recent” (or not) the change in the suicide teaching is:

For centuries, the Catholic Church has struggled with the religious implications, and societal stigma, of suicide. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the church began taking a more benign approach to suicide, allowing parishioners who had taken their own lives to receive a Catholic funeral and be buried on sacred ground in Catholic cemeteries. In the 1990s, Pope John Paul II approved the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which acknowledged — for the first time — that many people who die by suicide also suffer from mental illness.

“Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide,” the catechism states. “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance.”

In USA Today’s defense, reporting on the Catechism is a bit more difficult than covering Jennifer Anniston and “Elf on the Shelf.”

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