ROME, NOV. 15, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: What is the current stand of the Church regarding the possibility of funeral Masses “in corpore presente” of persons who are said to have committed suicide? Is it true that there already are mitigating circumstances, like the possibility of irrationality at the moment of taking one’s life (even if there was no note), whereby it would be possible to suppose that the person was not in his right mind, and that therefore it is licit to let the funeral entourage to enter a church and a funeral Mass be said? — E.C.M., Manila, Philippines
A: In earlier times a person who committed suicide would often be denied funeral rites and even burial in a Church cemetery. However, some consideration has always been taken into account of the person’s mental state at the time.
In one famous case, when Rudolph, the heir to the throne of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, committed suicide in 1889, the medical bulletin declared evidence of “mental aberrations” so that Pope Leo XIII would grant a religious funeral and burial in the imperial crypt. Other similar concessions were probably quietly made in less sonorous cases.
Canon law no longer specifically mentions suicide as an impediment to funeral rites or religious sepulture.
Canon 1184 mentions only three cases: a notorious apostate, heretic or schismatic; those who requested cremation for motives contrary to the Christian faith; and manifest sinners to whom a Church funeral cannot be granted without causing public scandal to the faithful. These restrictions apply only if there has been no sign of repentance before death.
The local bishop weighs any doubtful cases and in practice a prudent priest should always consult with the bishop before denying a funeral Mass.
A particular case of suicide might enter into the third case — that of a manifest and unrepentant sinner — especially if the suicide follows another grave crime such as murder.
In most cases, however, the progress made in the study of the underlying causes of self-destruction shows that the vast majority are consequences of an accumulation of psychological factors that impede making a free and deliberative act of the will.
Thus the general tendency is to see this extreme gesture as almost always resulting from the effects of an imbalanced mental state and, as a consequence, it is no longer forbidden to hold a funeral rite for a person who has committed this gesture although each case must still be studied on its merits.
Finally, it makes little difference, from the viewpoint of liturgical law, whether the body is present or not. If someone is denied a Church funeral, this applies to all public ceremonies although it does not impede the celebration of private Masses for the soul of the deceased.
The same principle applies to funeral Masses of those whose body is unavailable for burial due to loss or destruction. Certainly the rites are different when the body is present or absent, but the Church’s public intercession for the deceased is equally manifest in both cases.
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Follow-up: Confession for RCIA Candidates
In the Nov. 1 column on confession for Protestant candidates who were about to enter the Catholic Church, I mentioned that “Eastern Christians were treated differently.”
A Minneapolis reader asked: “What is this ‘very different position’ of the Eastern Christians? Should they or should they not receive the sacrament of penance before they are publicly received into the Catholic Church?”
Eastern Christians share the same sacramental practice and faith as Catholics, even though they are not in full communion.
Because of this, the Catholic Church permits them to receive the sacraments of reconciliation, Eucharist and anointing of the sick for any just cause when one of their own priests is unavailable. Likewise, a Catholic may receive these sacraments from an Eastern Christian for a similar cause.
For example, Catholics who work or vacation in a predominately Orthodox country where a Catholic Mass is unavailable, may freely attend and receive Communion at an Orthodox Divine Liturgy although they would not be obliged to do so.
The Church asks Catholics in such situations to respect the requirements of the local Church regarding such things as fasting before Communion.
It is important to note that not all Eastern Churches have the same law as the Catholic Church on this matter. Some do not allow their faithful to receive the sacraments in other Churches, nor do they offer this possibility to others. Once more, we need to be attentive to different sensibilities.
A priest writing from Hong Kong asked: “What about for those Protestant denominations whose baptism is doubtful (because of the form, etc.), and the candidate receives conditional baptism? Should they also go to confession before the conditional baptism?”
If conditional baptism is foreseen, the confession should be postponed until a suitable time after the celebration, since certainty is required in questions regarding the validity of the sacraments.
Of course, confession is not necessary immediately after baptism, as this latter sacrament removes all sins. In the case of a conditional baptism, however, it probably does much good to the spiritual health of the new Catholic to avail of the opportunity of confession as soon as possible.
Finally, a reader from Ontario asked about marriage: “I just read your response to the question about the validity of the sacrament of penance for a baptized non-Catholic person before being received into the Church. Now this has made me wonder about the validity of my marriage as a sacrament. I went through the RCIA program and was baptized. Since I was civilly married to a Catholic, I was required to get married in the Church before my baptism. My question is: Since I was not baptized at the time of the marriage ceremony, is my marriage a sacramental marriage?”
Here the question is rather complex, but I will try to put it into a nutshell.
As our reader was only civilly married to a Catholic, her husband was in an irregular situation with respect to the Church, which does not recognize the validity of such marriages.
Her subsequent marriage to him would have been made with a dispensation, which transformed her relationship into a valid, but not yet sacramental, spousal bond.
The moment she received baptism, her valid marriage was elevated to a sacramental union by the very grace of her new state as a member of Christ’s Mystical Body.
This is in conformity with long-standing practice in the Church. For example, when spouses joined in a valid natural marriage are baptized together, they are not usually required to go through another marriage ceremony, as their natural marriage is elevated to a sacramental bond by the very fact of receiving baptism.
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