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In May 1942, two Czech operatives (trained and armed by the British) assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi governor of Bohemia and Moravia and a good candidate for the most evil man who ever lived. In the aftermath of said killing, the assassins were tracked down to an Eastern Orthodox cathedral with several other resistance fighters, where, following a lengthy shootout, they took their own lives in order to avoid capture. I imagine that sparing themselves the horrors that the Gestapo would certainly have inflicted on them was a factor in their suicides, but I imagine that another factor was the desire to protect their families and comrades, whom they might well have put in mortal danger had they been taken alive, by means of the information that would have been tortured out of them.

I know that Christians generally take a firm stance against against suicide, and Roman Catholics are said to be particularly steadfast in that regard. But is the case of spies avoiding capture, especially while fighting in a righteous cause, an exception in which suicide can be seen as self-sacrifice rather than self-murder?

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What is the Roman Catholic point of view regarding spies who commit suicide in order to avoid capture?

According to the Catholic Church suicide constitutes serious matter and is truly offensive before God.

But then gravity of matter is only one of the three requirements for a mortal sin — the others being sufficient reflection and full consent of the will. And it is here that the Church in modern times adopts a more nuanced approach with regard to someone who takes his own life.

Grave psychological disturbances, grave fear of hardship, suffering or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. The psychological fear of capture and /or torture can also mitigate the capability before God.

For such reasons the Church now allows suicide individuals to have a Christian funeral in a Catholic Church. I have assisted at the funeral of many suicide victims in various Catholic Church funerals. In the end , it is only God who can judge these cases, as he is the only one who is the possession of all the pertinent information involving such circumstances. We are not privy to the all information that goes on within a soul! This is between God and the individual soul; we can only make a logical conclusion based on what we know, where as God being all merciful and possesses knowledge that which is unknown to us.

If one commits suicide simply because he does not what to be captured and there exists no psychological fear within his soul (say about the possibility of being tortured) then his suicide is definitively a mortal sin. But then, only God knows the exact intricate dealings within souls. For example, even after a suicide pill, is swallowed, one can still repent of killing oneself.

Suicide has always been considered by the Catholic Church as a grave offense, which is one of the elements that constitutes mortal sin. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “It is God who remains the sovereign master of life. … We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of” (No. 2280).

But gravity of matter, of course, is only one of the three requirements for a mortal sin — the others being sufficient reflection and full consent of the will. And it is here that the church now adopts a more nuanced approach with regard to someone who takes his own life. When I was first ordained a priest (in 1966) the church normally did not permit a funeral Mass or burial in a Catholic cemetery for someone who had taken his own life. But that is no longer so.

As this same catechism (promulgated by St. John Paul II in 1992) says: “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish or grave fear of hardship, suffering or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives” (Nos. 2282-83).

Commonly, then, in the present day the church gives the benefit of the doubt to a suicide victim and grants a Catholic funeral and burial. The church makes the pastoral judgment that there may well have been mitigating circumstances and that the person — due to severe depression or mental illness — may not have been capable of making that decision with full freedom. - Suicide and mortal sin/ What is true forgiveness?

Suicide of spies or other war participants (British pilots) can never be seen as a self-sacrifice rather than self-murder! If there is no personal mitigating circumstances, then suicide is taking one’s life and is morally not permitted.

Suicide simply in order to avoid capture is an unacceptable reason for taking one’s life.

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  • 1
    This answer explains the basic understanding on suicide well, but could be enhanced by specifically addressing the question of suicide to avoid torture/capture
    – eques
    Jul 26 at 16:11
  • @eques Are those not mitigating circumstances on a psychological level!
    – Ken Graham
    Jul 26 at 16:15
  • 2
    I'm not saying that someone in that particular situation may not have in the moment mitigating circumstances which might lessen culpability, but I'm suggesting we can comment on the abstract situation as OP asks, namely is suicide justifiable to avoid capture. The psychological circumstances you allude to do not justify suicide but only suggest a lack of culpability (not the same thing)
    – eques
    Jul 26 at 16:18
  • I agree with @eques. This is a good explanation of the Church's stance on suicide in general, but it doesn't really answer my question.
    – Tom Hosker
    Jul 26 at 16:19
  • 2
    I suppose a reframing of my question, to get to the moral issue I was trying untangle, would be: Is it morally acceptable to commit suicide if you know beyond reasonable doubt that continuing to live will put others in mortal danger?
    – Tom Hosker
    Jul 26 at 16:23
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From the deuterocanonical book of Second Maccabees:

2 Maccabees 14:37-46 Razis Dies for His Country

A certain Razis, one of the elders of Jerusalem, was denounced to Nica′nor as a man who loved his fellow citizens and was very well thought of and for his good will was called father of the Jews. For in former times, when there was no mingling with the Gentiles, he had been accused of Judaism, and for Judaism he had with all zeal risked body and life. Nica′nor, wishing to exhibit the enmity which he had for the Jews, sent more than five hundred soldiers to arrest him; for he thought that by arresting him he would do them an injury. When the troops were about to capture the tower and were forcing the door of the courtyard, they ordered that fire be brought and the doors burned. Being surrounded, Razis fell upon his own sword, preferring to die nobly rather than to fall into the hands of sinners and suffer outrages unworthy of his noble birth. But in the heat of the struggle he did not hit exactly, and the crowd was now rushing in through the doors. He bravely ran up on the wall, and manfully threw himself down into the crowd. But as they quickly drew back, a space opened and he fell in the middle of the empty space. Still alive and aflame with anger, he rose, and though his blood gushed forth and his wounds were severe he ran through the crowd; and standing upon a steep rock, with his blood now completely drained from him, he tore out his entrails, took them with both hands and hurled them at the crowd, calling upon the Lord of life and spirit to give them back to him again. This was the manner of his death.

Though the Hellenistic author paints the character in a positive light, Church doctors, such as Augustine and Aquinas, expressed reservations:

Augustin also criticizes [Dulcitius'] courtesy toward Gaudentius, the Donatist bishop of Thamugada. As to a special reply to that bishop Augustin urges a more diligent refutation of the fallacious doctrines by which the Donatists are accustomed to be seduced.

Suicides are utterly prohibited by the Scriptures. The case of Razius gives the Donatist no pretext, for the deed is simply mentioned but not commended. (II. Mac. xiv. 37–46).

[According to Gaudentius,] Christians may yield up their souls in testimony against sacrilege, as Razius did.

[Augustin's] argument against suicide from the case of Razius is well made; he died rather in suffering for the state; and besides the narrative does not commend the deed, but only states it; then too the books have not the weight that the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms carry with them.

Philip Schaff, Augustine: The Writings Against the Manichaeans and Against the Donatists.

Question 64. Murder.

Article 5. Whether it is lawful to kill oneself ?

Objection 5. Further, it is related (2 Maccabees 14:42) that a certain Razias killed himself, "choosing to die nobly rather than to fall into the hands of the wicked, and to suffer abuses unbecoming his noble birth." Now nothing that is done nobly and bravely is unlawful. Therefore suicide is not unlawful.

Reply to Objection 5. It belongs to fortitude that a man does not shrink from being slain by another, for the sake of the good of virtue, and that he may avoid sin. But that a man take his own life in order to avoid penal evils has indeed an appearance of fortitude (for which reason some, among whom was Razias, have killed themselves thinking to act from fortitude), yet it is not true fortitude, but rather a weakness of soul unable to bear penal evils, as the Philosopher (Ethic. iii, 7) and Augustine (De Civ. Dei 22,23) declare.

— Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae,
Second Part of the Second Part, Question 64, Article 5.

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  • See also Judges 16:23-31.
    – Lucian
    Jul 27 at 8:17
  • How does this answer the question? Simply quoting Scripture does not prove a doctrinal position. Lots of people in Scripture do things that are actually immoral.
    – eques
    Jul 28 at 14:40
  • @eques: I intentionally keep my answers low key, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions; look, for instance, at the (very positive) manner in which the character is portrayed by the biblical text (as opposed to Saul, in his later years, for instance; were I to have referenced 1 Samuel 31:4-5 or 1 Chronicles 10:4-5, one obvious and justified objection would have been that, by that time, the character is already described as having been rejected by God).
    – Lucian
    Jul 28 at 19:04
  • The question asks about the Catholic Church's teaching. Just throwing a quote from Scripture out there does not answer the question AND does not allow anyone to draw the right conclusion.
    – eques
    Jul 28 at 19:09
  • @eques: It is a relatively unambiguous passage of a writing two millennia of Catholics regarded as sacred scripture; I find it highly doubtful to think that countless generations of saints, popes, and believers, were blissfully unaware of its content.
    – Lucian
    Jul 28 at 19:15

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