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Human Dignity and Mental Illness in Cases of Suicide

Drew An Brubaker

In modern society where the institutional ethos largely consists of power, strength, and violence, the theology of Pope John Paul II provides a robust understanding of human dignity grounded in an understanding of the human as created in the likeness of God. The universality of human dignity inherent within this account in conjunction with the Church’s call to community establishes a framework consistent with psychological theory in caring for the mentally ill. Pope John Paul II’s account of human dignity allows for suicide to be a sin, but further calls us into a response of compassion toward the mentally ill.

In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II presents the argument that human dignity is not derived from moral righteousness or rational competence; rather, all human life is valuable because humans bear God’s image. John Paul II states that “man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God.”[1] Each life, though stained by corruption, has inherent value due to its status as a creative work of God. All humans possess inherent dignity, without stipulation of utility, productivity, or reasonability.

In a similar way, Carl Jung, a prominent humanist psychologist, espouses universal respect for all, particularly for the mentally ill. Modern counseling heavily adopts Jung’s proposition of unconditional positive regard which entails human worthiness granted “regardless of behavior.”[2] Worthiness requires that each human be fully respected as an agent and as a life. In support of Jung’s propositions, modern psychological research indicates that effective counseling requires unconditional respect for the client. Similarly, John Paul II’s foundation of human dignity holds that, “the deepest element of God’s commandment to protect human life is the requirement to show reverence and love for every person and the life of every person.”[3] Showing reverence for all human life is consistent with Jung’s unconditional positive regard. In some cases, revering life can entail considering certain persons as threats to human dignity; however, within the intimacy of a counseling relationship, respect is a necessary element towards positive psychological growth. Although Carl Jung and Pope John Paul II derive their account of persons differently, their overlap of concept reveals that respecting the dignity of each person contributes to the ends of psychological health; further, both conceptions of human dignity include the marginalized, those commonly excluded from societal conversation. In this way, the universality of human dignity is foundational to psychological health for many reasons.

First, a shared understanding of human dignity leads to a moral code by which community can be established. Made in the image of God, each human is deeply valuable; therefore, John Paul II suggests that “society as a whole must respect, defend and promote the dignity of every human person, at every moment and in every condition of that person’s life.”[4] An acknowledgement of universality in a discussion of the human person leads to a moral code for the preservation of the dignity of the person, and in pursuit of this common goal, community is an essential factor and a resultant good. Community is resultant on “the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree. Upon the recognition of this right, every human community and the political community itself are founded.”[5] The moral code resultant from universal human dignity establishes the potential for community.

Further, Pope John Paul II’s account urges the Church into communal life as its duty here on earth. In this way, the dignity of every person evokes a response of the Church as the “Church has always taught the duty to act for the common good.”[6] The Church must be in community in order to act for the common good; further, the common good itself includes community. This common good is worked out in accordance with the tenets of mutual dignity because, as John Paul II declares, life is “a sacred reality entrusted to us, to be preserved with a sense of responsibility and brought to perfection in love and in gift of ourselves to God and to our brothers and sisters.”[7] The fulfillment of the sacred reality of human life thus calls us toward a duty to participate in the community of Christ. Self-gift founded on the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ reveals friendship, the building block of community, as an essential aspect of our Christian life. We are therefore governed not only by the standards of non-injury due to the right to life, but further the Church is called to community as perfection of each person’s dignity. Because of the Church’s counter cultural and eschatological nature, the Church is called toward community founded on the principles of friendship, community and self-gift.

Thus, Pope John Paul II’s articulation of human dignity and the resultant moral code is inseparable from a call to community, which substantiates theories of psychological therapy for the mentally ill. Social interaction as a component of human dignity affirms cognitive behavioral therapy’s higher success compared to medication alone in treating depression. This additionally explains why social therapy is statistically effective in the rehabilitation of schizophrenia as relationship is essential to human function.[8]

In a communal approach to mental illness, friendship takes precedence over judgment. This de-stigmatizes mental illness and creates an atmosphere of love rather than fear. This communal approach expands outwards as the Church affects societal attitudes, stigmas, and norms, and thus begins to address the larger society’s unjust treatment and disrespectful disposition toward the mentally ill. Thus, the community of believers acts in accordance with Pope John Paul II’s instruction that, “every threat to human dignity and life must necessarily be felt in the Church’s very heart.”[9] Only through the bonds of friendship necessitated by human dignity fulfilled in community can we best understand and compassionately respond to the mentally ill.

Respecting the image of God and acknowledging the value of each human life is a duty violated in instances of suicide, although this act is not completely congruent with the malice implicit in murder. Regarding such situations, Pope John Paul II writes, “suicide is always as morally objectionable as murder. The Church’s tradition has always rejected it as a gravely evil choice.”[10] Suicide fails to respect the image of God within the self, but includes further complexities that ought to arouse the Church to compassion. Taking another’s life involves the continuation of one’s own, thus asserting the superiority of he who took the life. On the contrary, taking one’s own life asserts the inferiority of the self. This crucial role of the view of the self guides the Church into further action.

Therefore, the internalized inferiority present in cases of suicide must be addressed with compassion and combatted through the Church’s acknowledgement of human value. Instead of factual condemnation, suicide as a specific action ought to arouse deep compassion and charity from the Church in defense of life. In this, the Church ought not to excuse disrespect of human life but must acknowledge the degradation of the ability to choose good present in extreme cases of mental illness. Thus, a response of compassion ought to arise. The Church’s persistent hope for healing and a rejection of suicide is congruent with acceptance and friendship within community. A more robust understanding of the most common mental illness present in instances of suicide, major depressive disorder, in conjunction with Pope John Paul II’s account of human dignity, acknowledges that suicide disrespects the sanctity of life, yet is further enriched by an understanding of the psychological, biological, and sociocultural etiologies of such disorders. Despair indicates that humanity is not what it ought to be, but the Church is further called into compassionate friendship in all circumstances. Recognizing the mentally ill’s sanctity of sharing in the life of God, the Church seeks to “revere life, to love it and to foster it.”[11]

Pope John Paul II’s robust account of human dignity not only entails the negative claims of non-injury, but further excites us to seek the goods of human life in community. This is essential to the Church’s understanding and treatment of the mentally ill, especially towards a compassionate and truthful approach to suicide. In this way, the main calling of the Church is not a factual categorization of suicide as a sin, but an interpersonal encouragement toward life enacted through community toward the fulfillment of human dignity.



[1] John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae: The Gospel of Life (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1995), Section 2.

[2] Schultz & Schultz E. Theories of personality.(Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing 2013), p 207.

[3] Evangelium Vitae, Section 40.

[4] Ibid. Section 81.

[5] John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis: The Redeemer of Man (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1975), p 2.

[6] Ibid. p.38.

[7] Evangelium Vitae, Section 2.

[8] Ronald J. Comer, Abnormal Psychology (New York: Freeman, 2014).

[9] Evangelium Vitae, Section 3.

[10] Ibid. Section 66.

[11] Ibid. Section 51.