By Mary Farrow
On August 10, investment banker and multi-millionaire Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his jail cell, in what officials have called an apparent suicide.
Epstein, already a convicted sex offender, was awaiting trial for sex trafficking charges, including one count of sex trafficking of a minor and one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking. He had pled not guilty to both.
Following his death, theories about how Epstein died abound.
The well-connected Epstein, who counted princes and presidents and other elites among his associates, might have exposed the crimes of powerful friends at trial, and the risk of that exposure, some speculate, could have prompted an assassination.
Epstein had been taken off of suicide watch just 12 days prior to his death. According to a report in the New York Times, two guards who were supposed to check on Epstein every 30 minutes fell asleep for three hours and fudged the records of their rounds in an attempt to cover their mistake. They have since been removed from their posts at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, where Epstein was being held.
An autopsy of Epstein has so far raised more questions than answers.
Whether or not Epstein committed suicide remains to be confirmed. But federal data shows that suicide rates in the U.S. are at the highest they’ve been since World War II, and even higher than they were during the Great Depression, according to a report from TIME magazine.
The Catholic Church teaches that suicide is a violation of the 5th commandment “Thou Shall Not Kill,” and a mortal sin.
CNA spoke with three moral theologians about suicide, on the hope for salvation that the Church holds for those who take their lives, and the obligations of the state to protect prisoners from themselves.
Grave matter and mortal sin
David Cloutier is a moral theologian and associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Cloutier told CNA that when considering suicide, it is important to remember that it is taught by the Church to be a grave sin.
“(That) means all things considered, this is a serious matter, and to make a choice against life is to choose against God, who gives everyone the gift of life, and to also choose against your obligations to others,” Cloutier told CNA.
In a section on suicide, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that God is the master of life, and that human beings “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. Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life.”
The Catechism adds that suicide “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.”
While suicide is grave matter, the Catechism also notes that in order for a person to commit a mortal sin, three conditions must be a met: that the sin is grave matter, and that the person commits the sin with “full knowledge and deliberate consent.”
There could be mitigating factors, such as mental illness or some other kind of great distress, that might relieve a person of at least some culpability in committing suicide, Cloutier said.
The hope for salvation
Even given the gravity of suicide, Christians should always hope in the love and mercy of God in cases of suicide, Scott Hefelfinger, a moral theologian and assistant professor of theology at the Augustine Institute in Denver, told CNA.
“If we lose all hope with respect to this person’s salvation, we could in fact be sort of repeating the same emotional disposition of despair that afflicted the person who did commit suicide. So we’re counseled to hope rather than despair,” he said.
“We put our trust in God’s mercy.”
Furthermore, Cloutier said, the Catechism itself is “pretty straightforward” in saying that those who commit suicide are not necessarily denied eternal salvatinon, because the state of their mind and soul at the time of committing the act is a factor.
If the person was in “some kind of emotional stress, or depression, or other various ways in which a person’s emotions get in the way of fully knowing what they’re doing,” their responsibility is at least somewhat mitigated, he said.
Fr. Edward Krasevac, OP, is a professor of theology, and the theology department chair at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California.
Krasevac said that because the will to live is such a basic human instinct, it seems possible that many cases of suicide are committed by people who are influenced by serious clinical depression or other mental illnesses or psychological factors that would impair their judgment and mitigate to at least some degree the consent of their will.
“People who are clinically depressed don’t think straight, they can’t think straight,” Krasevac said.
He added there could be other mitigating factors in a person’s life, such as fear of the pain of death, or the fear of what is going to happen to them if they stay alive, such as a person “facing the rest of their life in not a good prison situation, losing everything they ever had, not being able to deal with life in prison…these are what we call modifiers of responsibility.”
“So in many cases of suicide, a person’s responsibility is seriously diminished,” he said. “[In such a case] it’s not subjectively mortal sin even though it may look like it from the outside and it is objectively a mortal sin.”
Another reason to hope is that a person could have repented of their actions in the moments before their death, Hefelfinger noted.
“In the case of someone who, let’s say is culpable of the act of suicide, and they begin this process. Well, usually there’s some suffering involved, and usually death doesn’t come about instantaneously,” he said.
“And so, God’s mercy doesn’t need a very wide crack to get through. I think there are always these opportunities prior to death, in the split second before death, where we certainly do not want to rule out the possibility of God’s mercy,” he said.
“And again, we say this without in any way diminishing the gravity of the act. It’s the gravity of the act that makes us lean on God’s mercy so much, so we turn our attention to that and pray for that so greatly.”
The state and the suicidal person
The Catholic Church teaches that states have a duty to uphold the common good of society, and although the Catechism does not specifically express what a state should do in the case of a suicidal person, Cloutier said the state has several interests in preventing the suicide of people in prison.
“The reason the state wants to avoid suicide is because it wants to allow the prisoner a fair, public trial, which is in the public interest,” he said.
“It’s in the interest of the prisoner, because then he might be found innocent, and it’s in the interest of the public, because if the prisoner is found guilty through this, then the prisoner is subjected to appropriate punishment,” he added.
“So the state…has an interest in the person going through the justice system.”
In upholding the common good, the state also has an interest in keeping prisoners alive, Cloutier said. “This is why we have suicide watch. It is also the case that in our society, we generally believe that anyone who is suicidal should be prevented from taking their own life,” he said.
Suicide is the leading cause of death in prison. According to recent data from the U.S. Department of Justice, 372 suicides occurred in 3,000 federal prisons in 2014. This number is 2.5 times higher than suicide rates in state prisons and 3.5 times higher than in general society.
In the case of someone like Epstein, who was at one point known to be suicidal, the state assumes the responsibility for that person’s mental health while they are in prison, and therefore cut off from other communities of support, Hefelfinger added.
“(Prisoners) typically don’t have access to those more closely knit communities,” he said. “And so there is a moral responsibility, it would seem, for the state and for those running these facilities to attend to the mental health of those folks who are in these institutions.”
The investigation of Epstein’s death is ongoing.
If you are feeling suicidal, contact the National suicide preention lifeline at: 1-800-273-8255 or text CONNECT to 741741 to be connected to a crisis counselor in the United States.