I happen to be a priest, but my problem could just as well be a layman’s. My parents were nearly forty when they married; I was born first and my sister five years later. Our relationship always was difficult; she resented my role as her big brother and felt that our parents favored me, though, in fact, they were too preoccupied with their careers to pay much attention to either of us. She married young, and her marriage lasted fifteen years though it was always miserable. After the divorce, she went through a period of promiscuity and drugs. By that time, our parents had died, and I more or less had to take over trying to help her. I did what I could, and she finally got clean when she saw that the alternative was losing her children.
At that point, I thought her other problems would be solved, but they have continued and even grown worse. She has had a succession of jobs, always ending in her being fired or quitting in anger, with intervening periods of unemployment, during which she has needed help from me. She has problems with her children, quarrels with teachers and neighbors, conflict everywhere. She is likely to do just the opposite of whatever I suggest and is never grateful for my help even when she has asked for it and I have done all she asked. She keeps burdening me with her problems, regardless of whether I can do anything about them; she seems to get some satisfaction out of forcing me to share her misery. She is immature, still like a teenager, and I am convinced she needs serious psychological help, but she will not cooperate. Usually she is more or less depressed and sometimes she says she is thinking of solving all her problems by killing herself.
My sister’s visits and calls, often at very inconvenient times, have worn me down and interfered with my pastoral work. I feel that no busy professional should have to put up with a sister like mine. I used to be irritated with her occasionally; now I have a permanent feeling of resentment toward her. One form that feeling takes is the wish that she would follow through on her threats of suicide. I am not proud of that, but it is how I feel, and there is no use repressing one’s feelings.
For a long time I tried to put that thought out of my mind. But I have come to accept it as a natural reaction. It is not that I want my sister dead, only that I want to be free of the burden she is imposing on me, and I see no end as long as we both live. Besides, I am convinced that people who kill themselves hardly ever are fully responsible, so it would not be a mortal sin if she did kill herself. Still, I sometimes feel guilty about this.
The explicit question concerns the moral acceptability of wishing that someone commit suicide. Whether another’s suicide would be a mortal sin for him or her, one is responsible for one’s own willing, and should not will that anyone commit suicide. If one merely imagines the suicide and its effect of relieving one’s burden, that thought is not sinful in itself, but is an occasion of sin that ought to be avoided. The preceding norms are unlikely to be of practical help unless the questioner uncovers the roots of his resentment and deals with them. An implicit question concerns the integration of pastoral and familial responsibilities. An adequate response must clarify the questioner’s responsibilities in each role.
I agree that it does not help to repress one’s feelings, but I also think it is wrong to accept and endorse inappropriate feelings such as resentment. Rather than either repressing or accepting such feelings, one must try to uncover their deeper causes, deal appropriately with these, and so reduce inner tensions. Your account of your relationship with your sister suggests its unsatisfactoriness has roots going back to your childhood. Consequently, I think that, in addition to the moral advice I can give, you need the wise guidance and support of a good counselor or spiritual director: someone entirely faithful to Catholic teaching, mature, experienced in advising, and preferably with some formal training in psychology. If you do not know a suitable person, I suggest you confide in your bishop or the appropriate member of his staff, and seek assistance in obtaining help.
With respect to your moral problem, I cannot truthfully offer you reassuring advice to make things easy for you. If you deliberately wish your sister would follow through on her threats of suicide, that wish is a sin in grave matter, and you rightly “feel guilty about this.” Whether her suicide would be a mortal sin for her is irrelevant; you are responsible for your own willing and may not will that anyone commit suicide. If you are only imagining that your sister might kill herself and thinking that would simplify your life—which seems to fit your description of your feelings—that thought is not sinful in itself. Still, hostile feelings may lead you from this sort of thinking into deliberate approval of the thought that it would be good if she committed suicide, and so you should try to avoid such thinking as an occasion of sin. You also should try to avoid it so that it will neither lead you to say or do anything that would reinforce your sister’s temptation to commit suicide nor give you guilt feelings. These latter probably would have the bad result of inhibiting you from resisting your sister’s unreasonable demands, which seem to provide her with an inadequate substitute for the psychological help she needs.
It may be that many people kill themselves without committing a mortal sin, but only God knows each person’s heart well enough to judge his or her moral responsibility, and you should not be complacent about the prospect of your sister’s suicide (see CCC, 2280–83; LCL, 477). For all you know, it could result in her eternal damnation. (In case thoughts about suicide ever lead to a temptation to take your own life, that frightful prospect should not be ignored.) Moreover, even if a suicide is not mortally sinful, it is likely to injure survivors gravely. Consider how your sister’s suicide might affect her children and you.
While the preceding paragraphs respond to your specific question, I would be remiss if I did not offer you a wider perspective for reflecting on your problem. God calls every person to fulfill his or her personal vocation, which embraces not only a certain state of life and other appropriate upright commitments but conditions beyond one’s control, such as sickness, unemployment, and other forms of suffering. For God sometimes allows bad things to happen to us and calls on us to make the most of them for the sake of witness and service to the kingdom (see CCC, 309–14). Each of us should discover, accept, and faithfully fulfill all the elements of his or her vocation, weaving them together to form a seamless whole (see LCL, 113–29). God has called you to be both a brother for your sister and a priest for the people he entrusts to your care, and you must integrate these two roles with each other. Your statement that you “feel that no busy professional should have to put up with a sister like mine” seems to me to reveal tension between the two roles, arising at least partly from an inadequate understanding of the responsibilities pertaining to each.
Your sister’s inner tensions, it seems to me, at least in part interlock with yours. You describe her as “immature, still like a teenager,” and the other things you say about her seem to bear out that description. Unlike well-integrated young children or mature adults, many teenagers make demands on parents even while resenting their authority, and are unready for independence even while they are intensely eager for it. Thus, your sister ignores your advice and is ungrateful for your help even when she demands it, because she is ambivalent about your persistent efforts to fulfill a parental role toward her. Indeed, these efforts of yours may be enabling her to persist in her immaturity, and you might well give her more real help by doing less for her. At the same time, desisting from your misplaced efforts is likely to reduce your own burden and the hostile feelings it provokes. Therefore, it seems to me you should stop trying to play a parental role and instead should play only the appropriate roles of pastor and brother.
In calling men to the priesthood, Jesus asks them to leave their families behind in order to serve him and his people (see Mt 4.18–22, 19.27; Lk 5.11, 18.28–29)—a very severe demand in his society, where family responsibilities were taken far more seriously than in ours. So, there are real limits to the time and energy you may rightly spend on family affairs. The limits would be the same, though, even if your sister had no problems and were a source of enjoyable and diverting companionship for you. Moreover, priesthood carries with it no right to immunity from any miseries of the human condition, and many busy professionals must deal with family problems as stressful as yours. Therefore, the unsatisfactoriness to you of the relationship with your sister should not enter into your judgments concerning your responsibilities either as brother or as pastor.
On the other hand, as a priest, you are not merely a busy professional. Your responsibility is not merely to do certain things for certain people during certain hours of the day. It begins with preaching the gospel, administering the sacraments, and leading your flock, but it extends to helping anyone with serious moral and spiritual problems whenever you can. Your sister plainly has had such problems and has them now, and so you owed and owe her now the same pastoral care you would have given and would give her were she not your sister. Pastoral care surely includes directing people who seem to need psychological help to those likely to be able to provide it. But even when someone does not accept such advice, pastoral care also includes listening to his or her problems, whether or not you can do anything about them, and encouraging the person to hope and pray that God will do what you cannot. People do get some satisfaction out of sharing their problems, even with someone who cannot solve them; a sympathetic ear reassures suffering persons that they are respected and loved for themselves. As a pastor you should try to help people, including your sister, by providing such reassurance and then encouraging them to take their troubles to God, with the confidence that he will prove to be a loving and merciful Father.
No doubt you have your sister’s true good at heart. Recommit yourself to it with brotherly love. But your sister must live her own life, and you cannot live it for her. Think of her well-being, not as a goal she will attain by following your planning and direction, but rather as her own ongoing fulfillment, which cannot progress except by her own decisions and efforts, guided and sustained by the light and power only the Holy Spirit provides. Make constant prayer for your sister your contribution to this end, offering with it as sacrifice whatever distress she continues to cause you. You should respond calmly and gently to her demands, however, informing her of appropriate sources of help, just as you inform other people in the course of your pastoral work. But rather than pressing such help upon her, with the likelihood that she will refuse, politely reject her emotional demands, perhaps by saying: “I have obtained the kind of help I needed to deal with my problems, and perhaps you should do that too. I always will be here to listen to your problems and to pray with you about them, but I have come to see I cannot help you much in any other way.”
Your troubled relationship with your sister may have damaged your pastoral relationship with those you are called to serve. If so, you should also recommit yourself to your responsibilities as pastor toward every member of your flock. Bear in mind that every adult must live his or her own life; avoid taking an inappropriate parental role toward anyone. Though you should strive to be a spiritual father to all, that fatherhood should nurture maturity, not dependency. Remember, too, that, though your service deserves gratitude, ungrateful spiritual children require appropriate service. The ingratitude of God’s People did not deter the Good Shepherd, and ingratitude never deters a loving father from taking good care of his children.
Suffering naturally provokes resentment, and so it is not surprising that the suffering your sister causes you has led to your resenting her. But the gospel calls us to accept the suffering that comes our way as a share in Jesus’ cross and to respond to provocations with healing love. Very likely, you never will be free of the “endless burden” your sister imposes on you, but if you share it with the suffering Jesus, it will become light and easy for you to bear (see Mt 11.30). As I have said, your suffering will be a suitable sacrifice for you to offer on your sister’s behalf, and your willing acceptance of your cross will contribute to the witness your life should give to the truth of the gospel you preach.
Last, not least, transformed by faith and love, your appropriate efforts to help your sister, and your difficult relationship with her, will be suitable material for the heavenly kingdom (see GS 38–39). Though hidden now, the kingdom is not far off. Its reality is present to us every time we receive the body and blood of the Lord, and we need serve him here on earth only briefly before the mystery will be unveiled to us. When every other tear is wiped away, so too will your seemingly endless burden end.