You can say that this article derives from my adherence to the principle of choosing the lesser of two evils–in this case, the lesser of two spoilers: I weighed spoiling the ending of Space Pirate Captain Harlock against revealing the death of a minor character in The Rose of Versailles. The topic of death appeared the best choice–like on another occasion. As you glean from the title, this particular character takes her own life. This unfortunate event (The Rose of Versailles can be surprisingly dark) comes about through Madame de Polignac forcing her eleven year old daughter to contract an engagement with a forty-three year old duke, who is plainly a pedophile. At the time, the age of consent in Europe seems to have been twelve for women, following the old Roman law. So, Charlotte faces the prospect of consummating a marriage with a degenerate in the very next year so that her mother might gain prestige–or, did de Polignac actually believe this would make her daughter happy? In any case, Charlotte sees no way out of this abhorrent union besides death and leaps from the roof of a chateau in a state of despair and insanity. Just what are the ethics regarding suicide from Catholic doctrine, and how do they apply to this case?
The two best sources I know of on this question are the Catechism of the Catholic Church (search for paragraphs 2280-2283) and New Advent’s Catholic Encyclopedia entry on suicide. The former more accurately reflects the modern attitude of the Catholic Church toward suicide, while the latter offers a more in-depth explanation but presents a more dated attitude–as can be seen by the author comparing the suicide rates of 1826 and 1900. The following stand as the most important points regarding suicide: 1) suicide is usually a mortal sin, i.e. having the consequence of eternal damnation; 2) conditions exist which may reduce a person’s culpability, meaning that the sin is venial in certain cases; 3) rare cases exist where suicide is not against God’s will; 4) there is a clear distinction between taking one’s life for one’s own sake (suicide) and accepting death in order to help or save another person (self-sacrifice, see John 15:13); and 5) we ought never despair of God’s mercy in regard to suicides.
The most surprising point is the third. However, St. Augustine in his The City of God recognizes certain women who committed suicide in order to preserve their chastity from nefarious Roman soldiers as martyrs. Also, the Aurea Legenda (whose accounts must be taken cum grano salis but reflect Catholic sentiment well) records one young Christian man who had been strapped naked to a table and then had a prostitute forced upon him. When he felt his flesh giving way to temptation, he bit off his own tongue, which earned him as place among the martyrs. (Perhaps I should say “Christian sentiment” rather than “Catholic sentiment,” because two friends of mine, one Lutheran and one Non-denominational, also cheered the martyr as a hero.)
I mention the above cases to show that the Catholic Church has ever been lenient in their judgement of suicides facing the certain threat of sexual assault. This would seem to apply to the case of Charlotte, except that one is not sure whether she really had no recourse besides suicide to prevent her defilement. The Church has never favored forced marriages. For example, in the 11th century, waves of Anglo-Saxon women fled to convents in order to escape the amorous attentions of various Norman invaders. One doubts that eleventh century England provided more protections for women than eighteenth century France. (Or am I wrong?) Charlotte could have found a way out of her plight had not her terror and disgust toward this union not driven her to insanity.
Those are the two pivotal differences between Charlotte and the Christian martyrs mentioned above: 1) for Charlotte, there might have existed another way out; and 2) what the martyrs did sana mente Charlotte committed insana mente. The martyrs faced a situation like that of Rebecca standing on a window ledge with Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert blocking the only other way out of the room. Unlike that pivotal scene in Ivanhoe, Charlotte is still permitted freedom of movement: she can apply to the queen, perhaps seek the help of a decent noble like Oscar de Jarjayes, or even afflict herself with such sorrow and mortification as to move the yet unyielding heart of her mother. Instead, she seeks death as the only way out of her predicament. Catholics believe that a person might commit a mortal sin following reaching the age of reason or seven. But, did Charlotte sin mortally, or was her sanity so impaired as to diminish that freedom of thought required for a sin to be damning?
My own opinion is that her suicide is not the type as to merit a place among the damned because of her lack of sanity. Yet, the Catholic Encyclopedia does note that certain people go insane by rejecting grace, and so do not move from a state of grace to one of spiritual death but from spiritual death to both physical and spiritual death. Such people can only be saved through God spontaneously offering the gift of final repentance at the moment of death–as St. John Vianney revealed to one woman in the case of her husband’s suicide. So, we ought never despair of God offering mercy to suicides, which is why the Church now allows for some suicides to receive a Christian burial.
So, to what extent do our dear readers think that Charlotte is culpable? What are your own thoughts on the subject of suicide?