Last week, while I was at a local doctor’s office, one of the women who worked there surprised me by asking, “Are you the same Harry Williams who taught business law at Illinois Central College during the 1980s?” I looked at the woman and did not recognize her. I then answered, “Yes, were you in my class?” She replied, “Yes, and I really enjoyed that class.” We then had a short conversation about what she liked about the class.
As I walked out of the doctor’s office, my mind flashed back to the mid-1980s, when I taught Business Law at ICC. I spent a lot of time preparing for that class, but it was worth it. The young, fresh-faced students were captivated by the stories I told about my experience as a lawyer. To make the class more interesting, I intentionally wove stories throughout the material I presented to them. This made an otherwise boring class into an adventure into the inner workings of our justice system.
One of the things that I taught my students was the four basic elements that are required before a contract can be legally binding between two parties. The four elements are:
1. Offer – a promise to act or refrain from acting.
2. Acceptance – an agreement to accept and abide by the terms and conditions of the offer.
3. Consideration – an exchange of something of value by each of the parties. For example, if you offer to sell your car to me for $1,000 and I accept your offer, the consideration is my agreement to give you something of value — $1,000 — in exchange for something of value to you — your car. Consideration does not have to include the exchange of money. If I offer to perform certain legal services in exchange for your car and you accept my offer, there is consideration because both of us have agreed to exchange something of value.
4. Capacity – a person must have both the legal and mental capacity to enter into a contract. In Illinois, a person who is under the age of 18 is considered a minor and does not have the legal capacity to enter into a contract. If a minor enters into a contract, the contract cannot be enforced against the minor. With regard to mental capacity, a person does not have the capacity to enter into a contract if the person is incapable of understanding what they are agreeing to. In most circumstances, a person who is mentally ill does not have the mental capacity to enter into a contract because that person does not have the ability to fully understand what they are agreeing to. The same goes for a person who is intoxicated, under the influence of drugs, has dementia, or has Alzheimer’s disease.
The same basic principles that apply to whether a person has the mental capacity to enter into a contract also apply to whether a person will be held accountable by God for committing suicide. There are some religious people who argue that in all circumstances, suicide is the ultimate sin, because a person who commits suicide will never have the opportunity to repent or ask for forgiveness. This is only true when the person had full knowledge that suicide was a grave sin and then with full awareness, deliberately followed through with the suicide without repenting before their actual death occurred.
In order to be held accountable for the sinful act of suicide, a person must have the mental capacity to commit the act, i.e., full knowledge that the act is a grave sin against God and full mental awareness of what is taking place.
We know that Judas committed suicide after he betrayed Jesus Christ. We also know that he possessed the mental capacity to know exactly what he was doing and that he deliberately killed himself with full knowledge and awareness of the grave nature of his sin. How do we know this? Because before Judas killed himself, Jesus said,
“Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” And they were very sorrowful, and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” He answered, “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me, will betray me. The Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Is it I, Master?” He said to him, “You have said so.” Matthew 26:22-25
The fact that our Lord said that it would have been better if his betrayer had never lived means that Judas knew exactly what he was doing when he killed himself, and because of his sinful act of suicide, his soul was lost for all eternity.
Earlier this month, on March 7, 2019, Kelly Catlin, a 23-year-old Olympic cycling medalist, committed suicide in her apartment at Stanford University. At the time of her death, she was a college student who was pursuing a graduate degree in computational and mathematical engineering.
Kelly was originally from Minnesota. When she was born, she was one of a set of triplets — two girls, Kelly and Christine, and one boy, Colin. After Kelly’s death, her family heroically opened themselves up for questions by reporters because they felt that if they shared what they had gone through, they could help other families deal with similar situations.
In one interview, Kelly’s brother Colin described her as a natural athlete who ended up on the U.S. women’s cycling team. Between 2016 and 2018, her team won three consecutive world championship titles and earned a silver medal during the 2016 Olympic Games.
In October 2018, Kelly had a cycling accident in which she broke her arm. In December 2018, she sustained a concussion as a result of another cycling accident. In January 2019, Kelly attempted to kill herself. She survived her suicide attempt but ended up causing harm to her lungs and heart.
After Kelly succeeded in her second suicide attempt, her sister Christine told a reporter that Kelly had carefully planned the [first suicide attempt] and had prepared an email that was scheduled to be sent to her family members after her death. Christine then said, “We got it and thought it was a joke for a minute, then called the police.”
Kelly’s brother Colin told the reporter, “The suicide note was kind of disturbing and bizarre, we thought, ‘Boy, she isn’t the Kelly that we know, writing this way.’ She had changed and it was tough to see and it was a concern to us.” He went on to say that after her concussion, “she told me on the phone that she felt that her mind was racing, and that she was feeling extremely, almost uncontrollably violent and angry. Her ability to memorize things, one of her prides, had become unstable, worrying her about her intelligence. Above all, I think she was worried that she was going insane, with all the unstable moods the concussion and stress brought.”
After the January suicide attempt, Kelly’s coach and family convinced her to take some time off to rest. She did what they asked and withdrew from the 2019 track cycling world championships. She later told her brother that she hated the fact that she failed in her suicide attempt.
In an interview that Kelly’s dad, Mark Catlin, did with National Public Radio, he talked about how devastated his family was over Kelly’s death. He then said that after the January incident, Kelly had promised her family that she wasn’t going to kill herself.
Several years ago, I provided some assistance to a devout Catholic mother whose young, adult daughter was suicidal. With the assistance of our Lord and our Lady, we were successful in turning the young woman’s life around. What I’m about to tell you was what I learned from that experience.
There’s something that happens with certain people who (1) suffer from mental illness, (2) suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (mental illness triggered by a terrifying event), or (3) have experienced a traumatic brain injury. For some unknown reason, there is a point in time when the normal function of their brain is altered to such an extent that they are no longer the same person.
It is as though an alien has taken over their mind. There are times when they will appear to be completely normal and rational. But regardless of how they appear on the outside, they are completely disconnected from reality. They no longer have the mental capacity to make rational decisions for themselves. And they no longer have the mental capacity to keep their promises.
It is common for people who are suicidal to promise family members or friends that they will not commit suicide or that they will reach out for help if they are tempted to commit suicide. These people cannot be trusted to keep a promise. They simply do not have the mental capacity to keep their word. It must be assumed that at any moment in time, the dark forces of despair and hopelessness will overwhelm them, and they will feel as though they have no other choice but to end their lives.
If you ever find out that your young teenage or adult child is contemplating suicide, if that child is living away from home, you must do everything in your power to move that child home with you so you can begin the process of taking a hands-on approach to helping them through their life-or-death crisis.
This is not a criticism of the way the Catlin family handled Kelly Catlin’s situation. They were completely blindsided and did everything they could to help her.
I’ll have more to say on this topic in the near future.