Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Steven Sueppel should not be granted an ecclesiastical funeral

One of the reasons we have rules is to help us guide our decision-making when circumstances make it difficult to think clearly. The horrific murder of the Sueppel family by their husband-father Steven, who then finally succeeded in killing himself, is nothing if not a difficult circumstance. My read, in any case, of 1983 CIC 1184.1.3, in light of the gruesome facts of this case, leads me to conclude that Steven Sueppel should be denied ecclesiastical funeral rites.

Assuming the accuracy of the press reports, there is no doubt that Steven Sueppel offered no "sign of repentance" (as opposed perhaps to expressing some regrets in a note) for having just murdered, barbarically, his wife and four young children. There is no doubt whatsoever that Steven Sueppel offered no "sign of repentance" before killing himself (on the third try). Because Canon 1184 does not require us 'to read the soul' of someone, but instead focuses our attention on observable actions, there is, in my opinion, no doubt but that Steven Sueppel's actions qualify him as "a manifest sinner" who in turn "cannot be granted [an] ecclesiastical funeral without scandal for the faithful."

It is common place to observe that the 1983 Code no longer automatically denies ecclesiastical funerals to those who commit suicide (See, e.g., Cox & Griffin, "Canon 1184", 1997 Roman Replies & CLSA Advisory Opinions at 85-86, and 1917 CIC 1240.1.3); this approach makes good sense, for suicide typically seems to involve some form of grave mental or emotional deficit which can be seen as mitigating the culpability one might otherwise incur for murdering oneself.

But murder-suicide, indeed as here, mass murder-suicide, seems different to me. On the last day of this life, the embezzler Steven Sueppel became a mass murderer. If such behavior is not "manifest sin", what behavior would be?

We can, and should, pray for Steven Sueppel; indeed, Mass can be offered for him (
1983 CIC 901). But he should not be accorded the Church's final liturgical and sacramental commendations; not, I think, if the canons on ecclesiastical funerals mean anything close to what they seem to say. +++

1. Read an extended study of Canon 1184 by Dr. Peters. 2. Who is the final authority over the funeral question? The ordinary of the diocese concerned (1983 CIC 1184.2). Could one reach a conclusion different from mine? Sure, but on the facts as known by me, I would have to disagree.

Update: Erin Jordan, "Faithful question church funeral for killer", Des Moines Register (5 May 2008).