Ask a Priest

Self Harm

Oct 06, 2015

Hello Father,

I was curious if self-harm was a mortal sin or is it a sin at all?

Thank you for your time.

Asked at 07:59 pm on October 06th 2015

Hi Sienna, I remember when I was a young priest giving retreats to high school students not all that much younger than me at the time. A favourite question was (in terms of boys relationship to girls) ‘how far can you go?’ It took me a while to see that this was the wrong question, and that trying to answer it was a mistake. I can’t remember how I dealt with it at the time, but I’d be inclined to say now that the real question should have been, ‘how can I love a person of the opposite sex?’ That would make possible a constructive answer. I hope you don’t mind if I suggest that your question, while about a completely different topic, is maybe the wrong question too.

If you’ll allow me, I’d put it like this instead: ‘how can I best show respect for my body, as a temple of the Holy Spirit?’ St Paul in I Cor 6, 19 says: “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” So all deliberate harm to my body is a kind of sacrilege – I don’t mean that it’s technically a sacrilege, but it’s still something seriously wrong, since I’m acting as if my body is my own possession, when (and I think this is a comforting rather than a threatening thought) I’m owned not by myself but by God, who made me.

Even a pagan philosopher like Plato in his dialogue, Phaedo has Socrates talking about suicide and making the point that we belong to God, not to ourselves: “…if one of your possessions were to destroy itself without your telling it that you wanted it do die, wouldn’t you be angry with it and punish it, if you were able?… So if you look at it in this way I suppose it isn’t unreasonable to say that we must not put an end to ourselves until God sends some necessary circumstance like the one we’re facing now.” (Socrates has been condemned to death, and in Athens that punishment involved him having to drink a fatal poison, hemlock.)

You didn’t ask me about suicide, but about self-harm, yet I’d be inclined to apply what St Paul and (in his own way, Plato) said to that – if my body belongs to God, I can’t deliberately harm it – what Jesus said about how we should treat others also applies to us: “whatever you do to the least, you do to me.” Harming myself is harming Jesus in me.

Sometimes those who harm themselves do so under severe psychological compulsions, which is why I wouldn’t like to speak of sin here, but would strongly recommend someone with such compulsions to get professional counselling, while never forgetting that each one of us is loved immensely by God: Even more than the certainty of the sun rising every morning, can we be certain that that beautiful line in last Sunday’s gospel about the Rich Young Man is true for each of us, that Jesus looking at us steadily, loves us.

Very best, Fr Brendan Purcell

Replied at 12:51 am on October 14th 2015