Ten years ago, on 6 May 1998, the Bishop of Karachi, John Joseph, shot himself through the head on the steps of a Pakistani courthouse in protest against the trial for blasphemy of a 25-year-old Pakistani Christian, Ayyub Masih. His death was a modern example of sainthood and martyrdom: Joseph deliberately sacrificed his own life to try to save one of his flock and to make a moral and religious point. It made headlines at the time and focused world attention on Islamic intolerance at its worst. It also worked – Ayyub was not hanged for his crime.

Colin Brewer's page from New Humanist, May/June 2008But here’s the problem. According to long-standing Catholic doctrine the reward for Bishop Joseph’s courageous and clearly well-planned sacrifice cannot be other than eternal damnation. For Catholics suicide remains a mortal sin.

This view, still officially unchanged, once permeated most of the Christian world. It has a strange history, especially when you consider that the several suicides mentioned in both Old and New Testaments are described in fairly neutral or even sympathetic terms. Christianity also developed in a Greco-Roman culture, in which an individual suicide might be regarded as anything from regrettable to honourable but was not thought to be inevitably sinful or displeasing to the gods.

As the poet Al Alvarez reminds us in his classic personal and historical study The Savage God, early Christianity did not even condemn suicide. It was only after two or three centuries, with the rise of the Donatist sect (who actively embraced martyrdom and suicide on the not altogether unreasonable basis that if heaven’s our destination, why not travel express?), that the Church started to worry about empty pews. One historian described how some Donatists “announced the day on which, in the presence of their friends and brethren, they should cast themselves headlong from some lofty rock.” In 562 AD the Council of Braga denied funeral rites to all suicides. In 620 the Council of Toledo ordained that even attempted suicides would be automatically excommunicated.

Rome did not dishonour Bishop Joseph by excommunicating him or by insisting on burial in unconsecrated ground, and nor have they devalued his suicide by suggesting that he must have been mentally ill. Where are the official Papal condemnations of this most terrible of sins, worse even than murder or abortion because of the impossibility of subsequently confessing the sin and thus of dying in a state of grace?

Come to that, why has the Vatican clearly gone soft on suicide for most of the last century, even under the previous back-to-basics incumbent? There have been no official announcements, just a discreet but total U-turn. Who authorised it? I think now, on this anniversary, we should be told.

Colin Brewer is a retired psychiatrist. He helped write the first 'How-to-do-it' manual when he was on the committee of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society