ASK FATHER: Organ donation for research after death

From a reader…


My husband has been diagnosed with ALS. He would like to be cremated when the time comes, but before he would like to donate his brain to medical research. I understand cremation is ok as long as ashes are not spread but is it legit to donate a body part for research? I really wouldn’t know where to look in the Catechism for this answer.

First, may God help you both in what is to come.  It could be an opportunity for many graces and great reparation for the sins of others if offered to Christ as a gift.

In 1956, Pope Pius XII declared to eye doctors about cornea transplants that:

In the first place, it is necessary to condemn a morally erroneous judgment which is formed in the soul of a person but usually influences his external conduct and consists in putting the corpse of a human being on the same plane as that of an animal or even a simple “thing”. The dead body of an animal can be used in almost all its parts. The same can be said in regard to the dead body of a human being considered from a purely material aspect, that is to say, from the standpoint of the elements of which it is composed. For some people this attitude constitutes the final criterion of thought and the ultimate principle of action.

Such an attitude implies an error in judgment and of rejection of psychology and of the religious and moral sense. For the human corpse deserves to be regarded entirely differently. The body was the abode of a spiritual and immortal soul, and essential constituent of a human person whose dignity it shared. Something of this dignity still remains in the corpse. We can say also that, since it is a component of man, it has been formed “to the image and likeness” of God, which extends far beyond the general vestiges of resemblance to God that are found in animals without intelligence and even in purely material and inanimate creatures. In a way the words of the apostle Paul apply even to a corpse: “do you not know that your members are the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you?”

Finally, the dead body is destined for resurrection and eternal life. This is not true of the body of an animal, and it proves that it is not sufficient to visualize “therapeutic purposes” for a proper evaluation and treatment of the human corpse.

On the other hand, it is equally true that medical science and the training of future physicians demand a detailed knowledge of the human body, and that cadavers are needed for study. What we have just said does not forbid this. A person can pursue this legitimate objective while fully accepting what we have just said.

It also follows from this that a person may will to dispose of his body and to destined it to ends that are useful, morally irreproachable and even noble (among them the desire to aid the sick and the suffering). One may make a decision of this nature with respect to his own body with full realization of the reverence which is due to it, and with full attention to the words which the apostle Paul spoke to the Corinthians. This decision should not be condemned, but positively justified.…

Unless circumstances impose an obligation, we must respect to the liberty and spontaneity of the parties involved.


Pope John Paul II in the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae,

86. “There is an everyday heroism, made up of gestures and sharing, big or small, which build up an authentic culture of life. A particularly praiseworthy example of such gestures is the donation of organs in a morally acceptable manner with a few to offering a chance of health and even of life itself to the sick who sometimes have no other hope.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

2296 “Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as an expression of generous solidarity.”

There is, of course, more to be said about the the timing of the removal of organs.  However, these quotes can give some orientation of organ donation for the purposes of research.


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  1. Charles E Flynn says:

    We are fortunate that Popes Pius XII and John Paul II wrote so ably about this topic. Can you imagine what would happen if this issue arose for the first time under present circumstances?

  2. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    Organs which can be transplanted only when harvested from a still living person are, therefore not morally licit to transplant if, in harvesting the organs, the death of the patient is the direct result.

    Is this accurate?

  3. ArthurH says:

    For many years I had a code on my driver’s license that said I would be an organ donor after death; I believed and I believe the comments made in Father’s note about that, esp the words of the two popes.

    Having said that, the last time I renewed my license I removed that code, NOT for those reasons, but rather because of the increasing “itchy trigger finger” of hospitals/doctors in need of organs to transplant, ones which are as fresh as legally possible…. and maybe a tad sooner. Here, the People’s Republic of OR, esp Portland OR, was the first place on earth to make assisted suicide legal (it was practiced and tolerated elsewhere, but not per se legal) and there have been at least two updates of that law, the last of which now makes it essentially one allowing euthanasia… though that is denied.

    After I am actually gone– as the Church defines “gone”– my medical guardian (my wife or, if both go at the same time, our former pastor) can do with my parts what makes sense re donation, as long as the rest of me will be buried, and un-embalmed. Intentional cremation? Though now Church-permissible, never has seemed right to me.

  4. Josephus Corvus says:

    I would like to suggest that the person asks a few questions about how the body is treated and make sure they are comfortable with the answers. An elderly relative decided to donate his body to science and there are a few things that happened that should be considered. Not that these are necessarily bad, but they were surprises for the immediate family. First, it wasn’t just the body the needed to be donated. The family had to pay for it to be moved. Second, it wasn’t used quickly. The body was kept on ice for a significant period of time (months to years). Third, the family assumed the body was going to be used in research by experienced doctors to help solve conditions he had. Instead, it was used in basic medical school for student to dissect (not unlike a frog in high school). Finally, the body (or ashes) were never returned to the family. All of the remains were mass cremated and I never heard what actually happens with them. While the family has a grave stone in the local Catholic cemetery, the grave itself is empty.

    Now there is a good chance that there is nothing wrong with any of that. However, it is good to verify that what the family assumes is going to happen is what actually happens.

  5. Ages says:

    “There is, of course, more to be said about the the timing of the removal of organs.”

    Yes, that’s the kicker. My sister is a journalist and did a story on organ donation some years ago. After it was over she and all our family removed the organ donor stickers from our drivers licenses.

    Suffice to say there are numerous cases where organs are harvested while patients are still potentially alive. And if a person is a donor, and especially having healthy organs, families are more likely to be pressed to take them off life support prematurely.

    Yes, organs can be life-giving to others, but we also must not think of our bodies as commodities or vessels for our souls to be discarded. I’ve heard proponents speak in ways that are positively Gnostic after finding out I dared to not will that my body be handed over to the hospital.

    I’d prefer to sit with my departed loved one for awhile than have them whisked off to be chopped to pieces, personally. I prefer the old way of dying at home, lovingly preparing the body, carrying it to the church, having the funeral, and carrying it to the cemetery. We can’t do this in many places today–my state has particularly draconian funerary laws–but keeping the spirit as best as possible would seem to be best. Caring for the dead is a Christian duty, and the best example of this is how the Women and Joseph cared for the Lord’s body.

    Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, which fought against sin and received sacraments. Our bodies are holy and should be treated as such, even after death. (Cremation itself may be allowed, but it’s not ideal either, for the same reason, if you research how the process actually happens.)

  6. From strictly a personal viewpoint, considering the tenor of society and the commercialization (utilitarian?) of the transplant industry, I’ve a personal distaste of the whole process and subtle pressure that is evident in the whole question.

    Leaving apart, for now, the definition of man (inclusive) as a creature composed of body AND soul, made in the image and likeness of God, the opinion of many that we are just a collection of (potentially) usable organs that can be bartered or sold on a private market ostensibly to relieve the suffering of someone else or experimented on seems to be the ultimate exercise of ownership (your body and its components are not YOURS, but the state’s…) over this vessel we journey through life with.

    It is, I guess, a morally neutral (or praiseworthy, if that is YOUR freely arrived-at decision) position; HOWEVER, it would seem to me that given the somewhat amoral tendencies of the medical industry…where abortion, euthanasia, un-consented experimentation (vaccine trials causing death in Africa anyone?), questionable treatment practices…are touted as a societal ‘good’ can be trusted to not ‘encourage’ either the donation or harvesting of vital organs (witness the debate as to whether brain or cessation of cardiac activity is just when death occurs…you can bet that the medical preference is that which will provide material closest to living tissue) and hasten the eventual end of a person’s journey here.

    And, no, it’s not ‘selfish’ in any stretch of the imagination, other than that which subscribes to the ‘needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one’ viewpoint. We were given this shell by our Creator for HIS glory, in service to HIS people, not as a warehouse for organ inventory 60 or 70 years down the line.

    Taking into account the above, you can make that decision for or against. But, I am wondering when that freedom of choice, given our current situation and the thin excuses offered as a justification, will be suppressed in the name of the “common good” and it will be assumed you’ve opted in absent a positive “NO” on your part.

    Just my $.02…

  7. cajunpower says:

    No organs should be donated until we’ve first donated all of our guitars, tambourines and keyboards to needy children (preferably non-Catholic so that it’s less likely they’ll find their way back into the Mass). Then, if churches still aren’t using their organs, a list of recipients should be developed based on a demonstrated willingness to use it for sacred music.

    Oh, not that kind of organ…

  8. NancyA says:

    My husband and I have both decided to donate our bodies to the medical school my husband graduated from for dissection and study for med students when we die.

    We decided because there is a shortage of bodies available for future doctors to learn from.

    My husband can well remember the cadaver he worked on with a team of students when he was in school and how much it aided them and how they appreciated the person.

    The body was treated with the utmost respect and all parts (to put it bluntly) are returned to a place for burial (or cremation) that has been designated by the person who donated their body, although the interior parts aren’t in their original locations (another blunt detail).

    My husband and I have designated that our bodies will be transported to the medical school by the funeral home after a funeral Mass (where our bodies will be) and then returned to be buried with a service at the cemetery with our priest.

    At first the idea disturbed me, but as I’ve aged, and realized the need for such things, plus knowing that I could have a funeral Mass and Catholic burial, and that there was really no Church opposition to it, with the body being treated respectfully, I decided that it was something I would like to do for future doctors and those they would be serving.

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