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.