Can Catholics donate their organs?
Yes. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 2296) asserts that “organ transplants are in conformity with the moral law…” and that “organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as an expression of generous solidarity.” Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), “Over and above such outstanding moments, there is an everyday heroism, made up of gestures of sharing, big or small, which build up an authentic culture of life. A particularly praiseworthy example of such gestures is the donation of organs, performed in an ethically acceptable manner, with a view to offering a chance of health and even of life itself to the sick who sometimes have no other hope.”(n. 86)
So why is there any question about this? Years ago organ donation was seen as mutilation of body (especially by a living donor), and it simply wasn’t that effective. But as science advanced, moral theologians kept thinking about it. In the end, they kept to their principles which never change, but had to apply and think it through for a new situation. As such, morally we believe that the danger and risks to a living donor must not be greater than the good achieved in the recipient. Any donor or his/her proxy must give consent freely. Finally, it is not morally permissible to bring about the death of a person by harvesting organs. In other words, we cannot kill someone severely disabled or injured yet living by taking their organs, even if those organs might save the lives of others. There must be a clear medical declaration of death (such as total brain death) before critical organs (such as the heart) can be removed. We must always respect life!
My brother-in-law received a kidney transplant last summer, and I can assure you that it was a truly heroic and loving action by his sister that gave him a chance at a normal life. In this Respect Life month, it is good to consider such issues of life but also to acknowledge the ethical boundaries we must respect as human beings made in God’s image.