Catholic Teaching on Organ Donation
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Catholic Teaching on Organ Donation

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

by Fr. Andrew L. Nelson

In his 1995 Encyclical Letter, The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II wrote movingly about the new cultural climate that so often readily disregards the sacredness of all human life. Current accepted practices in science and legislation, as well as in public opinion, are changing – for the worse - the way life and relationships between people are considered. He exhorts us to build up a new culture of human life, with special concern for the weak and defenseless in our midst. Who might some of these be?

The Wisconsin Donor Network tells us that nearly 80,000 Americans are currently waiting for a life-saving organ transplant, and that each year, more than 6,000 die because there are not enough donated organs.

In part IV of the same encyclical, the Holy Father addresses us as "people of life and for life," and stresses strengthening our many relationships, and writes:

"The Gospel of life is to be celebrated in daily living, which should be filled with self-giving love for others…in the many different acts of selfless generosity. Heroic actions…are a sharing in the mystery of the cross, in which Jesus reveals the value of every person, and how life attains its fullness in the sincere gift of self."

Then he gives examples of such sharing, including the following:

"Everyday heroism, made up of gestures of sharing, big or small, builds up a 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." (86) (emphasis added)

We should be reminded that in the United States, the Anatomical Gift Act has been approved in each state, allowing a person to sign one's driver's license and indicate one's desire to donate organs after death. This is a response to communities' pressing needs for organs in the provision of healthcare, hence to the common good. Of course, the donor's consent must always be both free and informed.

The Wisconsin Donor Network also tells us that the demand for organs is far greater than the available supply, despite public support and the high rate of success of transplantations. Yet while medical science can now do so much for so many, they cannot create human organs. The generosity and vision of each of us is called into play, to offer a specific gift to a person in profound need, and to help foster a culture that once again reverences all life.

Whatever misgivings we may have entertained: that once one signs a donor card, one might receive less than adequate medical care in case of an accident; that one's family will be charged; that the procedure will disfigure one's body; that only rich people will benefit from the donation; and many others; are carefully addressed and dispelled by the Wisconsin Donor Network in their publications and interviews.

Finally, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us:

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

What a wonderful gesture of life-giving love!

Content Reviewed July 2010

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