Peter J. Colosi is assistant professor of moral theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa., and was previously assistant professor of philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. In an email interview, Colosi commented on the Catholic Church’s views on vital organ transplants.

Our Sunday Visitor: How do transplants fit the Catholic view on the dignity of life?

Dr. Colosi

Peter J. Colosi: The Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 2296 states, “Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as an expression of generous solidarity.” 

OSV: Is there another side? 

Colosi: Some medical doctors and theologians doubt that brain-dead donors are actually dead. This would mean that the removal of the vital organ is the act by which the donor dies, but the Catechism (No. 2296) states, “[I]t is not morally admissible directly to bring about the disabling mutilation or death of a human being, even in order to delay the death of other persons.” 

OSV: Who are some of the main players in the debate? 

Colosi: Eminent Catholic critics of brain death are Dr. Paul Byrne of St. Charles Mercy Hospital in Oregon, Ohio, and Josef Seifert of the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein and Granada, Spain.  

The medical studies of Dr. Alan Shewmon of UCLA Medical School are quite convincing indications that brain dead people are not dead, or at the very least that we do not have moral certainty that they are. Seifert and Byrne argue that since brain dead people are alive, it is immoral to kill them.  

The view that brain-dead people (whole brain death) are dead is held by eminent Catholic theologians, such as John Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center. The seriousness of this question is: If the pope ever declared that brain dead people are not dead, then all Catholic hospitals would have to stop performing heart transplant operations and all Catholics would have to stop seeking to receive hearts from donors. 

OSV: Is the Church investigating the science/moral issue of brain death in potential donors? 

Colosi: Yes, the debate is quite vigorous right now. In fact, Byrne, Seifert, Shewmon and Haas are all members of the Pontifical Academy for Life. Some hold that the Church has already pronounced in favor of brain death, and they cite this passage from Pope John Paul II’s Aug. 29, 2000, speech to the International Transplantation Society: 

“Here it can be said that the criterion adopted in more recent times for ascertaining the fact of death, namely the complete and irreversible cessation of all brain activity, if rigorously applied, does not seem to conflict with the essential elements of a sound anthropology. Therefore a health-worker professionally responsible for ascertaining death can use these criteria in each individual case as the basis for arriving at that degree of assurance in ethical judgment which moral teaching describes as ‘moral certainty.’ This moral certainty is considered the necessary and sufficient basis for an ethically correct course of action. Only where such certainty exists, and where informed consent has already been given by the donor or the donor’s legitimate representatives, is it morally right to initiate the technical procedures required for the removal of organs for transplant.” 

I always notice that little word “seem” in the first sentence. If further knowledge reveals that brain death does seem to conflict with a sound anthropology, this would remove the moral certainty referred to later in the quotation, and it would follow that vital organ donations should not be done.

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvannia.