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A thin line

There is at times a thin line between what is right and what is wrong. As Catholics we have centuries of moral theology, direction, logic, scripture, tradition and the living breathing magisterial teaching to guide us in navigating even the most baffling questions and sometimes we still have to pick carefully through the jetsam that whirls around us as science presses ahead with the question of “can we” often trumping the more important “should we”.   A few months ago several friends and I were commenting that as we age we find ourselves more and more accenting to the Church’s judgement on issues of moral teaching and dogma even when we are not intellectually convinced.  All out us have grown tired of inevitably being proven wrong in the long run.   We had each had an issue at one point with Church teaching.  We had, all being educated and sensible creatures, put our minds to work and begun researching the Church’s teaching on our issue thinking certainly we would prove ourselves right, only to slowly become convinced that we were actually wrong and the Church was right all along.

But I have also seen the opposite happen.  Where someone would be so very, very certain that they were right that they couldn’t accept the reality that they could be wrong.  To my mind the most honest thing for a person in such a position to do is to say, “Oh, well this can’t be right and if the Catholic Church says this then I can’t be Catholic.”  and to quietly, or even raving, angry and nailing their complaints to the Cathedral door, walk away.   Of course it is obvious that a good number of people don’t agree.  Some even stick around and they either want to “update” the Church or they try to be more Catholic than the Pope.

The more Catholic than the Pope people bother me far worse than those who run left of center.   They confuse not only loyal Catholics but those outside the church who stumble into their rants and confuse their lay organisations with the magisterial Church.   You don’t see the media picking up “We Are Church” too often and confusing them for the Catholic Church… you do see them getting  Bill Donohue and the Catholic League mixed up with the See and read headlines about Catholics calling for a boycott only to find out it is not the church at large, but a lay organisation.  Somewhat akin to claiming that “Ohio sees massive crop failures” based on a single farm loosing its corn and potatoes. 

These thoughts were brought firmly to mind last night while reading over at  Confessions of a CF Husband where someone had posted a link (now deleted) to some crack pot with an MD behind his name and rosaries on his blog claiming that the medical profession vivisects people in order to harvest their organs for transplants.  He goes to great lengths to point out the sections in the catechism addressing organ donation and the papal edicts to the medical community addressing end of life issues… and the does his best to apologize around them.  “Brain death” is viewed as too vague, irreversible is somehow beyond his ability to grasp.  What truly shocked me was finding this Dr. had also writing in other more trustworthy Catholic sources.  His doubts and ideas presented there seemed much more reasonable, but placeing these issues in a light far more delicate and confusing than they need be. 

The simple straight forward facts are that the CCC views organ donations as a good as long as there is consent and for postmortem donations that a mortem is reality.

2296 Organ transplants are in conformity with the moral law if the physical and psychological dangers and risks to the donor are proportionate to the good sought for the recipient. Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as a expression of generous solidarity. It is not morally acceptable if the donor or his proxy has not given explicit consent. Moreover, it is not morally admissible to bring about the disabling mutilation or death of a human being, even in order to delay the death of other persons.


Donation and transplanting of organs

83. The progress and spread of transplant medicine and surgery nowadays makes possible treatment and cure for many illnesses which, up to a short time ago, could only lead to death or, at best, a painful and limited existence.[175] This “service to life,”[176] which the donation and transplant of organs represents, shows its moral value and legitimizes medical practice. There are, however, some conditions which must be observed, particularly those regarding donors and the organs donated and implanted. Every organ or human tissue transplant requires an explant which in some way impairs the corporeal integrity of the donor

85. <Homoplastic transplants>, in which the transplant is taken from a person of the same species as the recipient, are legitimized by the principle of solidarity which joins human beings, and by charity which prompts one to give to suffering brothers and sisters.[177] “With the advent of organ transplants, begun with blood transfusions, human persons have found a way to give part of themselves, of their blood and of their bodies, so that others may continue to live. Thanks to science and to professional training and the dedication of doctors and health care workers…new and wonderful challenges are emerging. We are challenged to love our neighbor in new ways; in evangelical terms—to love ‘even unto the end’ (Jn 13:1), even if within certain limits which cannot be transgressed, limits placed by human nature itself.”[178]

In homoplastic transplants, organs may be taken either from a living donor or from a corpse.

86. In the first case the removal is legitimate provided it is a question of organs of which the explant would not constitute a serious and irreparable impairment for the donor. “One can donate only what he can deprive himself of without serious danger to his life or personal identity, and for a just and proportionate reason.”[179]

87. In the second case we are no longer concerned with a living person but a corpse. This must always be respected as a human corpse, but it no longer has the dignity of a subject and the end value of a living person. “A corpse is no longer, in the proper sense of the term, a subject of rights, because it is deprived of personality, which alone can be the subject of rights.” Hence, “to put it to useful purposes, morally blameless and even noble” is a decision “not be condemned but to be positively justified.”[180]

There must be certainty, however, that it is a corpse, to ensure that the removal of organs does not cause or even hasten death. The removal of organs from a corpse is legitimate when the certain death of the donor has been ascertained. Hence the duty of “taking steps to ensure that a corpse is not considered and treated as such before death has been duly verified.”[181]

In order that a person be considered a corpse, it is enough that cerebral death of the donor be ascertained, which consists in the “irreversible cessation of all cerebral activity.” When total cerebral death is verified with certainty, that is, after the required tests, it is licit to remove organs and also to surrogate organic functions artificially in order to keep the organs alive with a view to a transplant.[182]

The Church is, and rightly so, against many things such as fetal tissue research, IVF, abortion,  euthanasia and cloning.  These things violate the sanctity of life.  They reduce the human person in one way or another almost always with an eye toward utility.  They remove barriers that shouldn’t be taken away because then end results are ghastly for us all.  But organ and tissue donations do not fall into that category.  Far from devaluing life they elevate life, both the life of the donor and the life of the recipient as long as those few critical aspects are giving their full weight and importance.

Morally one life can not be shortened to save another.  Not matter how hopeless the case is, no matter how desperate the need.  Those aspects of the human body that are the seats of individuality, the reproductive and cognitive aspects, can not be transplanted.  There must be full consent on the part of the donor and/or their proxy.  When these issues are met then organ donation is a moral good, a postmortem act of generosity that extends the gifts of life and health to a fellow person.  This is a beautiful and honorable thing.

Where Dr (who’s-name-I-won’t-mention) goes floundering is in his conviction that people aren’t really dead when brain function ceases.  He even goes so far as to toss out his anecdotal proofs in cases where someone was “brain dead” and then came back.  I know God can work miracles, but moral theology and medical science do not base general practice on miracle cases.  In general if your heart will stop beating and your lungs will stop breathing with out mechanical support and your brain show no functioning then you are dead.  Lazarus was brought to life after three days, but organs sitting in a morgue for three days would be useless to everyone. 

Trying to frighten people off of organ donation by telling grisly tales of someone being cut open while still alive and feeling is reprehensible.  How many people out of fear for themselves or a love one would hesitate at that critical moment and say “no.”  Almost as bad is mixing the pot to confusion, talking about “persistent vegetate state”  a term heard frequently in the tragic Teri Schrivo case leading to the idea that organ “harvesting” might occur when the donor was capable of breath and circulation on their own.  Assertion that the papal documents are vauge  when they are only vague to someone determined to obscure them adds confusion that might keep a Catholic wanting to do good from signing an organ donor card. All this while quoting a dozen Popes and the catechism itself to prove the agendized point that organ donation is wrong in direct contradiction to what the documents actually say.

When the only thing that is keeping my heart beating or my lungs moving is something plugged into the wall… go ahead, turn it off.  In fact take any usable part of me and give it to some other person who needs it.  I feel quite comfortable that the magisterial Church would laud that choice.