What the Church teaches about organ donation



What is the Catholic Church’s position on donating body parts for medical science? (Northampton, Pennsylvania)


Let’s divide the answer into two parts: post-mortem transplants and those from living donors. Gifts from a donor who has clearly died — either to a living recipient or to scientific research — is the easier part.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as an expression of generous solidarity” (No. 2296). The Church does teach that the remains, after organ donation or medical research, should be treated with reverence and should be entombed or buried.

As to gifts from living donors — bone marrow, say, or a lung — this is morally permissible so long as it is not life-threatening to the donor and does not deprive the donor of an essential bodily function (and provided that the anticipated benefit to the recipient is proportionate to the harm done to the donor).

In his 1995 encyclical “The Gospel of Life,” St. John Paul II called organ donation an example of “everyday heroism,” and in 2014, Pope Francis told the Transplantation Committee for the Council of Europe that organ donation is “a testimony of love for our neighbor.”


I have a friend whose father-in-law died recently. The man wanted to be cremated. The family called the church, and the pastor asked where the burial plot was located. When they said that they didn’t have one, they were informed that there would not be a funeral Mass.

Do you have to show proof of a burial spot to have a funeral Mass celebrated? (Bettendorf, Iowa)


Since 1963, the Catholic Church has permitted the practice of cremation — although the Church’s preference is still for burying the body, since this expresses more clearly the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body.

When cremation does take place, the Church has specific guidelines as to the final disposition of the cremains.

The appendix to the Order of Christian Funerals states: “The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires” (No. 417).

That teaching was reaffirmed by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in an instruction issued in 2016. This instruction explains that “the reservation of the ashes of the departed in a sacred place ensures that they are not excluded from the prayers and remembrance of their family or the Christian community.”

Still though, I am not aware of any universal mandate for proof of a burial place prior to scheduling a funeral Mass. My own inclination would be to explain to the family of the deceased the rationale behind the Church’s rule on cremains but not to prohibit a funeral Mass.


I have always been attracted to the verse in John’s Gospel (11:35) that says that, learning of the death of Lazarus, “Jesus wept.” It shows how much Christ loved Lazarus and all of humanity. But I’m wondering just why Jesus wept.

Was it because Jesus was actually grieving over the death of his friend? Or did he shed tears of joy, knowing that Lazarus was not suffering from his illness anymore, that Lazarus was perhaps getting a taste of heaven and that Christ was going to use the occasion to show forth the power of God? (Waipahu, Hawaii)


That short and simple verse from the Gospel reflects a complex truth — a truth that prompts your excellent question and makes the answer difficult. Jesus had two natures — truly human and truly divine. Both natures were at work in the matter of Lazarus.

Pope Leo the Great, reflecting on this same passage, is thought to have said: “In his humanity Jesus wept for Lazarus; in his divinity he raised him from the dead.” Jesus felt deeply the pain of Lazarus’ death. When Martha and Mary sent word to Jesus of the impending crisis, their message had been, “Master, the one you love is ill.”

Clearly, Jesus knew in advance what he was going to do, for he told them, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God.” But his awareness of that eventual outcome did not relieve Christ’s human sorrow, and this is the mystery of his dual nature. The answer to both of your questions is “Yes.”

Jesus was truly grieving over Lazarus’ passing and the pain it was causing Martha and Mary, but just as surely, he knew that the situation would ultimately serve to glorify God.

The mystery of that duality will only lift fully when we rest in God’s house; meanwhile it may help to think that, right now, we ourselves struggle to balance those twin feelings. When someone we love dies, our faith promises the joy of reunion; yet, even so, we feel deeply the sting of loss. We believe in eternal life, but that doesn’t stop our tears.

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