Saturday, December 8, 2007

Relics, Cremation and Organ Donation, Part 3

Within the Christian tradition, to bury the dead is a work of mercy – to burn the dead a desecration. The bodies of our departed holy ones are rightly venerated in altars, catacombs, and cemeteries, in reliquaries and ossuaries in reverent expectation of the coming resurrection.

In the light of traditional Christian respect for the corpse, ought Christians to regard the transplantation of human organs as a desecration or a veneration of the body?

Most Christians are firmly in the latter camp, believing with neither doubt nor hesitation in this modern medical miracle. Others hesitate. I have hesitated for years.

A compelling argument against organ donation, it has seemed to me, is the resurrection of Lazarus. Imagine that, upon his death, Mary and Martha had carved him up and used his organs to save other folks’ lives. This would put a whole new spin on Christ's command, "Lazarus, come out!" Would his organs, in obedience to their Creator, have jumped from the guts of their recipients?

Lazarus is not unique. The Seven Holy Sleepers, too, rose from the dead. Peter raised the dead (Acts 9:40). The bones of Elisha raised the dead (2 Kings 13: 21). How, if some organs of these lived on, would their resurrections have occurred?

Would Jesus have wanted His organs donated?

If, indeed, our bodies are to rise from the dead, are not our organs to rise with them? What is a body but a group of organs? Significantly, our bodies will rise from the dead – our souls are not given new bodies. Body and soul are linked. The soul is the life of the body. Our bodies rise and, if we are saved, are glorified. They are made new, but are not recreated.

Compelled as I have been by these arguments, in truth, “the free gift of organs after death is legitimate and can be meritorious” (CCC 2301).

Saints Cosmas and Damian, unmercenary physicians, performing a miraculous transplant of a leg from a deceased Ethiopian. Attributed to Master of Los Balbases (15th Century).

What is more, the practice of organ transplantation actually has ancient Christian approval. Sts. Cosmas and Damian, as here illustrated, once performed a miraculous leg transplant as a means of healing an ulcerated leg.

The workings of resurrection are mysterious – unplumbable. Our omnipotent God has taught us the greatest love is the gift of self – self-sacrifice. For the sake of such love, God, Who is Love, will surely make a way. Where I have seen contradiction, there is none.

No greater reliquary could there be for the organs of a departed loved one than the body of another – here is a reliquary of God’s own creation, “more precious than the most exquisite jewels and more purified than gold” (Martyrdom of Polycarp, c. 135). Here indeed is a fitting place to deposit our remains.

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