Organ Donation and Catholic Teaching: A Summary

Staff of The Nathaniel Centre

Catholic teaching on organ and tissue donation and transplantation speaks of it as a form of "self-giving", a selfless act of love modelled on Jesus Christ's unselfish offering of his own life. Thus, the donation of human tissue and organs is often referred to as an "enduring gift".

No one should ever presume such a gift – the decision to donate organs or tissue must always be explicit, free and informed. Provoked by love, and freely offered, an act of tissue or organ donation can be seen as a rich gesture of generosity, an expression of human solidarity that serves the common good. It is, in other words, an intensely personal act and, as such, should only ever be done with the explicit consent of a person.

As Pope Saint John Paul II noted in Dolentium Hominum (1991): “… the human body is always a personal body, the body of a person. The body cannot be treated as a merely physical or biological entity, nor can its organs and tissues ever be used as items for sale or exchange. Such a reductive materialist conception would lead to a merely instrumental use of the body, and therefore of the person.”

We acknowledge the need for, and benefits of, increasing the relatively low rates of deceased organ donation in New Zealand. However, the view of organ donation as a ‘gift’ means that it is not something that anyone should feel obliged to do or be pressured into.

For this reason, we reject any purely ‘utilitarian’ approaches to increasing the rates of donation that focus narrowly on raising numbers and that fail, intentionally or otherwise, to acknowledge the importance of the process. The process surrounding the donation of organs should be driven by a holistic understanding that respects the dying patient as a person – a person who is at the same time part of a family with its own needs and specific cultural dynamics – while upholding the dynamic of giving.   

‘Opt-out’ models of consenting to organ donation (which are based on the notion of presumed consent) fail, in our view, to uphold the dynamic of genuine, intentional and consensual giving that marks out organ donation as an intensely personal and generous act.

While acknowledging that the process of being an organ donor makes significant demands on a person’s family and friends at a time of intense grief, and while also acknowledging that the family need to remain closely involved, the principle of respect for the dignity of a person implies that their expressed wishes as to what happens with their body after death should be upheld. This principle should only be departed from in exceptional cases.

Meanwhile, application of the principle of justice requires that “the criteria for donated organs should in no way be 'discriminatory' (i.e., based on age, sex, race, religion, social standing, etc.) or 'utilitarian' (i.e. based on work capacity, social usefulness, etc.). Instead, in determining who should have precedence in receiving an organ, judgements should be made on the basis of immunological and clinical factors. Any other criterion would prove wholly arbitrary and subjective, and would fail to recognize the intrinsic value of each human person as such, a value that is independent of any external circumstances.” (Pope Saint John Paul II: Address to the 18th International Congress of the Transplantation Society).

For further reading see the following articles available at:

Organ donation - An Enduring Gift” by Michael McCabe. Nathaniel Report, Issue 12, April 2004.

Making a Life-Saving Difference: Organ Donation and Consent” by John Kleinsman. Nathaniel Report, Issue 13, August 2004.

Nathaniel Centre Submission on Human Tissue (Organ Donation) Amendment Bill. Nathaniel Report, Issue 19, July 2006.

Organ and Tissue Transplantation and the Catholic Moral Tradition: A Case Study in the Evolution of Moral Teaching” by John Kleinsman. Nathaniel Report, Issue 19, August 2006.