Father Kenneth Doyle

Q. Isn’t organ donation murder? Just because you are brain dead doesn’t make your whole body dead, especially if your heart and lungs are still functioning. Doctors try to keep a patient alive until the last organ is “harvested,” which I think is wrong; they can’t even guarantee that the patient won’t experience pain during the process. (Stanley, Wis.)

A. The Catechism of the Catholic Church in No. 2296 says that “organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as an expression of genuine solidarity.”

One of the strongest advocates of organ transplants was Pope John Paul II, who in a talk to a medical conference in Rome in 2000, said: “Transplants are a great step forward in science’s service of man, and not a few people today owe their lives to an organ transplant. Increasingly, the technique of transplants has proven to be a valid means of attaining the primary goal of all medicine — the service of human life.”

Brain death is the criterion used to determine that death has occurred in the great majority of cases of organ donation in the United States. It was a standard developed by Harvard researchers in the late 1960s.

In the allocution referred to above, Pope John Paul II said that “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.”

In recent years, a few Catholic ethicists have suggested that the current neurological standard for determining death through lack of brain function needs to be rethought. But Dr. John Haas, head of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, said in a 2011 essay:

“Catholics may in good conscience offer the gift of life through the donation of their organs after death based on neurological or cardio-pulmonary criteria according to current church teaching. This does not mean that the teaching is irreformable. It may be modified on the basis of future scientific discoveries. However, it does mean that, at this point in time, the teaching can be followed with a clear conscience.”

As to the possibility of pain to the patient in the process of harvesting organs, that seems unlikely since response to external stimuli is one of the tests done in determining brain death. Much has been made of a 2009 case in New York where a woman woke up on the operating table as surgeons were preparing to harvest her organs.

But the case drew attention precisely because it was so out-of-the ordinary; the state health department found that doctors had wrongly determined brain death by ignoring signs that the woman was still alive.

Q. I just read a story in our Catholic paper about an Episcopal priest who became a Catholic and was allowed to become a Catholic priest. The man has a wife and three children. But single men who enter a Catholic seminary are not allowed to marry. How is that fair? Why should an exception be made for someone who converted? (Baton Rouge, La.)

A. Since 1980, in what is termed by the Vatican a “pastoral provision,” Episcopal priests in the Unites States who convert to Catholicism have been allowed (after a time of study and psychological testing) to become Roman Catholic priests — even if they are married.

The Vatican specified that if the former Episcopal priest were single, he would indeed take a vow of celibacy; and if one later became a widower, he would not be allowed to remarry.

To me, the pastoral provision seems a reasonable accommodation on the Vatican’s part; why not make good use of the man’s theological, liturgical and pastoral background and let him continue to function as a priest?

You ask if it’s “fair.” Sure it’s fair. The man, when he became an Episcopal priest, had no obligation to celibacy. Now that he has converted, would it be humane — or even just — to make him leave his wife and family in order to continue in ministry?

As a Catholic priest, when I was ordained, I understood that celibacy was part of the package and chose voluntarily to take that on. Now that married former Episcopal priests have joined me in ministry, far from resenting it, I’m just glad to have the help.

The pastoral provision serves as a reminder that celibacy is part of the discipline of the Roman church and not its dogma — something that the Vatican’s new secretary of state has reminded us of lately; and something that we’ve always known, since (even today) priests of the Maronite and Ukrainian Catholic churches are allowed to marry.


Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, NY 12208.