Q – What does the Church teach about people donating their bodies to science (e.g. cadavers used by med students)? I know the Church strongly recommends that our bodies are buried when we die, but at the same time, this seems like an altruistic cause to further someone’s education. Thoughts?
A – Thanks for the question. You are correct – the Catholic Church tells us that we are to honor our bodies, even after death. We must remember that our bodies are not just storage sheds for our souls, that we can treat as we see fit and then dispose of when we are done with them. Rather, the body is an integral part of who we are as humans. In fact, without our bodies we are not fully integrated human beings.
Thus, we believe that at the end of the world all humans, whether in heaven or hell, will be raised from the dead and our bodies and souls will be one again.
The Catechism says this about our bodies:
365 “The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.”
Thus we have a human beings, not just bodily beings (animals) or spiritual beings (angels). I could go on for days about the importance of our bodies, esp. in a modern culture that views it as nothing more than a tool for pleasure, but I must digress. Suffice it to say that the theology of the body is something we all need to know well.
Now, to directly answer your question, I will start with another quote from the Catechism (isn’t that a great book?):
2300. The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy; it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit.
2301. Autopsies can be morally permitted for legal inquests or scientific research. The free gift of organs after death is legitimate and can be meritorious. The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.
Thus, even when donated for scientific research, for organ transplant, etc. the body must be treated with respect. When the experiment, dissection, etc. is done, then the body should receive a Christian burial and all bodies should only be used when proper consent is given.
For the person who is donating their body to science (or organs for transplant), it is an act of charity.
So, it is okay to dissect a cadaver, but the medical school has the duty of having cadavers that are ethically received and treated. They must:
- Get consent to use the bodies of the deceased (keeping the identity of the cadaver anonymous to those who might dissect them)
- Always treat the bodies with reverence.
- Give the bodies (or ashes) a Christian burial (if the person was a Christian).
We shouldn’t forget the dignity of humanity behind anatomy and science.
I hope this helps, but if your friend has further questions, I recommend contacting the National Catholic Bioethics Center.
**Is Organ Donation OK?