Donating One's Body to Science

Author: William E. May


Donating One's Body to Science

Intention Must Be to Serve the Needs of Others

By William E. May

A reader from Ontario, Canada, has written to say: "I have allowed my body at death to be given to science. Is this permissible?"

The short answer is "Yes," if specific conditions are met. To show why, I will review briefly Church teaching on organ donation and comment on this teaching to show its relevance to donating one’s body to science. Next, legitimate reasons for donating one’s body to science will be given.

It will then be helpful to summarize canons of the Code of Canon Law that must be taken into account and comment on these canons. It will also be important to consider the policies of a person’s diocese of residence that are to be observed. I will then provide a concluding summary.

Pope Pius XII

Pope Pius XII, in his May 14, 1956, allocution to a group of eye specialists, suggested: "The public must be educated. It must be explained with intelligence and respect that to consent explicitly or tacitly to serious damage to the integrity of the corpse in the interest of those who are suffering, is no violation of the reverence due to the dead."

This document, written more than a half century ago, does not explicitly address the donation of the bodies of deceased Catholics to medical science. But, if read in the light of an important passage in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we can see that it offers guidance on the question of donating bodies to science.

The passage from the Catechism (referred to now as CCC) will be quoted below, but before citing it and showing how it sheds light on Pope Pius’s statement, it is important to see what Blessed John Paul II taught regarding the self-giving of vital organs from the dead.

John Paul II

Blessed John Paul II taught that it is morally permissible to remove the vital organs (e.g., heart, liver, lungs) of a deceased person if there is moral certitude that the person has in fact died and that either the deceased prior to death or those authorized to dispose of his or her body have freely given permission to remove those organs for transplant into a person in need of them in order to preserve their life.

He explicitly taught that the task of determining that a person has died lies within the competence of medical doctors and scientists ("Discourse of John Paul II to the Participants of the Working Group"). During his pontificate, the "neurological" criterion was accepted as one valid criterion for determining death. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences expressed the matter this way: "A person is dead when there has been total and irreversible loss of all capacity for integrating and coordinating physical and mental functions of the body as a unit ("Conclusion of the meeting of the Working Group held at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 19-21 1985").

Blessed John Paul II accepted this criterion at the academy's meetings in 1985 and 1989. In his address to the 18th International Congress of the Transplantation Society, Aug. 29, 2000, he once again affirmed that the neurological criterion gives moral certainty that a person has died and that it is morally permissible to remove his vital organs for transplantation.


The following sentence from the CCC is very important: "Autopsies can be morally permitted for legal inquests or scientific research" (No. 2301). If Pius XII's 1956 teaching is read in light of this passage, it is reasonable to conclude that donating one’s body to science is in accord with Catholic teaching.

But, the intention of the donor must be to serve the needs of other human persons by making the gift of his body. It would surely be wrong for one to sell one's body to science; in fact, civil law does not permit this according to a brochure on donating bodies to science distributed by the School of Medicine of Georgetown University.

Legitimate Reasons

There are many excellent reasons for doing this, among them the following: to help to train doctors and surgeons, test protective equipment, discover new drugs and dangerous drug interactions, develop and improve the delicate instruments used in surgery, study and treat injuries and diseases, etc.; all of which serve the physical well-being of our fellow man.

Moreover, some persons who had desired to donate vital organs after death — a practice not only permitted, but also praised by the magisterium (Pope John Paul II, Address to the 18th International Congress of the Transplant Society, Aug. 29, 2000) — learn later that for some reasons they would not make good organ donors, but still want to give of themselves to others by donating their bodies to science.

Relevant Canon Law

To understand the proper respect for and treatment of the body after death, it helps to see what relevant canons in the Church’s official Code of Canon Law have to tell us. Relevant canons in the Code of Canon Law are Canon 1176, pars. 1 and 3, and Canon 1180.

Canon 1176, par. 1 affirms that deceased Catholics must be given ecclesiastical funerals that are in conformity with ecclesial law. Canon 1176, par. 3 reminds us that the Church recommends the custom of burying the bodies of the departed but does not forbid the cremation of those bodies as long as it was not chosen for reasons contrary to Catholic teaching.

And canon 1180 says that the bodies of the faithful departed should be buried in their parish's own cemetery if the parish has one, but at the same time permits burial in another cemetery if the deceased person or those in charge of his burial have chosen another cemetery legitimately. It then declares that everyone must be allowed to choose the cemetery for burial unless some ecclesiastical law forbids doing so.

Brief comment

Church law does not forbid burying the mortal remains of the faithful departed in non-Catholic cemeteries unless burying in a particular cemetery is contrary to some ecclesiastical law, but it highly recommends that the bodies of the faithful departed be buried in Catholic cemeteries.

Since the institutions to which bodies of the deceased are donated routinely cremate those bodies, unless the donor or his caregivers explicitly want to inter the bodily remains in a grave, Church law regarding cremation is frequently applicable. As we have seen, canon law permits cremation (Canon 1177, 3). Most importantly, the Church teaches, "The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and with charity in faith and hope of the Resurrection (CCC, No. 2300). This teaching is to be observed whether the bodily or cremated remains of the deceased donor are to be then disposed of in carrying out the expressed desires of the deceased or his family or designated caregivers.

If the remains are cremated, there is no specific law of the universal Church (Canon Law) requiring that they be interred in a cemetery, preferably a Catholic cemetery. But all dioceses in the United States have a policy similar to that of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia: "The practices of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping the remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires. The cremated remains of a body should be entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium; they may also be buried in a family lot in a cemetery."

According to Rev. John Beal, JCD, professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America, the policy of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, or one very similar to, it is observed in all dioceses in the U.S.

Concluding Summary

The answer to the reader’s question is, "Yes," one can give one’s body to science, and the Church permits this. It is highly recommended that the bodies be interred in a Catholic cemetery, although there is freedom to choose another cemetery unless a specific ecclesiastical law forbids it. The remains of these bodies, if cremated, ought to be interred in a cemetery.

Although no canon in the Code of Canon Law requires this, U.S. dioceses judge that the reverence due to the remains of a faithful Catholic is not honored if the ashes are scattered at sea or elsewhere or kept in a private home. If plans call for burying the remains of the body donated to science in a non-Catholic cemetery, it is advisable to consult the local diocesan chancery office to find out whether that cemetery is acceptable.

* * *

William E. May, is a Senior Fellow at the Culture of Life Foundation and retired Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

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