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Category: International, Religion, Reproductive Rights

Pope Retracts his Gift of Life

February 18, 2011

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the German language edition of Vatican Radio announced last week that the pope will not be giving his heart to anyone upon his death. The report came after a German doctor used the Pope’s enlistment as an organ donor as a promotion for Germany’s organ donation program which has one of the lowest national donation rates at 17%. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Gero Winkelmann received a letter from the Pope’s secretary, Msgr. Georg Ganswein, asking that he stop citing the Pope as an example of organ donation since his membership card became void upon his election to the papacy.

Pope Benedict, who had once called organ donation “an act of love,” carried his card for more than forty years. However, because his body now belongs to the “whole Church” and must be preserved for “possible future veneration,” he is no longer eligible to donate this gift of life. The news quickly circulated, causing a stir amongst reporters and bloggers wondering why the Catholic Church values an intact body for future worship more than the potential to save lives.

According to the Mayo Clinic, one donor can save up to eight lives and enhance the lives of 50 others. Surely this number is great enough that even the most passionate of worshipers could forgive the absence of a few organs upon their visit to the deceased Pope. While the Church officially supports organ donation as “a decision to offer, without reward, a part of one's own body for the health and well-being of another person” and a sincere gift of self which expresses our constitutive calling to love and communion," donation is merely a suggestion.

While I’m certainly not suggesting that organ donation be mandated by the Catholic Church, it brings up an interesting contradiction in what the Church would describe as an evil moral act: the deprivation of life. On one hand, the Church only weakly advocates organ donation as a means to save a life, not even allowing the Pope to lead by example and donate his own organs. This can easily be seen as depriving a number of people life-saving organs and therefore life itself. On the other hand, the Church still admonishes women’s use of contraceptives because it is denying both the gift of self and deliberately impeding on the natural laws set forth by God for the perpetuation of the human species.

If this the reasoning behind the immorality of contraceptive use, surely the same can be applied toward the donation of organs after death? After all, choosing not to be a donor would both deny the gift of self and lead to the possible death of up to eight people. Of course, organ donation is a personal choice and nobody should be told what to do with his or her own body. Why, then, should the Catholic Church have so much control over a woman’s body?