Q: I am a theology teacher in an all-boys Catholic high school in New Jersey. While discussing the morality of end-of-life issues, specifically the moral imperative in transplant medicine to comply with the “dead donor rule” (it would be wrong to harvest organs from a person who is almost dead) a student asked why if Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross is morally good, wouldn’t it also be morally good for someone near death to offer a vital organ to save another’s life (“Go ahead and remove my heart and give it to the chap who needs it; I am going to die soon anyway”)? In both cases persons are giving their lives for the benefit of others. – J.P., New Jersey
E. Christian Brugger offers the following response:
To answer this question, we need first to get clear what Jesus did and didn’t do and then compare that with the person who donates a vital organ to his neighbor.
Strictly speaking, Jesus did not will his own death; nor did he will that others should kill him. Both would have been suicide. Jesus accepted death as a foreseen and inevitable consequence of doing the Father’s will, which was to preach the Good News to Israel, to persevere in that preaching despite the hostility of the religious leaders, and not to draw back even when the threat posed by that hostility became murderous.
At the Last Supper, Jesus did will to make an offering of himself in order to establish the New Covenant. Because he knew everything that would happen as a consequence of making this self-gift, his choice to offer himself on Holy Thursday included within it the willing acceptance of suffering and violent death. We might use the analogy of a father who chooses to throw himself in front of a train to thrust his son out of the train’s path. The father knows he will be killed, but his choice is not a choice for death — it’s not suicide. He accepts death as necessarily entailed in his choice to save his son.
Although God the Father brought great good out of Jesus’ death, nevertheless those who killed him, and all who approved of it, did what was objectively wrong. Why? Because, as Pilate acknowledged, Jesus was an innocent man. The Father knew, however, that the leaders of the people would condemn him and he consequently willed to work his (the Father’s) salvific plan in light of it. Jesus did what was pleasing to the Father and those who brought about his death did not. Similarly, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, in willingly taking the place of another prisoner in the starvation cell in Auschwitz, was not killing himself. He was voluntarily accepting an unjust and lethal punishment in place of another man.
The man or woman who offers a vital organ to save another’s life does something not only similar to what Jesus did, but also different in a critical respect. The action may be motivated, like Jesus’ choice to go to Jerusalem, out of self-sacrificing love. Say a young man, who is dying, offers his heart to his elder sister who has a fatal congenital heart condition to save his sister’s life. This saving-type of act may be motivated by the man’s deep love for his sister. And if motive were all that we took into consideration in morally assessing an act, then the act would be praiseworthy. But acts not only have motives, they also have “matter”. In assessing an act, we not only ask “why” the act is being done, we ask “what’s being done”. This “what” is sometimes referred to in tradition as the “moral object” (cf. Veritatis Splendor, no. 78).
The man here is directing a transplant team to remove his heart. This, he knows, will bring about his death. He may not be directing the act with an intention to die, that is, in order to bring about his death. So it may not be suicide. But the act, he knows, is a killing-type of act. And he wills that it be done.
This is different in at least two respects from Jesus’ act. First, Jesus’ captors intended to kill him; they had no interest in the redemptive quality of what Jesus suffered at their hands. Second, and more importantly, Jesus never said, and indeed would not have said: “take my life so that I will save the world”. He did not direct anyone to crucify him, did not authorize his killers to kill him, did not approve of their actions. Scripture says he “became obedient unto death” (Phil. 2:8); he “submitted and opened not his mouth” (Is. 53:7). In other words, he accepted death.
The man who directs that his heart be removed, intends the act that brings about his death. Right-to-die advocates would say that persons are entitled to exercise this type of self-determination over their lives, especially if their motives are praiseworthy. Catholic teaching, on the other hand, holds that only God rightly exercises this type of authority over human life. We are not lords, but only stewards over our lives.
Accepting our death in obedience to the Father’s plan is an expression of that humility and poverty of spirit that we see summarized in the first Beatitude (cf. Matt. 5:3). Ordering others to carry out an act that we know will cause our death is exercising a type of lordship over our lives that is incompatible with Christian discipleship. This is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches (on organ transplantation): “it is not morally admissible to bring about the disabling mutilation or death of a human being, even in order to delay the death of other persons” (No. 2296).
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E. Christian Brugger is a Senior Fellow of Ethics and director of the Fellows Program at the Culture of Life Foundation; and the J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.[Readers may send questions regarding bioethics to firstname.lastname@example.org. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. The fellows at the Culture of Life Foundation will answer a select number of the questions that arrive.]