Ask a Priest

When does our soul leave our body?

Jul 23, 2016


I thought of this question was because of organ donation. I have been undecided on whether to become an organ donor or not and have been doing a lot of research into the Church’s stance.The Church’s current stance is that it is okay if certain conditions are met, namely, that the person is absolutely and unquestionably dead.

From a medical standpoint, the current consensus is that the person is dead once they are determined to be brain dead. But does the soul truly leave the body when we become brain dead? A medical professional (and likely atheist) would say, yes, that our brain is scientifically all that makes us, us. But as Christians we are told that life is a sacred gift, and that the whole of our bodies need to be cherished, respected, and protected. To me, it seems that harvesting a brain dead person’s organs with the heart still beating and the organs being kept “fresh” goes directly against the Church’s stance that the person must be unequivocally dead; what’s most important to the Church and God is that our soul has left the body.

But don’t our souls ENVELOP our bodies, they are not constrained to one body part (the brain). I’m just confused that we are told that the whole of our body is sacred, but then magically when just one part isn’t working anymore, somehow the rest of the body is up for grabs.

I want to make the right choice in the eyes of the Church. I know that right now, the Church has basically given the okay on all post-mortem organ donation, a conclusion that it came to after several deliberations. I think it very well could be up for further deliberation and that the Church could possibly not be 100% correct on this.

God Bless,


Asked at 05:08 am on July 23rd 2016

Hi Richard,

This isn’t an easy question to answer, since there are two opposing views held by Catholics.

For starters, the Church itself isn’t competent to decide on what’s both a medical and philosophic issue, the moment of death. Pope John Paul noted that ‘With regard to the parameters used today for ascertaining death … the Church does not make technical decisions. She limits herself to the Gospel duty of comparing the data offered by medical science with the Christian understanding of the unity of the person, bringing out the similarities and the possible conflicts capable of endangering respect for human dignity.’

In an organ donation conference held in 2000 in Rome, he said: that ‘the criterion adopted in more recent times for ascertaining the fact of death, namely 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.’

With perhaps a caution gained from greater awareness of difficulties with the use of ‘brain death’ as a criterion for death, Pope Benedict XVI, speaking to a 2008 conference on organ donation in Rome said:

It is helpful to remember, however, that the individual vital organs cannot be extracted except ex cadavere [from a dead body], which, moreover, possesses its own dignity that must be respected. In these years science has accomplished further progress in certifying the death of the patient. It is good, therefore, that the results attained receive the consent of the entire scientific community in order to further research for solutions that give certainty to all. In an area such as this, in fact, there cannot be the slightest suspicion of arbitration [arbitrariness] and where certainty has not been attained the principle of precaution [caution] must prevail.

In fact, highly respected philosophers and jurists like John Finnis, Robert Spaemann, Josef Seifert and Christian Brugger, along with Catholic medical doctors like Paul Byrne and Alan Shewmon argue against accepting ‘brain death’ as an adequate criterion for death. Seifert notes for example that

During the first six weeks of pregnancy our body lives without a brain and hence our human life does not begin with the human brain. Certainly, the embryo is alive but his life is not bound to the functioning of his brain. Therefore, the thesis of brain death being the actual death of the person which ties human life inseparably to a functioning brain goes against this biological fact: the development of the embryonic body proves that the brain cannot be simply the seat of the human person’s life or soul.

And there have been so many instances of people who were regarded as in an irreversible coma recovering consciousness sometimes years later to make us uncertain when exactly a person who appears to be ‘brain dead’ really is dead.

Registered Nurse Nancy Valko, in her very informative article notes that there are many alternatives to the organ-harvesting of brain dead bodies are becoming available. For example, ‘Tissues like corneas, heart valves, bone, and skin are not dependent on immediate harvesting after determination of death.’ She mentions a relative ‘in desperate need of a kidney transplant, the most common transplant.’ Her relative ‘has studied the issue and told her doctors that she wants a living donor. Living donors are generous family members, friends, or even strangers who willingly offer one of their two kidneys for transplant after testing for compatibility.’ Her decision ‘was based not only on ethical concerns about brain death and non-heart beating organ donation but also on the facts that organ availability is greater with living donor kidneys and that such kidneys last almost twice as long as cadaver kidneys and work immediately.’

Then there are the new techniques of cultivating adult stem-cells from the patient’s own body-so without the risk of rejection. Recently, Australian medics have grown a functioning kidney from human skin-cells. So that in the near future, organ harvesting may become by-passed by these new developments.

A moral philosopher who was a colleague of mine for many years and has served on the Pontifical Academy for Life has told me she would never sign anything involving organ donations because of the lack of attention to the moral issues surrounding when a donor has actually died.

Very best, Fr Brendan

[I’ve checked out these sources for your question: essays by Seifert and Spaemann in Finis Vitae: Is ‘Brain Death’ True Death? (Oregon, Ohio: Life Guard Foundation, 2009); and on the net: Nancy Valko, RN, ‘Brain Death and Catholic Teaching,’ Women for Faith & Family Vol. XXIX, No. 1 Pentecost 2014; Charles Camosy, ‘Is There an Official Roman Catholic Teaching on Brain Death? – A Response to Yesterday’s Claim from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, Current Events, May 4, 2011; Jay Boyd, ‘Brain Death and Organ Donation,’ Catholic Stand, July 18, 2013; Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section: 2296; and from the other perspective: ‘Why the Concept of Brain Death is Valid as a Definition of Death: Statement by Neurologists and Others and Response to Objections,’ in The Signs of Death, Proceedings of the Working Group of 11-12 September 2006, Scripta Varia 110, Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Vatican City 2007.

Replied at 06:42 am on August 03rd 2016