June 20, 1991
Pope to group on organ transplants:
New way of sharing life with others
On Thursday, 20 June,1991 the Holy Father granted a special
audience to the approximately 300 people who had gathered in Rome for the first
international congress of the Society for Organ Sharing. In his discourse the
Pope praised the efforts of those who are working to perfect the techniques used
in organ transplantation as well as the donors who share the gift of life in
accordance with moral law. The Pope addressed the group in English.
1. The fact that the First International Congress of the Society for Organ
Sharing is being held here in Rome gives me the opportunity to welcome you and
to encourage you in promoting the goal which the theme of your Congress
expresses: "World Cooperation in Transplantation". I thank Professor Raffaello
Cortesini for his kind words of presentation, and I offer my good wishes for the
success of the work in progress.
Among the many remarkable achievements of modern medicine, advances in the
fields of immunology and of surgical technology have made possible the
therapeutic use of organ and tissue transplants. It is surely a reason for
satisfaction that many sick people, who until recently could expect only death
or at best a painful and restricted existence, can now recover more or less
fully through the replacement of a diseased organ with a healthy donated one. We
should rejoice that medicine, in its service of life, has found in organ
transplantation a new way of serving the human family, precisely by safeguarding
that fundamental good of the person.
2. This splendid development is not of course without its dark side. There is
still much to be learned through research and clinical experience, and there are
many questions of an ethical, legal and social nature which need to be more
deeply and widely investigated. There are even shameful abuses which call for
determined action on the part of medical associations and donor societies, and
especially of competent legislative bodies. Yet in spite of these difficulties
we can recall the words of the fourth century Doctor of the Church, Saint Basil
the Great: "As regards medicine, it would not be right to reject a gift of God
(that is, medical science) just because of the bad use that some people make of
it; we should instead throw light on what they have corrupted" (Great Rules,
55:3, cf. Migne, PG 31:1048).
With the advent of organ transplantation, which began with blood
transfusions, man has found a way to give of himself, of his blood and of his
body, so that others may continue to live. Thanks to science and to the
professional training and commitment of doctors and healthcare workers, whose
collaboration is less obvious but no less indispensable for the outcome of
complicated surgical operations, new and wonderful challenges to love our
neighbor in new ways, in evangelical terms, to love "to the end" (cf. Jn 13:1),
exceeded limits laid down by human nature itself.
3. Above all, this form of treatment is inseparable from a human act of
donation. In effect, transplantation presupposes a prior, explicit, free and
conscious decision on the part of the donor or of someone who legitimately
represents the donor, generally the closest relatives. It is a decision to
offer, without reward, a part of one's own body for the health and well-being of
another person. In this sense, the medical action of transplantation makes
possible the donor's act of self-giving, that sincere gift of self which
expresses our constitutive calling to love and communion.
Love, communion, solidarity, and absolute respect for the dignity of the
human person constitute the only legitimate context of organ transplantation. It
is essential not to ignore the moral and spiritual values which come into play
when individuals, while observing the ethical norms which guarantee the dignity
of the human person and bring it to perfection, freely and consciously decide to
give a part of themselves, a part of their own body, in order to save the life
of another human being.
4. In effect, the human body is always a personal body, the body of a person.
The body cannot be treated as a merely physical or biological entity, nor can
its organs and tissues ever be used as items for sale or exchange. Such a
reductive materialist conception would lead to a merely instrumental use of the
body, and therefore of the person. In such a perspective, organ transplantation
and the grafting of tissue would no longer correspond to the dispossession or
plundering of a body.
Furthermore, a person can only donate that of which he can deprive himself
without serious danger or harm to his own life or personal identity, and for a
just and proportionate reason. It is obvious that vital organs can only be
donated after death. But to offer in life a part of one's body, an offering
which will become effective only after death, is already in many cases an act of
great love, the love which gives life to others. Thus the progress of the
bio-medical sciences has made it possible for people to project beyond death
their vocation to love. By analogy with Christ's Paschal Mystery, in dying death
is somehow overcome and life restored.
To repeat the words of the Second Vatican Council; only in the mystery of the
Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light (cf. Guadium et Spes,
22; Redemptor hominis, 8) The death and resurrection of the Lord
constitute the supreme act of love which gives profound meaning to the donor's
offering of an organ to save another person. For Christians, Jesus offering of
himself is the essential point of reference, an inspiration of the love
underlying the willingness to donate an organ which is a manifestation of
generous solidarity all the more eloquent in a society which has become
excessively utilitarian and less sensitive to unselfish giving.
5. Much more could be added, including a meditation on the doctors and their
assistants who make possible this striking form of human solidarity. A
transplant, and even a simple blood transfusion, is not like other operations.
It must not be separated from the donor's act of self-giving, from the love that
gives life. The physician should always be conscious of the particular nobility
of this work; he becomes the mediator of something especially significant, the
gift of self which one person has made even after death so that another might
live. The difficulty of the operation, the need to act swiftly, the need for
complete concentration on the task, should not make the physician lose sight of
the mystery of love involved in what he is doing.
Nor should the recipients of organ transplants forget that they are receiving
a unique gift from someone else; the gift of self made by the donor, a gift
which is certainly to be considered an authentic form of human and Christian
solidarity. At the approach of the Third Millennium in a period of great
historic promise, yet one in which threats against life are becoming ever more
powerful and deadly, as in abortion and euthanasia, society needs these concrete
gestures of solidarity and self-giving love.
6. In conclusion, let us remember those words of Jesus narrated by the
Evangelist and physician Luke: "Give and it will be given to you: good measure,
pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap"
(Lk6:38). We shall receive our supreme reward from God according to the genuine
and effective love we have shown to our neighbor.
May the Lord of heaven and earth sustain you in your endeavors to defend and
serve life through the wonderful means which medical science places at your
disposal. May he bless you and your loved ones with peace and joy.