Pastoral Guidelines: Church Positions Regarding the Sanctity of Human Life, Donation of Organs, & Cremation
Rev. Dr. Stanley S. Harakas
Archbishop Iakovos Professor of Orthodox Theology, Emeritus, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology
The Sanctity of Human Life
A major and overarching concern of the Church arises with its commitment to the God-given sanctity of human life. Some of the developments of the biological manipulation of human life, though promising and amazing therapeutic achievements, may also be understood as undermining respect for the integrity of human existence. Others may be seen as providing new means of healing human illness. Discerning the difference is the challenge the Church faces in developing its teaching on these newly appearing issues.
The Church’s teaching about human life is based on Holy Tradition, including the Scriptures as a primary resource and the ongoing teaching and interpretation of the Orthodox Faith. Life is a gift of God in the formation of the created world. All life is precious, but human life is uniquely created by God in the “image and likeness of God.” Human life as such deserves deep respect and individual human beings are to be treated in accordance with their inherent human dignity.
Thus, racism, unjust prejudicial treatment of men and women, genocide, forms of sexual exploitation, domestic violence, child abuse, rape, theft or destruction of private property, deceptions and deceit, environmental plunder and other such unethical behaviors violate the human dignity of others. Human life as a gift of God should be respected. Some specific issues are the following:
Donation of Organs
Although nothing in the Orthodox tradition requires the faithful to donate their organs to others, nevertheless, this practice may be considered an act of love, and as such is encouraged. The decision to donate a duplicate organ, such as a kidney, while the donor is living, requires much consideration and should be made in consultation with medical professionals and one’s Spiritual Father. The donation of an organ from a deceased person is also an act of love that offers the recipient a longer, fuller life. Such donations are acceptable if the deceased donor had willed such action, or if surviving relatives permit it providing that it was in harmony with the desires of the deceased. Such actions can be approved as an expression of love and the self-determination of the donor. In all cases, respect for the body of the donor should be maintained.
Organ transplants should never be commercialized nor coerced nor take place without proper consent, nor place in jeopardy the identity of the donor or recipient, through, for example, the use of animal organs. The death of the donor should never be hastened in order to harvest organs for transplantation to another person.
Because the Orthodox Faith affirms the fundamental goodness of creation, it understands the body to be an integral part of the human person and the temple of the Holy Spirit, and expects the resurrection of the dead. The Church considers cremation to be the deliberate desecration and destruction of what God has made and ordained for us. The Church instead insists that the body be buried so that the natural physical process of decomposition may take place. The Church does not grant funerals, either in the sanctuary, or at the funeral home, or at any other place, to persons who have chosen to be cremated. Additionally, memorial services with kolyva (boiled wheat) are not allowed in such instances, inasmuch as the similarity between the “kernel of wheat” and the “body” has been intentionally destroyed.
Medical Developments and the Church
With high frequency, new developments in the area of the life sciences appear in our technologically advanced culture. The Church welcomes efforts and innovations that contribute to the healing of human diseases. Yet, many of these advances raise moral questions. Some of the Church’s responses to these developments are based on older issues for which the Church has clear and unambiguous guidelines. Other responses are not so evident.
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