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Vol. 2 No. 6 - Nativity 2007

A Search for Wholeness:
An Orthodox Response to Organ Donation and Retrieval


"The body cannot be purified without fasting and vigil, the soul without mercy and truth, the intellect without contemplation of God and communion with Him. These pairs constitute the principal virtues in the three aspects of the human person." - Saint Ilias the Presbyter, Philokalia, Vol. II [1]

"Thus through his creation man possesses...his passible aspect from the animals, his spiritual and noetic aspect from angels, and finally, in order to exist and live, his immaterial breath- his incorporeal and immortal soul, understood as intellect, consciousness and the power of the Holy Spirit from God." - Saint Nikitas Stithatos, Philokalia, Vol. I [1]

The first successful cadaveric kidney transplant took place in Boston in October of 1962 [2]. Since then, on a popular level, the practice of organ donation has reached the point of virtually unquestioned value. As a result, the demand for organs both from living and cadaveric donations, has reached unprecedented levels, levels that can only be described as 'consumer driven.' Naturally, whole organ donations from live individuals are limited to duplicate organs, such as kidneys, where the donor patient can survive with only one such organ. The recovery and utilization of organs from dead patients, as a result of advances in the scientific understanding of organ preservation and transplant immunology, has the tremendous potential to increase the supply for transplantation. In all major nations worldwide, health care policies have attempted to maximize legislation to first entrench, and second to extend, the efficiency and pool of potential organ donors. In Canada and the United States, the Canadian Council for Organ Donation and Transplant and the National Organ Transplant Act, respectively, have mandated the creation of organizations, sometimes termed 'networks', in every state and province to support, increase, and promote the acceptance of organ donation and transplant programs.

The apparent success of modern transplantation has been built on a secular humanistic foundation. This fundamentally distorts the understanding of the human person and the value of human life. The selection of appropriate candidates for organ donation and the process by which human organs are procured in an operating theatre have blurred, to almost imperceptibility, the distinction between life and death. This distorted foundation, viewed through the eyes of Sacred Scripture and the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church, forms the basis of this discussion. It is through the mind of the Holy Fathers of the Church that modern man can find the only path out of the dehumanizing seduction that fuels the organ donation industry. For the Orthodox faithful, in the words of the holy Apostle, we must "always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you." (1 Peter 3:15)


Saint Justin Popovich describes succinctly the development of the European (and by inheritance, North American) mind. In his essay Humanistic and Theanthropic Education, he traces the philosophy of modern man from the Renaissance to Rousseau, to Locke and Hume to the rationalism of Descartes and Kant, to Schopenhauer and Styerner, and finally to the humanism of Nietzsche in which man 'has degenerated to become a base and insignificant man'[3] without God and without hope, faced starkly with our mortality. Without God and without an afterlife, the search for immortality finds its end in the rational solution of having functional organs of the body still functional without the soul: nihilism has no place for the soul.

The culture of death has deeply impacted the approach to organ donations over the last few decades. Cold, calculated pragmatism - the harvesting of the organs of one individual to hopefully save the life of another - takes precedence over the reality that such a decision may well have a detrimental impact on the donor, not to mention those participating in the organ retrieval process. At the time of the imminent loss of a loved one, the senselessness of a premature death seeks a clear and immediate sense of greater purpose; organ donation provides this purpose in a simple, easy available package. Afflicted relatives are comforted by something materially good coming from the approaching death of their loved one, something the person will do, so they can live on in others. This is a search for immortality, which has plagued mankind since death entered the world. But this kind of false immortality is based on a false and anti-Christian understanding of life, and of life after death.


"Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, which is in you, which ye have of God?" - 1 Corinthians 6:19

Orthodox Christians recognize that the body is not simply a shell, but the actual temple of the Holy Spirit, and hopefully the home of a nous (the eye of the soul) awakened to God. Western philosophies that deny the Incarnation - the reality that God took on human flesh - inevitably fall into a strange kind of dualism, suggesting that the spirit is good, while the body is bad, or at least, expendable. The focus of the Orthodox Christian life points in the opposite direction, towards holiness or, more explicitly, wholeness. This is not some sort of 'spiritual' thing, but the sanctification of the whole person, body and soul. This is one reason Orthodox Christians do not condone cremation, which is an assault on one essential part of the holiness of the person, in contrast to the cold practicality of a materialistic worldview, in which there is hardly a reason not to cremate.


God's love for mankind was evident from the beginning. Everything that has being was created from non-being by God's Will. "He commanded, and they were created." (Psalms 148:5) This was true except for Man. In the creation history recorded by Moses the God-Seer, the creation of mankind was unique, described in much more detail, and outlines his preeminence and glory in the world. Moses gives intimate details of the providential creation of Adam, that God first took counsel with Himself, and then proceeded with His hands to fashion only his body from the sensible world, while his soul was given to him by the Creator's own breath:

"And God Said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of god created he him; male and female created them.... And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul." - Genesis 1:26-2:7

In the spiritual collection The Philokalia, Saint Diadochus of Photiki tells us, "We share in the image of God by virtue of the intellectual activity of our soul; for the body is, as it were, the soul's dwelling-place. Now as a result of Adam's fall, not only were the lineaments of the form imprinted on the soul befouled, but our body also became subject to corruption."[1] We understand that the body was created, and having lost the likeness of God, (not His image) it is afflicted by sin and death. Scripture reminds us that our current condition is not in fact natural, but rather that through the first Adam and "the hatred of the devil, death entered his world." (Wisdom 2:24) Our souls and our bodies are not now, nor have ever been, beyond hope of restoration. The censing of all the faithful during any Orthodox service bears witness to the sacredness of the physical body along with the soul, as icons of the Creator awaiting final redemption. The second Adam 'Jesus Christ' has destroyed death and has reconciled us to God, the Father, transforming our corrupt bodies in the age to come, to incorruption that is free from the effects of sin, illness and death. "Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed - and the dead will be raised incorruptible. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immorality." (1 Corinthians 15: 51-53)

[1] The Philokalia: Compiled by St. Nicodemas of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, Volume 1-4. translated by Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware, Faber and Faber, London, 1979.

[2] Nadey S. Hakim and Vassilios E. Papalois, History of Organ and Cell Transplantation. Imperial College Press, London, 2003.

[3] Justin Popovich, Orthodox Faith and Life in Christ. Translated by Gerostergios et al. Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Massachusetts, 1994.

[4] National recommendations for donation after cardiocirculatory death in Canada. CMAJ 2006; 175(8): Supplemental S1-24.


Linda Korz is an M.D., specializing in anaesthesiology.
(Nativity, 2007)

© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2007.