Life and Death

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1. Can Catholics to get cremated?

For a long time Catholics were strictly forbidden from being cremated. It was not that cremation was actually wrong, but that primarily from the time of the French Revolution, cremation had been encouraged as a sectarian instrument by liberal and atheistic movements to promote anticlericalism and, in effect, to deny the resurrection of the body, a belief integral to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Pope Paul VI reviewed the matter in the light of prevailing cultural climate of the mid 20th Century, and decided to lift the ban on cremation, and to prohibit it only when, in the words of Canon Law, "it is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching" (Can. 1176:3).

In summary, then, the Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2301).

If you choose to be cremated, the Church teaches that your remains should be treated with the same respect as the decomposed remains of a body, and should be buried or entombed in a suitable place for commemoration of the deceased.

2. What is the Churches position on the death penalty?

You will find a statement on the death penalty in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 2266 and 2267. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is available on the Vatican website:

The church does allow the use of the death penalty, but only if this is the only way of protecting people against an unjust aggressor. The church believes that the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent’.

There has been a significant shift away from the position as stated by the Church in ancient times and most commentators today would consider that the circumstances in modern society do not exist such as to justify capital punishment.

In fact, the new Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004) states that the “Church sees as a sign of hope ‘a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of legitimate defence on the part of society. Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform.”

The literature on capital punishment is vast. The Bishops have not made a statement on this subject but it was treated in the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council Position Papers. The ACSJC Position Paper on 'Why the ACSJC Opposes the Death Penalty' sets out simply and clearly the reasons why the ACSJC is opposed to the death penalty, provides quotes from Church teachings on the issue, a list of resources, and suggestions of actions. It can be downloaded from the Position Papers page of the Australian Catholic Social Justice website ( or ordered in printed form from the ACSJC Secretariat for $2.20 plus postage.

3. What is the Catholic Church’s position on drugs? What about tobacco and alcohol?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense. Clandestine production of and trafficking in drugs are scandalous practices. They constitute direct co-operation in evil, since they encourage people to practices gravely contrary to the moral law. ” (CCC, 2291)

Tobacco and alcohol may be seen as pleasure-giving drugs which have little nutritive value but which are used by human beings because they excite the nervous system and because they give some kind of pleasure to the senses. The use of pleasure-giving drugs is not in itself immoral.

However, under some aspects, their use can be sinful:
(a) If taken simply for pleasure and sensual satisfaction to the positive exclusion of any usefulness. They can be useful if taken to relieve tiredness or to provide the body with some necessary recreation to the end that it may be a fit instrument of the soul;
(b) If taken in a measure that would be harmful to the body, either because of nicotine intoxication which the drug might cause or because of its tendency to be habit-forming;
(c) When an unreasonable amount of money is spent to provide such drugs, that is, when one spends for the purchase of such drugs the money one would use for the maintenance of one's family or for other necessary or more noble uses.

The only reference made to these drugs in the Catholic Catechism is with reference to the virtue of temperance which “disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine.” (CCC, 2290)

4. What is the Church’s position on euthanasia?

The word “euthanasia” literally means “good death”. Every responsible person should hope to die, when the day comes, in a good way. But the Church maintains that dying by way of an act of another person which terminates one's life is anything but good.

The crux of the Church's opposition to euthanasia is that is a human life is a greater good than self-determination - the good of the sanctity of human life, that life which God has bestowed on each one of us, can never be sacrificed for the sake of the good of self-determination. 

In Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II wrote about the present attitude towards death: “When the prevailing tendency is to value life only to the extent that it brings pleasure and well-being, suffering seems like an unbearable setback, something from which one must be freed at all costs. Death is considered ‘senseless’ if it suddenly interrupts a life still open to a future of new and interesting experiences. But it becomes a ‘rightful liberation’ once life is held to be no longer meaningful because it is filled with pain and inexorably doomed to even greater suffering.” (n64)

The decision to request that one's life should be ended by means of an active intervention by another person rests on a misconception that a human life can be not worth living. People have made that judgement about themselves and about others for centuries, many choosing to take their own life.

Today, with advances in medical technology, the possibility exists for others to intervene to assist people to end their lives, relatively painlessly. But this doesn't make that judgement morally right. On the contrary, it is a clear violation of a principle which all civilised societies have recognised and defended throughout human history.

And from the point of view of Christian teaching it contravenes the commandment of God, “Thou shalt not kill.”

The Church reminds us that euthanasia must be distinguished from the decision to forego so-called ‘aggressive medical treatment’, in other words, “medical procedures which no longer correspond to the real situation of the patient, either because they are by now disproportionate to any expected results or because they impose an excessive burden on the patient and his family. In such situations, when death is clearly imminent and inevitable, one can in conscience ‘refuse forms of treatment that would only secure a precarious and burdensome prolongation of life, so long as the normal care due to the sick person in similar cases is not interrupted’.” (Evangelium Vitae, n65)

Christians have been at the forefront of caring for the sick and dying for centuries. Inspiring that service has been a reverence for human life and a love for the God who has created that life and who has sovereignty over it.

And the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry of healing leave us in no doubt of how he respected human life when many of his generation did not. One only needs to recall his healing of the ten lepers and of the blind man by the Pool of Siloam, whom others had bypassed for many years.

5. What is the church's position on IVF?

We have been married for nearly two years and have found out that we are unable to have children naturally. What is the church's position on IVF?

It is a very difficult situation that you and your husband are facing, and it must be causing you great sadness.

The Catholic Church's teaching on reproductive technologies is outlined in a paper from the Life Office of the Archdiocese of Sydney

To quote from the introduction: “No matter how a human being comes into existence, he or she is always a person to be loved. We should always try, however, to act in ways which respect human dignity from the very first moment of a human being’s existence. Some forms of reproductive technology fail to show adequate respect for the value of human life and the meaning of procreation.”

There might be a glimmer of hope for you as there are some ethically acceptable forms of reproductive technology (treatment of underlying causes of infertility; low tubal ovum transfer; and possibly GIFT).

Additional information is available at Fertility Care.

Please be assured of our prayers for you as you discern this important decision.

6. Can you tell me what the Church’s teaching on organ donation is?

In recent times there has been some active promotion of the value of organ donation. This is worthwhile, subject always to ensuring that people are left completely free in what is a very personal and sensitive matter.

Pope John Paul II, in his address to the First International Congress of the Society for Organ Sharing in 1991, described organ donation as “a concrete gesture of human solidarity and a projection beyond death of the sort of self-giving love that society needs.

“Since transplantation is essentially a human act of donation, it presupposes a prior, explicit, free and conscious decision on the part of the donor or of someone who legitimately represents the donor, usually the closest relatives.”

In 1999 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, disclosed that he was a registered organ donor, saying “to donate one’s organs is an act of love that is morally licit, as long as it is free and spontaneous.”

The Church is profoundly aware that vital organs may be donated for transplant only after the donor's death. Families need an assurance that death has already occurred and if they are in any doubt about this, as can happen when life support systems are still in place, the hospital authorities should make sure that the medical facts are clearly explained.

Donor families must also be supported at the time of the death of their loved one. They are grieving and have to deal with what is usually an unexpected and traumatic death, while coming to terms with consenting to an organ donation.


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