Questions Answered

Donating one's body for research? And, Sacrament of Reconciliation for those already baptized who are received into the Church at Easter Vigil?

Question:  Can Catholics donate their bodies for scientific research, and, if they do, what care must be taken of the body for Christian burial?

Answer: A number of dioceses have published guidelines to be used in just such cases, as these, and their clarifications, for the most part, seem well done.  One such diocese is Burlington, Vermont.  I have basically summarized their guidelines in what follows.

The guidelines explain that it is perfectly permissible for Catholics to donate their bodies for scientific research. Most teaching hospitals have body donation programs.  Donors must be 21 or older, and may register their bodies in advance.  Documents must be signed to that effect, and only the donor may make such a choice, or sign such a document.  The body must remain intact, so there cannot be an autopsy.  Either the institution, or the family of the deceased, must agree to pay for: removal of the body from the hospital, transportation of the body, permits for transportation and cremation, and the cremation itself.  Bodies which are donated are normally cremated after they have been used, which often can take up to two years.

When the institution has finished with their research, the final disposition of the body must be done according to the norms for cremation established by the Catholic Church.  The remains should be returned at that time to the next of kin, or the funeral director. The reverence with which one treats a dead body is owed to cremains, as well, and funeral rites must be performed accordingly. These rites respect a number of central Christian beliefs.  A human being is composed of a spiritual soul, and a physical body. That body has participated throughout a person’s earthly life in the sacraments, and the good deeds done by the person.  It will rise again at the end of time, to complete the happy experience of heaven. The body is also a human body, and so respect for it, even in death, underlines the right to life.  There is also an obligation to pray for the dead, and console those who experience grief, at the passing of a loved one.

The Church now permits cremation, provided it is not chosen for an incorrect religious reason; for example, that the body is viewed as a prison from which the soul must be freed in order to enjoy heaven. The cremated body must be treated with the same respect as an intact body.  Even if it is has been used for scientific research for two years, a funeral Mass should be offered, followed by interment, either in the ground, or in a mausoleum.  In the case of the body donated to science, a memorial Mass may be offered at the time of death, and the actual funeral liturgy at the time of burial.  Also, as is the case with all cremated bodies, scattering at sea, or on the ground, is not considered to be a sign of sufficient respect for the holiness of the Christian body.

Catholicism is very much a physical religion, as witnessed by the emphasis on the necessity of the sacraments for salvation.  This very physical character should also be evident in the reverent treatment of the dead body, even of those which have been used for scientific research.

Question:  I have noticed at the Easter vigil that a  number of people are received into the Church, both unbaptized and baptized. In the case of neophytes, Baptism obviously involves the remission of sins, but with the baptized there is the possibility of serious (mortal) sin.  These latter have no chance of confession during the service.  How do we explain this absence of some reconciliation/absolution opportunity?

Answer:  The Church emphasizes a return to ancient catechetical programs in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. Though people are received into the Church during the Easter Vigil ,either by means of baptism or, if already baptized, by a profession of faith. This is not supposed to be the end of the catechetical process.  Normally, the RCIA candidates are expected to return during the Easter season for the final catechesis, which should include a thorough explanation of the doctrine of grace in the infused virtues.

Though this fuller instruction is reserved until after Easter, the practice of preparation for confession occurs beforehand.  For those who are “the elect”—those who have not ever been baptized—there is no problem, since baptism forgives all sins at the time it is received.  The sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist are normally conferred at the Easter Vigil.  Confession certainly could be made by “the elect” before the Easter Vigil, in close proximity to it, at a convenient time to prepare them for their next experience of confession.  They would exercise everything in the ritual, except the reception of absolution, because, of course, one cannot be absolved unless one has been baptized.

As for those who have been validly ,or may even be conditionally, baptized (the presumption being that one only needs certainty of baptism), the rite itself calls for them to definitely experience confession, before their actual entrance into the Church, by formal profession:

482. If the profession of faith and reception take place within Mass, the candidate, according to his or her own conscience, should make a confession of sins beforehand, first informing the confessor that he or she is about to be received into full communion. Any confessor who is lawfully approved may hear the candidate’s confession.  Not only may the future Catholic make his confession before being formally received, but normally he or she should do so.  

As a result, there is no problem with the validity of such confessions.  The difficulty is how to explain it theologically.  The validity of the conferral of absolution depends on fullness of communion with the Catholic faith.  Converts have already come to believe, and accept, full communion, and have been merely postponing the final public avowal of that until the Easter vigil. The public act by which they join the Church is symbolized by the profession of the Creed (hence, it is called a “symbol of faith”).  The convert, who is already baptized, has initiated his faith journey which—begun by Baptism, and full communion with the Church—takes place with the other sacraments of initiation (Confirmation and Eucharist).  God reinvigorates the grace of baptism by means of the Sacrament of Penance.

Converts have no trouble understanding the importance of reconciliation with God, and the Church, as being a part of the process.  As their adherence to the Catholic faith is already evident to the community in the person of the priest, who has chosen to receive them, then—though juridically this may not have been publically expressed, at least, as regards to Penance—the priest may absolve them as a preparation for the reception of the other sacraments, when this public expression is performed.

This problem does point out two difficulties with the present practice of the Church for the instruction of converts.  Laudable and beautiful as the entrance into the Church is during the Easter vigil,  all converts are not equal in that moment when grace brings them to the fullness of communion.  To postpone that for some, or lump them altogether with the same norms, fails to recognize the various levels of preparation.

The importance of personal readiness must always be a part of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).  One who needs more time should be accommodated, and not made to think there is something defective in his conversion.  Grace cannot be reduced to the confines of a class.

Also, removing the direct influence of the priest from convert instruction means that he is not really aware of the depth of preparation, or desire of an individual convert.  It is sometimes the case that preparation for Penance, for example, is very inadequate when done by the RCIA team, and so the convert, or even the neophyte, would not know that things like living together outside of wedlock is a mortal sin, until the actual moment of confession, if then.

The difficulty is compounded pastorally when outside confessors are brought in to do RCIA confessions, as they have no idea of the depth of preparation, and certainly can experience a conflict in conscience in giving absolution when there is such a poor preparation.  It seems better, then—at least, regarding the sacrament of Penance—for the pastor himself to instruct the RCIA class, regarding specific sins, and taking the responsibility for admitting them to this sacrament, judging on their individual preparation.  Confession is often the most difficult thing for adult converts to do, not because they do not accept it, but because they have never done it.  This wonderful sacrament is so different from secular life where, too often, one is encouraged to hide wrongdoing.  One practical way for ensuring a complete and joyful confession of sins, is for the priest, who will hear their confessions, to come to a panel presentation on the sacrament, and personally field questions.  In this way, there may be a comfort level produced for both the converts and the priests.



Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

Please send your questions to:
Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
375 NE Clackamas St.
Portland, OR 97232
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  1. Avatar Joseph Burba.Sr. says:

    I will be 76 years old thisfall. I have reached the conclusion that all of the pomp and circumstances that are exhibited in the post Vatican II Mass are nothing but ceremonial trappings to satisfy the masses. I cannot understand why there is so much portrayed. How important is the ceremony in the litergy ? I find myself sitting and being very critical until the Consecration at which time I focus . This priest we have now LOVES incense. He incenses the altar before Mass, the ambo before the Gospel and then pontificates “ad infinitum ” ! Help. it’s driving me crazy !


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