By Hilary White
ROME, February 24, 2009 (LifeSiteNews.com) – While he said that he could not predict the future, Professor Josef Seifert told LifeSiteNews.com (LSN) on Friday that a conference on “brain death” criteria last week had possibly opened a door to moving opinion in the Vatican away from support for the use of the criteria for organ transplants.
In an interview with LifeSiteNews.com the day after the conference, Professor Seifert said, “I’m not a prophet. On the other hand, if one believes in the Catholic Church as I do, then one must assume that earlier or later the truth will triumph and that the Church will not teach something false on central issues of faith or morals. And if that is so, and if what we say is true, I trust that it will be formulated.”
Professor Seifert is a philosopher and the rector of the International Academy for Philosophy of Liechtenstein and a member of the Pontifical Academy of Life and was a speaker at the ‘Signs of Life’ conference held last week near the Vatican.
The conference was organized by Human Life International (HLI) and the American Life League (ALL), as well as the Italian organization Associazione Famiglia Domani and other groups, to address the growing opinion in academia, medicine and even within the Church that “brain death” is a legitimate diagnosis. The conference speakers, including eminent neurologists, jurors, philosophers and bioethicists, were united in their denunciation of the “brain death” criteria as a tool in the determination of death.
Speaking at the conference on the original formulation of the so-called 1968 Harvard Criteria that created “brain death,” Professor Seifert told participants, “We look in vain for any argument for this unheard of change of determining death … except for two pragmatic reasons for introducing it, which have nothing to do at all with the question of whether a patient is dead but only deal with why it is practically useful to consider or define him to be dead.”
The two “pragmatic reasons” cited by the Harvard Report, he said, were “the wish to obtain organs for implantation and to have a criterion for switching off ventilators in ICUs.” He said these must be rejected because they “possess absolutely no theoretical or scientific value to determine death.” This conclusion was amply supported by clinical neurologists, and neurocardiologists, who told participants that a patient who is declared “brain dead” by the standard criteria, is, quite simply, still alive.
To LSN Professor Seifert responded to comments made in September 2008 by Francesco D’Agostino, professor of the philosophy of law and president emeritus of the Italian bioethics committee, that opposition to the “brain death” criteria in the Church is “strictly in the minority.” A 2006 document, entitled “Why the Concept of Brain Death Is Valid as a Definition of Death,” was signed by Cardinal Georges Cottier, then theologian to the papal household; Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, at the time president of the Pontifical Council for the Family; Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the former Archbishop of Milan; and Bishop Elio Sgreccia, the then president of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
Professor Seifert, however, said that he did not agree with the assertion that there is a universal consensus in the Church supporting brain death. He pointed to the act in 2005 by Pope John Paul II in convening a conference to discuss “brain death” as evidence that the subject is far from closed at the Vatican. Indeed, continued interest was signaled last week by the presence at the Signs of Life conference of Cardinals Arinze and Sebastiani and two representatives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“There’s no official church teaching at all against the conclusion that all the speakers reached yesterday that the brain death definition is not correct,” he said.
He also said, however, that the matter of whether there is a universal consensus among medical professionals on “brain death” is not a central concern for the Church. “For the Magisterium of the Church it’s a question of whether it’s a fact or not.”
Professor Seifert also noted the address by Pope Benedict XVI in November to the participants at a Vatican sponsored conference on organ transplants in which he did not use the term “brain death” but pointedly referred only to “actual death.”
The Pope said that “the main criterion” must be “respect for the life of the donor so that the removal of organs is allowed only in the presence of his actual death,” a strong indicator that he does not accept the concept of “brain death” as indicating actual death, according to Seifert.
Professor Seifert said, “One could hope that this speech prepares the way for formulating this even more clearly with reference to brain death. Many people like, Dr. [Paul] Byrne, who organized the conference, interprets this statement in this way. Now it may be wishful thinking, but it may also be correct.”
The idea that there is a majority opinion among theological and ethics experts, including the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in the Church in favor of “brain death” is irrelevant, he said, in the search for the truth.
“The same happened in the case of Humanae Vitae. There was a minority and a majority and the majority report said you should admit the Pill and contraception. But the Pope followed the minority report. A majority opinion is never what dominates and what should determine Church teaching is rather the truth. In the light of reason and also of Revelation, and not simply the opinion of a majority of people.”
“Particularly not the majority of scientists,” he added, “who are very fallible individuals.”
“Normally there is much more common sense in simple people than in academicians and professors who all have their theories. It’s very rare, I think, to have academicians to have the same simple pursuit of truth than among non-academicians.”
He warned that the “brain death” theory has the characteristics of an ideology.
“It’s clear that [transplantation] is a million or billion dollar business and it is clear that also it is useful for many patients.” He said that motives such as fame for transplant doctors and researchers and money are among the “vested interests that could obscure the truth.”
“For that reason, I think, if there’s a majority in favor, it doesn’t say much.”
Read related LifeSiteNews.com coverage:
Pope Warns Organ Transplant Conference of Abuses of Death Criteria