A Teaching On the Duty to Preserve Life
To answer the question on whether in Christianity one is morally obligated to preserve one’s life and health specifically with a transplant, and the moral limits governing such responsibility, I will give a brief background of the teaching on the duty to preserve life.
Traditionally, Christian moral discussions on the responsibility for health and the preservation of life are discussed within the context of violations to human life such as suicide, euthanasia and homicide. Saint Thomas Aquinas, whose teaching in this regard was most influential on theologians after the thirteenth century, set the basic parameters for theological reflections on the moral responsibility and proper limits for the sustenance of life.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, life is a gift from God to be loved, nurtured and lived in proper charity. The human being, as a respectful steward of this gift, does not possess absolute dominion over it. Absolute dominion over life belongs only to God (Summa Theologica, II. II. Q 64 Art. 5.). Consequently, any willful destruction of one’s own life or the lives of others, especially of the innocent, is always considered a serious objective evil because it violates the natural law of self-preservation and charity toward the self and others (Summa Theologica II. II. Q65, Art. 1). Such acts reject the proper limits of stewardship and the sovereignty of God over life and death. This means that suicide and homicide are sins against oneself, against community, and against God (Summa Theologica, II. II. Q 64 Art. 5.).
This view of St. Thomas on the responsible stewardship of God’s gift of life has been consistently upheld by theologians and the church’s teachings. The Roman Catholic Church issued a statement in 1980, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Declaration on Euthanasia, reaffirming this traditional view of human life, its meaning, purpose and the responsibilities for this gift.
If human stewardship of life implies negatively that one has no moral authority whatsoever to commit suicide or willful neglect, the positive implication is that one is morally responsible for nurturing and sustaining the gift of one’s life. But the preservation of life and health is not an absolute moral duty. For St. Thomas, God is the ultimate meaning and purpose of every human life. Human life is only a temporal reality. If the act of preserving life helps a person toward God as his or her final end, then there is a moral obligation to take the necessary means conducive for the preservation of life. But if preserving life hinders one’s ultimate union with the Creator, then it would be an objective sinful act since it frustrates the ultimate meaning of one’s life. St. Thomas writes:
Every man [sic] has it instilled in him by nature to love his own life and whatever is directed thereto; and to do so in due measure, that is, to love these things not as placing his end therein, but as things to be used for the sake of his last end. Hence it is contrary to the natural inclination, and therefore a sin, to fall short of loving them in due measure. Nevertheless, one never lapses entirely from this love: since what is natural cannot be wholly lost: for which reason the Apostle says: "No man ever hated his own flesh." Wherefore even those that slay themselves do so from love of their own flesh, which they desire to free from present stress. Hence it may happen that a man fears death and other temporal evils less than he ought, for the reason that he loves them less than he ought. . . Temporal goods are to be despised as hindering us from loving and serving God, and on the same score they are not to be feared; wherefore it is written: "He that feareth the Lord shall tremble at nothing." But temporal goods are not to be despised, in so far as they are helping us instrumentally to attain those things that pertain to Divine fear and love. (Summa Theologica II. II. Q 126, Art 1.)
It is clear that for St. Thomas, the pursuit of health and life as a good should be done only in accordance with whether such pursuit aids the person toward the goal of final union with God. A person is morally obliged to take care of one’s own health and to prolong life in so far as it is in accordance with that end. Just as it is possible for one to sin against responsible stewardship of life through culpable negligence, it is also possible for one to sin against responsible stewardship through an inordinate love of life by making its preservation as one’s ultimate end.