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Q&A: Is ‘Bodies’ educational or unethical? Review of Catholic teaching on the body

PITTSBURGH, Pa. (Pittsburgh Catholic) - Catholic Online editor’s note: The following is provided as a teaching tool by the Diocese of Pittsburgh regarding “Bodies… The Exhibition,” an exhibit presently running at the Carnegie Science Center. “Bodies” is a display of human bodies and organs intended to provide an educational opportunity on how the body works, facilitate greater care of the human body and help promote respect for the human body.

The Carnegie exhibit is one of several venues across the country where “Bodies…The Exhibition” is presently on display. The show is presently running in Columbus, Ohio, and Framingham, Mass., through Jan. 20; in San Diego, Calif., through Jan. 31; in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., through Feb. 17; in New York through April; and in Las Vegas, Nevada, through June. The Pittsburgh exhibition continues through early May.

What is the teaching of the Catholic Church on the human body?

It is a fundamental Catholic understanding that the human person, composed of body and soul, is made in the image and likeness of God. The church witnesses to this in many ways, including the requirement that the bodies of the deceased be given care, dignity and appropriate burial.

It is a core teaching of Catholicism that the body does not exist as merely a separate entity that is detached from the soul. The classic understanding is that the body and soul make up the whole human person, therefore, the body needs to be treated with the utmost respect, both while we are alive and even after death, “for we are fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139).

The human body is ultimately not meant for self-indulgence, but rather is a gift entrusted to us by God. Our bodies were created to serve — the person, one another, and ultimately God and the common good.

What are the Catholic Church’s teachings and practices concerning burial of the deceased?

From the earliest moments, the Church has cared for and conveyed respect for the bodies of the deceased. Christ himself, with the tenderness and affection of those who loved him, was buried in a tomb upon his death (Mt 27:59, Mk 15:46, Lk 23:53, Jn 19:40). By allowing himself to be buried, Christ sanctified the tomb and made it a sacred place and a sign of hope. Throughout the life of the Church the followers of Christ have accorded similar respect and dignity to the bodies of the faithful who have died.

The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” teaches that, “The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection” (2300). In fact, the church has always considered the burial of the dead a corporal work of mercy and a charitable act.

What is the Catholic Church’s position on the donation of bodies for science?

The Church has long supported the donation of bodies for scientific research and educational purposes as long as the bodies are treated with dignity and are not displayed for entertainment purposes or for profit alone. There is a point where legitimate and ethical scientific investigation and education ends and exploitation begins, and the Church must be vigilant in its teaching that science and technology are ordered to man and not the other way around. It is also critical that, whenever possible, the previous permission of the deceased or family members is obtained.

However, the Church has agreed that bodies unclaimed for a length of time can be used for research.

What is the key educational opportunity of the exhibit?

Knowledge of the intricacies of how the human body functions both in its individual components and as a whole evoke a sense of awe and wonder that stirs us to a greater understanding of the science of the human body as well as the inherent dignity of each individual. It provides a unique opportunity to ponder the Creator and his creation of each of us.

Does the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh approve of “Bodies ... The Exhibition?”

“Bodies ... The Exhibition” has raised a number of concerns, most particularly the fact that the bodies were obtained without valid and informed consent. The bodies had been unclaimed and unidentified and were obtained by Dalian Medical University from Chinese police.

Representatives of the Diocese of Pittsburgh met with those involved in the exhibit at Carnegie Science Center to discuss the issues involved. All agreed that the educational benefits of “Bodies ... The Exhibition” were clear. Additionally, the location of the exhibition allows manifold opportunities for reflection and exploration of the issues involved in the display, while making an extraordinary visual presentation of the dignity and miracle of human creation.

The concern of the diocese remained the source of the bodies, particularly when noting China’s record on human rights and mandatory abortion policies.

The Carnegie Science Center supplied documentation and affidavits assuring that the bodies were of those who had died from natural causes and had been deceased and unclaimed for no less than four years. In addition, the bodies will be returned to China at the proper time for cremation or interment.

We were assured that the fetuses had died naturally in utero and were not the result of abortions. Finally, “Bodies ... the Exhibition” is also being held in the proper educational setting in a non-profit institution.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh recognizes the extraordinary opportunity this exhibit can provide in teaching on health issues, poverty and justice, and the dignity and sacredness of every human life.

“Bodies ... The Exhibition” is certainly not appropriate for all audiences. Individuals in general and parents in particular must consider their own and their children’s sensitivities when determining whether or not to attend the exhibit.

(For further reading on Catholic teaching on the human body, see the “Catechism of the Catholic Church.” For a brochure providing a more detailed discussion of this topic from a Catholic perspective, contact the Secretariat for Education, Diocese of Pittsburgh, 111 Boulevard of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222; phone 412-456-3100. It is also available on the Web at


This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of the Pittsburgh Catholic(, official newspaper of the Dicoese of Pittsburgh,Pa.



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