CROMWELL – If a person continues to perform integrated life functions after his or her brain dies, is he or she really dead? Dominican Father Nicanor Austriaco, theologian and professor of biology at Providence College, will tackle that difficult question during a talk at the St. John Paul II Bioethics Center at Holy Apostles College and Seminary at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 13.
“Father Austriaco is one of the finest bioethicists in the church today,” said Deacon Tom Davis, a lecturer on bioethics at Holy Apostles and director of the bioethics center there. “He is an outstanding leader in the scientific community. He is recognized as one of the leading modern theologians in the English-speaking world.”
Father Austriaco will discuss the case of a boy identified as “TK,” who was brain-dead for 20 years but whose body, sustained by a ventilator and a feeding tube, continued to perform functions normally identified with living persons. Was TK alive during any of those 20 years? Or had his soul left his body at the moment his brain ceased to function?
“The Catholic Church has not really said anything formally about the TK case, but in 2000, Pope John Paul II was speaking to a group of physicians and bioethicists, and I was there,” Father Austriaco said in a telephone interview.
“Basically, he said the church does not have any competence in identifying the medical criteria for death,” he said.
He said that at that time, 16 years ago, physicians considered brain death a signal of the imminent death of the person. Since then, cases like TK’s have called this into question, and the Vatican is taking a wait-and-see position.
“I’m asking the question: Does TK and others like him basically underline not the moral … [but] the medical and scientific consensus upon which the pope had based his moral claims?” Father Austriaco said. He stressed that he is only presenting the evidence and not taking a position of church authority.
So, when does death occur?
“When does day become night?” Father Austriaco countered. “There can be a philosophical definition, the separation of the soul from the body. There can be a medical definition. As John Paul pointed out, death happens in a moment, but it’s hard to identify that moment.”
The TK case, he said, shows that a person who is totally brain dead can be as integrated as a person in an ICU who is on life support.
“We don’t think that a patient who is attached to all these machines in an ICU is dead; we just think they’re unstable and they’re very ill,” he said. “So you have a patient here who basically lives for 20 years in his mother’s basement with a ventilator attached to him and food and water provided artificially. And we say he is not integrated. And the question now is, if that patient is not integrated, what do we say about the patient who is in the ICU who is much more unstable?”
Father Austriaco was born in the Philippines and holds a doctorate in sacred theology from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland; a licentiate in sacred theology from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.; and a doctorate in biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has published scores of peer-reviewed articles in major Catholic publications. He is a highly sought-after speaker in the United States and abroad.
Father Austriaco said that in his upcoming talk at Holy Apostles, he hopes to include discussion of the question of what it means to have a holy death.
Information about Father Austriaco’s talk is available at 860-632-3010.