Summer 2011

You Only Die Twice: Augustine, Aquinas, the Council of Vienne, and Death by the Brain Criterion

Nicholas Tonti-Filippini

“The Church holds that death can be diagnosed on the basis of evidence that shows a complete loss of brain function, but may not be diagnosed if there is still some function of the brain.”

There are some who take what might be called a “two deaths view” or “mentalist view” about death. This is a view that distinguishes between death of the person and death of the body. It is a view defended by Robert Veatch,1 who argues in effect that when a human being ceases to be able to function at those higher levels of activity that we consider to distinguish human or even sentient life, then the person has died even if the body continues to function. Peter Singer takes a slightly different but related view when he says that we should be able to take organs from those who are still alive but have lost the capacity for consciousness.2 Veatch and Singer agree in that they argue that survival of the body without consciousness does not mean the status of a person. Among theologians, there are those such as Kevin O’Rourke,3 who have argued that because those who are in a state of post-coma unresponsiveness or so-called “vegetative state” are “unable to have a friendship with God,” they can have nutrition and hydration withdrawn. The position is not explicitly that those in an unresponsive state are dead, but the implication is that maintaining their life is not a benefit. O’Rourke has not suggested that those who are permanently unconscious can be used as organ donors, but given that he thinks that maintaining their lives is not a benefit, the question is not irrelevant.

The positions adopted by Veatch, Singer, and perhaps O’Rourke would seem to imply that there may in fact be two deaths: the death of the person, when consciousness is permanently lost, and the death of the body, when biological life ceases. The debate over whether there is more than one death is not new. The discussion today in some ways mirrors an age-old debate:

  • St. Augustine (influenced by Plato) thought that there were many souls for different functions of the body and that there were two deaths: of body and of person.
  • St. Thomas Aquinas (influenced by Aristotle) thought that the human being had only one soul and therefore only one death.

1. Robert M. Veatch “The Death of Whole-Brain Death: The Plague of the Disaggregators, Somaticists, and Mentalists,” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 30, no. 4 (2005): 353–78.

2. Peter Singer, Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Values (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994); also see Peter Singer, Writings on an Ethical
(New York: HarperCollins, 2000).

3. Kevin O’Rourke, O.P., and Patrick Norris, O.P., “Care of PVS Patients: Catholic Opinion in the United States,” The Linacre Quarterly 68, no. 3 (August 2001): 201–17