John Haas is a moral theologian, a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life and the president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, which helps U.S. Catholic dioceses and Church-affiliated hospitals and social agencies address a host of challenges, from regulations like the federal contraception mandate to partnerships and mergers with non-Catholic institutions that don’t adhere to Church teaching on life issues and same-sex unions.

Recently, the National Catholic Bioethics Center was drawn into an explosive controversy involving the decision by Catholic Relief Services to provide a grant to CARE, an international relief agency that supports access to legal abortion. CRS frequently consults with the Philadelphia-based bioethics center, and a stream of news stories examined whether the Center’s ethicists had approved the CARE grant or advised against it.  

The controversy underscored the challenges Catholic agencies now face as public-health organizations and government regulators adopt policies hostile to Catholic teaching. The controversy also marks a new era of Internet-driven transparency, a phenomenon that, Haas told the Register, must be reckoned with when Catholic leaders and administrators grapple with choices that could cause confusion and scandal.

He spoke with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond this week.


What is the mission of the National Catholic Bioethics Center?

The center was established to reflect on ethical issues arising in the areas of medicine and the life sciences from the perspective of the Catholic moral tradition. We are engaged in consultations, publishing and education and are committed to defending the dignity of the human person in medicine and the life sciences. We are committed to doing our work in accord with the magisterial teachings of the Catholic Church.


You have been advising the U.S. bishops and Church-affiliated institutions for three decades. How have the challenges shifted over this period?

There was a day when the ethical challenges were more personal, more clinical. Could I have this procedure done to overcome my infertility? Can we remove the ventilator from my aunt who is dying? 

Now the issues seem to be more institutional and social. Catholic health-care institutions, for example, are having to collaborate with non-Catholic health-care institutions in order to survive.  These other institutions may not share our moral values. 

The challenge is to determine how we might work with them to achieve a common good end, such as providing immunization programs in poor neighborhoods, without contributing to immoral activities in which they might be involved, e.g., tubal ligations. 

Also, 30 years ago, there was still something of a common morality. However, the advocates of abortion or of the homosexual agenda or of physician- assisted suicide or euthanasia continue their public advocacy and have increasingly been successful in having laws passed which legalize and even mandate activities the Church considers to be intrinsically evil, such as contraception or abortion or euthanasia.


What battles have been won, and what insights/wisdom does that provide for new battles?

Good question. It does not seem that many battles have been won. However, since 1973 until now, pro-lifers and other advocates of traditional morality were able to secure governmental protections for their conscience rights. 

This current administration has been profoundly ideological, aggressive and intolerant of opposing views.  The lesson, I suppose, is that we can never let down our guard and must continue the struggle.

Further, the dominant culture presents so many evil practices as unqualifiedly good that it is extraordinarily difficult for the Church even to have the opportunity or the ability to present its own sound, moral position.  Virtually all the social media are controlled by a cultural elite which portrays homosexual activity as “marriage equality” or the direct killing of the unborn as “freedom of choice.


What’s a specific example of how this approach threatens the mission of a Catholic hospital? 

Take the case of sexual assault. The “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” of the United States bishops makes it clear that it would be morally licit for a Catholic hospital to intervene with a rape victim to prevent a pregnancy from occurring.

However, while a Catholic hospital can provide a medication to prevent ovulation, it cannot perform an abortion if a conception has occurred, and it may not provide a medication that would cause an abortion. 

A problem, however, is that the Federal Drug Administration has labeled as “contraceptives” medications that in some cases would prevent the implantation of a new life, which the Church would consider an illicit abortion. Some states have mandated “emergency contraception” in cases of rape, i.e., the administration of a drug that is not “contraception” at all, but, rather, an abortifacient. Here, a dilemma is created for Catholic hospitals who try to follow the teachings of their Church despite the imposition of government mandates.


Your counsel is confidential, but some of it has surfaced in media coverage that examines questionable practices by Church-affiliated social agencies like Catholic Relief Services. Most Catholics welcome increased transparency. Do we need some ground rules?

The National Catholic Bioethics Center is an advisory body to decision-makers in the Church. We provide our consultations in confidence for several reasons. First, we have no authority ourselves, but only advise those who do have the authority. Invariably, the decision- makers turn to us because they know of our commitment to magisterial teaching and because of our acknowledged competencies.

Secondly, we do only the core ethical analyses. Those in authority have to decide whether to accept our analyses or reject them. If they accept our analysis, then they have to decide how to implement their decisions. These are sometimes very difficult decisions to make, and those in authority have to assume responsibility for them. 

However, we have sometimes encountered very awkward situations when we have judged a course of action to be immoral, but the person in authority rejects our analysis and goes ahead and implements their own course of action. 

When those who have rejected our counsel are questioned about their course of action, some have actually said, “Well, we sought the advice of the National Catholic Bioethics Center before making our decision.” 

They thereby leave the impression that our analysis was that the course of action that they took was morally licit — when our judgment had been that it was not. Such actions put us in a very difficult and embarrassing position! It is another reason why our consultations should be kept confidential. 

We are pleased to stand by and to defend our moral analyses. But if someone in authority wants to appeal to our analysis to support the decision they made, they should really contact us first so that we can help them explain the advice we gave them.

Some of the recent controversies could have been avoided if there had been more openness about what advice we had actually given, as well as a willingness to explain clearly why they made the decision they did.


Can you offer an example?

After the decision was made to end Catholic Healthcare West’s affiliation with the Church and establish Dignity Health, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of San Francisco stated that the archbishop had consulted “widely with other bishops and moral theologians (one of them was Dr. John Haas) before making this decision.” I was identified as the president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, suggesting that we (and perhaps the Holy See!) had concurred in the decision. 

As a consequence, we had to state on our website that the fact that we had been consulted should not lead anyone to infer what the judgment of the center may have been with respect to the proposal. The only one who has the authority to render such a judgment, and can indeed assume responsibility for having done so, is the archbishop of San Francisco. 

So this sort of thing has been a problem. Now, I explain during consults that the client is not entitled to talk about our involvement without checking with us first.


In our era of Internet-search-fueled transparency, it’s tough to make complex, nuanced decisions that can’t be easily explained.

Most regrettably, there is a lack of trust in the leadership of the Church on the part of some. However, we should pray for our leaders, always assuming they want to do the right thing.

St. Thomas Aquinas makes a distinction between genuine scandal, a legitimate action, which nonetheless runs the risk of leading others to sin and Pharisaical scandal, when people maliciously misinterpret the good actions of another. The Pharisees were scandalized that Jesus healed on the Sabbath. At times, some earnest Catholics may misrepresent a good action as evil because they fear that it will lead others to sin.

They actually create the scandalizing situation, for example, by suggesting that innocent associations are in fact nefarious.


So what’s the lesson for Church-affiliated organizations moving forward?

We tell them that they need to assume their decision will become known, and they need to be ready to explain and defend it, if it needs to be defended. Some courses of action are clearly moral, but the moral analyses of others are often quite complex and will have to be explained so as not to lead the faithful astray. Even though our analyses are sometimes quite complex, the center always stands ready to help those who have received them to explain them in quite simple and accessible terms.


While committed Catholics fear that Church-affiliated institutions have drifted away from their religious mission, you note earlier that Catholics hospitals and social agencies are under pressure from government regulators to violate central moral teachings.

This is becoming increasingly a very grave problem. Governments do not always share the values and moral beliefs of the Catholic Church. If a particular party is in power, it will promote contraception, abortion, homosexual activity and physician-assisted suicide.  It can issue executive and agency regulations contrary to Catholic morality. However, another party can come to power and revoke those directives.


What is the primary challenge posed by the contraception mandate?

The primary challenge is the threat to our constitutionally protected right to religious liberty and the rights of conscience.  Never in our history, so far as I know, has a government been as aggressive as this one in insisting that the entire citizenry act in accord with its particular vision of what constitutes morality. It must be challenged by every legal means possible.

We can work on accommodation to avoid a crippling of our ministries only insofar as it does not require us to do something directly immoral. When that happens, we have to be ready to refuse and to go to jail.


The center recently issued guidelines for private employers of for-profit companies that are not affiliated with the Church.

In summary, we condemn the violations of individual and institutional consciences by this government. It is ready to impose draconian penalties if there is not compliance and could result in closing businesses. Employees would lose the health insurance that might be essential for some of them literally to survive. 

We have said the employer should drop coverage to avoid immoral cooperation with this mandate. The employer could then provide the employees with the funds to buy their own policy. 

However, if the employees would not be able to find such coverage at rates they could afford, we said there could be compliance and the evil could be tolerated until the health-insurance exchanges come into being in 2014 that the employees could afford. 

We would hope that would not be necessary. Another administration could change all that by eliminating the mandate.