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A new Catholic high school in the Diocese of Arlington, Va., whose cornerstone and tabernacle were blessed by Pope Benedict XVI on his visit to America, will feature a unique program: bioethics. By Kimberley Heatherington.
BY KIMBERLEY HEATHERINGTON
DUMFRIES, Va. — It’s not your parents’ Catholic high school
— and that’s progress. When Pope John Paul the Great Catholic High School opens
on a 40-acre campus in August 2008 in Virginia’s Diocese of Arlington, among
the innovations it will claim is a four-year bioethics curriculum featuring the
theological writings of its papal namesake.
In an era when the decision to close Catholic schools
frequently makes headlines — in the past year, the National Catholic
Educational Association (NCEA) reported that 13 Catholic secondary schools
opened across the country, while 13 closed or consolidated — a new, $60 million
Catholic high school is perhaps remarkable enough.
That it will require all of its graduates to study bioethics
from ninth to 12th grade — and instruct its faculty, administration, and
willing parents in the same — is thought to be a first.
That integrated method “is a 21st-century approach to
Catholic education,” said Pope John Paul the Great’s principal, Sister Mary
Jordan Hoover, a member of the Nashville, Tenn.-based Dominican Sisters of St.
Since the roots of her religious order lie in St. Dominic’s
13th-century combat against the Albigensians — a heretical sect that viewed the
body as evil — Sister Mary explained that the school’s bioethics classes will
have both a historical and modern significance for the Nashville Dominican
sisters who will be among its staff.
“Today, our children are being taught a new error,” said the
principal. “Now they’re being told, ‘Do whatever you want with your body.’ And
we need to teach them the truth about the dignity of the human person.”
‘Certain Wholeness to Truth’
That emphasis upon human dignity extends not only to sexual
ethics, but to the full range of biological issues, each addressed through
In their freshman year, students will take a foundational
survey, “The Human Person” and “Health: An Ethical Approach.” Sophomores will
tackle “The Principles of Ethics.” In junior and senior grades, natural
existence is bracketed by “Bioethical Issues at the Beginning of Life” and
“Bioethical Issues at the End of Life.” Additional electives include “The Human
Person in a Biotech Age,” “Applications in Health Care Ethics,” and “Case
Studies in Bioethics.”
Such instruction will not, however, be academically
segregated from other class work, including religion, math, science, English,
history, language, arts, business and physical education.
“We don’t want simply a stand-alone bioethics curriculum,”
explained Sister Terese Auer, a Nashville Dominican who designed the course of
Bioethics themes will be woven throughout the traditional
courses, whether examining the historically dangerous role of Nazi eugenics or
the literary caution against the pursuit of perfection found in Nathaniel
Hawthorne’s short story “The Birthmark.”
“These principles that they’re learning — about their human
dignity, human nature, conscience and freedom and the ethical principles — we
want the students to encounter them throughout the curriculum,” said Sister
This cross-platform approach will, she believes, enable the
students to sort out artificial conflicts between various subjects, or between
faith and reason. It will allow them to realize, Sister Terese said, that
“there’s a certain wholeness to truth — if it’s really true, there can’t be a
Because the rapid pace of scientific research automatically
ensures that issues in the bioethical arena will continuously mutate, the
curriculum’s primary aim is to equip students with a resilient ethical toolbox
grounded in Catholic doctrine of the sanctity of life — a toolbox that can
withstand and engage the ongoing commercialization and commoditization of
“When these children become adults in the next generation,
the bioethics industry is going to influence their lives probably more than any
other industry,” said Timothy McNiff, superintendent of schools for the Diocese
of Arlington. That realization, he said, was a determining factor when he and
Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde drew up the new school’s academic blueprint to
include a bioethics component.
The scholastic blueprint also had genuine architectural
“We wanted to make sure that the bricks and mortar of [Pope
John Paul the Great High School] spoke to this special [bioethics] program,”
said McNiff, “so we designated a lecture hall specifically for this purpose,
under our chapel.” The chapel’s tabernacle, as well as the school’s
cornerstone, was blessed by Pope Benedict XVI during the Mass April 17 at
Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.
Once launched and tested, McNiff and Bishop Loverde are
optimistic that the bioethics curriculum can eventually be migrated to other
diocesan schools. Sources who spoke with the Register affirmed the value of
high school bioethics instruction, even if the discipline’s complexity daunts
many an instructor and school system.
While not involved in developing the program, the National
Catholic Bioethics Center dialogued with the Diocese of Arlington in the
preliminary stages of its curriculum design.
“It’s important that young people be introduced to these
questions early,” said Edward Furton, the bioethics center’s director of
publications and a staff ethicist, “and within a properly Catholic setting
where they can hear the very reasonable and well-articulated views of the
Church — a Church that’s been thinking about these issues for centuries.”
Jesuit Father Peter Clark, director of the Institute of
Catholic Bioethics at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, cautions against
attempts to teach a bioethics curriculum without first firmly grounding
students. “I think it’s a very good idea,” said Father Clark, “but I just would
want to make sure [students] have a solid theological and philosophical
background.” Without such preparation, bioethical complexities can, Father
Clark noted, baffle even at the college level.
“In concept it is certainly a worthy undertaking, as the
more we interconnect good science, strong academics, social and technological
realities with valid analysis which includes faith and morals, the better we
will educate for adult life,” commented Sister Mary Frances Taymans, executive
director of the NCEA’s secondary school department. “I see this as consistent
with our understanding of Catholic identity and the mission of the school.”
‘Our God Is Truth’
Richard Gildersleeve — who for 20 years placed a Ph.D. in
applied biology at the service of the agricultural biotech industry before
feeling called to teach science — will be tasked, alongside Sister Terese, with
instructing both science and bioethics classes.
“Once [students] begin to understand the truth about
themselves — biologically, ethically, theologically — they then begin to enter
into this love affair with the God who made them,” said Gildersleeve, who also
studied at Austria’s International Theological Institute for Studies on
Marriage and the Family, headed by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn. “That’s key.
Our God is Truth. And of course John Paul the Great High School has on the coat
of arms Veritas. … In our curriculum, the same thing can take place.”
The bioethics curriculum had a definite attraction for some
“Frankly, that just sold us,” said Faith Myrvold, whose
daughter Maureen will be an incoming freshman. “It never occurred to us that
there’d be a school with a bioethics curriculum.
“I think today the world is so awash in moral ambiguity …
that it’s absolutely essential that our teenagers come out of high school armed
with the ability to have the answers to the tough moral questions.”
writes from Fairfax,Virginia.