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. Cecilia.

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 one-semester courses.

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 study.

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 Terese.

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 contradiction.”

Ethical Toolbox

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 personhood.

“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 resonance.

“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.

‘Worthy Undertaking’

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 parents.

“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.”

Kimberley Heatherington

writes from Fairfax,Virginia.