John Haas swam the Tiber in 1977. And now he’s at the Pope’s side.
An American moral theologian whose search for truth led him to Catholicism and to a career in bioethics, Haas has been appointed to be a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. He is the president of the Philadelphia-based National Catholic Bioethics Center, and he has taught at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia; the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio; the John Paul II Institute for Studies on the Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C.; and Ohio State University. He produced and hosted the St. Charles Forum on EWTN.
Haas is a former Anglican clergyman who entered into full communion with the Church in 1977. He and his wife, Martha, have nine children. He spoke with Register correspondent Paul A. Barra from his office in Philadelphia.
When did you convert to Catholicism? Were you already a priest and a theologian when that occurred?
We converted in 1977. I was the vicar of a parish in the Episcopal diocese of Chicago, and I had already at that time earned my STL (licentiate in sacred theology) in moral theology, a pontifical degree from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. I already had a master’s in divinity.
I was an Anglican clergyman, although at the time I thought I was a priest. In an 1896 papal bull, Anglican orders were declared to be “absolutely null and totally void.” That’s why I always correct it to “clergyman.”
Why did you become Catholic?
Truth. That’s the short answer. The sort of longer answer is the whole question of authority. In the Episcopal Church at the time there was great controversy over the ordination of women. The problem is that in the Anglican Communion there is no way to resolve the dispute because no one has any authority. The archbishop of Canterbury is nothing but a figurehead. The monarch is actually the head of the Church of England, but neither she nor the bishops claim to speak for the church. When I was studying at Fribourg, my dogmatics professor, a French Dominican, asked me after class one day: “Well, what’s the source of authority in the Anglican church?” We had a one-liner, so I told him, “the faith and practice of the undivided Church.” He said: “Okay, that’s fine, but where is your living authority? There are issues facing the church today that were never faced by the early, undivided church.” I had no answer for him.
There’s only one Church out there that claims to have ultimate authority: the Catholic Church. I came to believe that (this authority) was Scripturally based: Peter’s supremacy among the apostles. I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t even reasonable for God to have gone to the lengths he went to in order to save us — that is, the second person of the Blessed Trinity becoming man, his passion, death and resurrection — and not have left behind some mechanism of resolving future disputes that would naturally arise.
Why didn’t you become a Catholic priest?
I did think about it when the pastoral provision was granted, but the Church in her wisdom has always had a celibate priesthood and we know that the essence of the Catholic life is a life of sacrifice. I came to the conclusion that if you truly live a life of sacrifice as a priest and as the father of a family, they were incompatible.
When we had only two children and I was an Episcopal clergyman, I was called to the hospital for an emergency baptism because one of the parishioners had given birth to a child and it had contracted spinal meningitis. I was scrubbed and put into the hospital gown and so forth, and as I went to walk into the restricted area, I hesitated because I thought, “What if I contract meningitis?” I wasn’t worried about dying but didn’t want to leave my wife a widow and my children without a father. The thought went through my mind ever so quickly, you know, “If I were a Catholic priest there’d be no hesitation, because I would be celibate.”
Your organization, the National Catholic Bioethics Center, is not an activist group but rather a think tank, as you say, that gives advice on life issues. Why is it important to teach Catholic bioethics? Don’t secular institutions like medical schools offer bioethics courses to their students?
After the federal government, the Catholic Church has the most extensive health care in the country, which generates between $85 billion and $90 billion (in revenue) a year. There are also five Catholic medical schools and many Catholic universities doing research in the life sciences. All of these would want to work out of the Catholic moral tradition. Also, the Catholic Church’s approach is compatible with Hippocratic medicine, which holds to moral absolutes — insisting that there are some actions that may never be done, such as directly killing an innocent human being. Most (secular) bioethics these days uses the utilitarian approach, which makes determinations based on what provides the greatest social utility or good. That leaves the weak and the vulnerable particularly at risk.
What are the major life issues that the National Catholic Bioethics Center and the Pontifical Academy for Life confront regularly today?
Abortion, reproductive technologies, IVF (in vitro fertilization), frozen embryos and what can be done with them, increasing calls for physician-assisted suicide or direct euthanasia, the state mandating immoral practices of Catholic institutions, such as medical coverage for contraception.
What is wrong with in vitro fertilization, besides leftover embryos that are subject to an uncertain future or destruction for research?
The Church has interpreted the natural moral law to say that children have the right to be engendered from the embrace of a husband and wife in a sacrificial love. We don’t make babies, we make love, and in making love God may grant us the gift of life. In the 1987 Holy See document called Donum Vitae (Instruction on the Respect for Human Life), the Church said that any intervention to overcome infertility that replaces this interpersonal act of love is beneath the dignity of the human person. In IVF, new life is engendered in a glass dish and is not treated as an inviolable and great good, but as a product. These products are subjected to quality control and the ones not implanted are disposed of or frozen for later use. This is the most unregulated industry in the United States.
IVF is fraught with an attitude of abuse of human life, yet a lot of Catholics think that this is approved by the Catholic Church because it’s a way to make babies.
How do you feel about the future of bioethics and the pro-life movement?
I have great hope for the future. In the short term, the outlook is dreadful. The Democrats are now in control of Congress and they are just adamantly committed to destroying embryonic human beings and have been great advocates for access to abortion. At every turn we see more assaults on human life. We have no choice, however, but to struggle on, and we can feel confident that Our Lord has ultimately triumphed and this will all be happily resolved. Every tear shall be wiped away and his glory will reign.
Paul A. Barra writes from
Reidville, South Carolina.