The National Catholic Bioethics Center has more to do now than ever before in its 30-year history.

Embryonic research, cloning and other issues have put bioethics in the spotlight. The center's current president, Dr. John Haas spoke with the Register about the bioethical dilemmas facing our society.

Ernster: Tell me about your background, and your conversion to the Catholic faith.

I came from a branch of the Episcopal Church that was very much like the Catholic Church. I was a priest who was referred to as “Father,” and we had daily Mass. In 1977, my wife and I became Catholics; we had three children at the time. Our biggest concerns were the moral issues.

We were always pro-life as Episcopalians, and the Episcopal Church began taking a different path. It had approved divorce and re-marriage and we thought that was contrary to our Lord's teaching and tradition. It was becoming increasingly accepting of homosexual relationships. So the moral questions were a significant factor in our becoming Catholic.

You had strange situations where the regular bishop of a diocese wouldn't believe women could be priests and wouldn't ordain them, but his auxiliary bishop would. For me the ultimate question was that of ecclesiastical authority. God had left a gift with his Church to resolve disputes within the area of doctrine and morals.

I understand Pope John Paul II's Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), was influential in your decision to take the position as president of the center.

Oh yes, it was one of the most powerful and galvanizing documents I've ever read. The Pope's language is very strong. It's a profound critique of the culture. More than a treatise in moral theology, it's an analysis of contemporary culture. It tries to provide an answer to the question, and the Pope himself raises the question, “How is it that those actions, which a generation ago were regarded as crimes, can now be insisted upon as rights?” That's a chilling question.

So when Cardinal Bevilaqua, who was my boss, asked why I was taking this position, I had to refer to Evangelium Vitae, and said, “This is it, we're faced with this clash between the culture of life and the culture of death, and there's a need for a strong national Catholic voice that is compelling, articulate and compassionate.” So I've been working very hard to bring the center into the public forum. We have a solid reputation among the bishops, but the center hadn't been involved in public policy questions and in the public forum.

‘Find ways of pointing our culture toward the incomparable goodness of each human life.’

Does the center have some influence on public policy or within the medical community?

We're out there, but to the extent we're having an impact is difficult to judge. We're consulted a lot, but I wouldn't say much by the secular community. I just have a note here on my desk to call ABC News because they want to do something on stem cells. We have been quoted in those kinds of venues.

We probably do close to 600 consultations in the course of a year. The next center after ours might do 60. We're also consulted by the Holy See. The Vatican will have tough issues to deal with, so we'll be pulled in as consultants there as well.

What kind of questions do you get at the center?

The first month I was at the center, we got a call from a bishop who had a question brought to him by a Sister. The Sister was preparing an RCIA group who was coming into the Catholic Church, and she discovered that one of the couples had two children by in vitro fertilization, and had five frozen embryos. To complicate things more, the children and the embryos were not engendered by the wife's eggs, but by the eggs of the wife's sister. You can see how complicated and messy this becomes.

These are the kinds of questions we're facing more and more. This couple didn't realize what they were getting themselves into. Here they had five embryos that were in a state of suspended animation. The bottom line is that, of course, they could be received into the Church if they realized that what they had done was wrong and resolved not to do it again. The wife and the sister, who was the actual mother of the embryos, should also probably try to bring them to term.

Human cloning is such a hot topic today; is the center involved in some of the political discussions taking place?

Oh yes, I've testified before the Senate subcommittee on cloning, and when the president's National Bioethical Advisory Commission held hearings, we provided testimony. Our testimony has been published in a government publication dealing with the findings of the commission.

The advances toward human cloning are alarming. There's no question it's going to be done, but what a wastage of human life to clone a human being. There were close to 200 attempts before Dolly was cloned.

I think it was Time magazine had a piece on it, the number of women to whom you would have to give hyper-ovulatory drugs to have them mature a number of eggs so that they could be harvested, was like seven or eight women. And then the number of those eggs that would have to be fertilized in petri dishes, and then the number of those that would have to be implanted so the women could carry them — we're talking about 50 or 60 engendered new lives to try to come up with one clone.

Again, a lot of people don't realize how much life is being destroyed as you try to bring about a new life.

Are any Protestant groups coming to the center for consulting or answers?

There is an evangelical group that has set up a center for human dignity. We have allies among the evangelicals, but one of the difficulties there is that they can defend their position only by appealing to Scripture, and if somebody doesn't accept the authority of scripture, there's no way to talk with them; whereas, we operate out of the natural law tradition. But the mainline Protestant churches are just gone, the Methodists, the Episcopalians, the Presbyterians — they're doing everything from advocating abortion to same-sex marriages. So that's the world we're living in.

With all the Catholic hospitals, the Catholic population and the Church's consistent teaching regarding life issues, why doesn't the Church have greater influence in these matters? Is it because we're caught in a culture of death?

Oh I think that's a huge part of it. There are situations where the truth can't even be heard. There was a local television station in Philadelphia that was going to do a show on pregnancy among teenagers, so they invited 12 experts to address this and somehow I got invited.

The other culprits were there, like Planned Parenthood, AIDS Act-Up and others.

I never referred to any papal document or Scripture; I just referred to the consequences of sexual behavior and when I was getting ready to leave, the president of the Southeast Pennsylvania Family Planning turned to me and said, “Why do you have such a negative attitude about sex?”

And I said, “I wasn't aware that I did. I can't have too terrible of an attitude about sex because we have nine children.”

And she said, “There you go, every time you talk about sex you talk about children.”

Now in her mind that was a negative! So how do you address people in a culture, which no longer looks upon reality as it truly is, so that children are no longer incomparable goods and unspeakable gifts, but are seen as negatives, and something to be avoided, and if you can't avoid them, they are to be eliminated.

What's the strategy in reaching this culture?

How do you begin to address a culture like that? This is why the Pope was so profound in Evangelium Vitae. We can make the philosophical and scientific arguments, but if people — and our Lord speaks about this — are calling what is good evil, and what is evil good, you have a very difficult time.

John Paul II said the key to teaching in a situation like that is keeping our eyes fixed on Christ and him crucified.

Jesus was willing to pay the ultimate price rather than violate the moral law, and that is the kind of witness that Catholics have to give in our day. Catholic hospitals will not do tubal ligations, for example, because they see these as violation of the physical, moral and spiritual integrity of women who are coming to them for help.

Now, in a merger deal when a Catholic hospital refuses to do tubal ligations, how is it reported in the press? Not “Catholic hospital refuses to violate women,” but, “Catholic hospital refuses to provide the full range of women reproductive services.

There's where the problem is.

How does Catholic bioethics serve the human person?

In terms of its constant defense of the goodness of the human person's inviolability, it shows how many of these medical and scientific procedures do indeed violate the human person. That's the greatest service to be rendered, to find ways of pointing our culture toward the tremendous value and incomparable goodness of each innocent human life.