Pope John Medical Ethics Center Heads North to Boston

BOSTON—The Pope John Center for the Study of Ethics in Health Care moved recently to the campus of St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Boston. Like a medieval mendicant (they have Dominican and Franciscan friars on staff), the Center has been on the road since its foundation in St. Louis, Mo., in 1972. In 1985, the Center relocated to the Boston area with the enthusiastic support of the local archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, taking up residence in Braintree, Mass.

Last month, the Center moved to Boston and the grounds of St. Elizabeth's.

Dr. John Haas, president of the Center, thinks that the move signals new opportunities for the Catholic medical-ethical think tank.

“We will be involved with physicians, nurses, hospital administrators, those in allied fields, as well as clergy, seminarians, and students,” he said. “Since St. Elizabeth's is a teaching facility of Tufts University School of Medicine, we should have greater involvement with the medical community.”

Former John Cardinal Krol Professor of Moral Theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, Haas has been president of the Pope John Center since August 1996. He sees John Paul II's 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) as the marching orders for the work of the Center.

“It is simply the strongest papal affirmation of the dignity of the person that has been delivered in our century,” he notes, adding “it has galvanized my own approach to the Church's teachings on the life issues.”

A Mission of Education

With the explosion of new technologies within the medical field that appeared to challenge Catholic teaching—especially those related to so-called “artificial reproduction”—one might conclude that the Pope John Center was an idea waiting to be born.

In 1976, the Center began publishing a monthly commentary, Ethics and Medics, to inform physicians, hospital administrators, clergy, teachers, and hospital chaplains about bioethical issues from the Catholic perspective. Recent issues have addressed topics such as: chemical castration of sex-offenders; retrieval of sperm from dead males; making health care decisions for others, and the Church's pastoral teaching on the Sacrament of Anointing. Today the publication reaches more than 25,000 readers, and is a principal means by which the work of Center is known.

Father Germain Kopaczynski OFM Conv., director of education at the Center and one of five staff ethicists, stresses the role that the Center plays as a Catholic research facility, yet one with an influence in non-sectarian medical circles.

“I tell my interns and students here that we are following the charge of Boethius, 'to join faith and reason,” that good morals is good medicine.”

At present, three interns are taking courses at the Center; two are Harvard Divinity students, while the third is seeking background in the fundamentals of Western ethics. The Center serves as an accredited field education site for students enrolled at Harvard Divinity School and other member schools of the Boston Theological Institute.

The strong emphasis on research and education, however, is complemented by a growing activist orientation to the Center's work. In March, Father Albert Moraczewski OP, former president of the Pope John Center and Distinguished Scholar in Residence, presented testimony before the Clinton Administration's National Bioethics Advisory Commission on the Catholic response to cloning. Later, Haas appeared before the Senate Sub-Committee on Health and Public Safety and criticized the language of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission's report on cloning, calling it “terribly ambiguous.” Haas urged the Commission “to broaden its opposition to engendering human life for any research or experimental purposes.”

More recently, the Pope John Center co-sponsored a conference in Portland, Ore., on physician-assisted suicide. Working in conjunction with the Archdiocese of Portland and the University of Portland, the Center came into the national spotlight as Oregon considered a referendum question on physician-assisted suicide in the November elections. (By a 60% to 40% margin, voters refused to repeal a 1994 state law that legalized the practice.) Archbishop Francis George of Chicago, a board member of the Pope John Center, was one of the participants, as was Dr. Edmund Pellegrino, founder of the Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

The need to bring the teachings of the Magisterium to bear in the political and social area was underscored by those at the Center. Father Kopaczynski spoke about the dread possibilities of a “Kevorkianizing” of America.

“Every time I hear about a person with multiple sclerosis in Michigan, I get nervous,” said the Franciscan.

Haas is no less convinced that an anti-life struggle is going on.

“Despite the consistency of the Magisterium in opposing contraception, we see women ingesting all sorts of harmful chemicals … treating their fertility as a kind of infection.”

Assisting the Episcopacy

Along with the outreach to chaplains, priests, and teachers of moral theology, the Center has had a collaborative role with the U.S. bishops. Since 1981, the Center has conducted annual medical-moral workshops in Dallas, Texas, for all the bishops of the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Philippines. Hundreds attend each year. The presence of the ordinary of a diocese at any one of these workshops may signal a trend in which the bishop, as “teacher in his diocese” begins to exert a more central role.

Medical-moral issues are not of merely esoteric interest, but concern life-and-death issues that the bishop, as chief shepherd, must confront. These workshops are closely related to the Center's Diocesan Affiliation Program, which was inaugurated in 1979. More than 80 of the 200 U.S. dioceses and archdioceses receive the benefit of the Center's expertise.

Although well known by its Ethics & Medics commentary, the Pope John Center is also the largest publisher of books on medical ethics from a Catholic perspective. Recent volumes include commentaries on papal encyclicals, the moral use of fetal tissue, abortion, and the relationship between Catholic teaching and the secular society. The Center has published such Catholic authors as Father Benedict Ashley OP, Russell Hittinger, Father Servais Pinckaers OP, Ralph McInerny, William May, and Peter Kreeft. Father Ashley's Theologies of the Body is a renowned omnibus perspective on Catholic moral theology and the philosophical methodology that underlies the teachings of the Church.

While strong societal currents favor abortion, and physician-assisted suicide seems to gain a bigger lobby each day, the work of the Center proceeds apace. Joseph Ford, director of public relations, is up to the challenge.

“The young people we talk to—high school, college, and university students—seem quite disposed to the Church's teachings on the life issues, especially when those teachings are presented fully and cogently with conviction.”

For more information contact The Pope John Center for the Study of Ethics in Health Care, 159 Washington St., Boston, MA 02135; 617-787-1900; Internet: www.pjcenter.org.

James Sullivan is based in Southport, Conn.

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