Tag Archives: John Haas

The Church at the forefront

Dr. John Haas: Despite the NCBC’s long history, few Catholics know it exists . . .

John Haas

John Haas

I recently had the pleasure of addressing three different Legatus chapters in one week. The topic was the role of the Catholic Church today in the major public policy debates in the area of bioethics.

One cannot discuss the Church’s role in this contentious area without discussing The National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) of which I serve as president. After one of these Legatus presentations I was chided by a woman for not having made our work and services better known. “Why are we just finding out about you now!?” she wanted to know.

I explained that we do our utmost to make our work known, including writing a regular column for Legatus magazine! However, she has a point. Simply publishing articles with our ethicists’ bylines tells little about the Center’s work.

The Catholic Church is often perceived as being behind the times. However, invariably, the Church is ahead of the times. After all, the father of modern genetics was an Augustinian friar named Gregor Mendel, and it was a Catholic canon named Nicolaus Copernicus who had proposed the theory that the earth revolves around the sun.

NCBC is another indication that the Church is ahead of the times. Before anyone was even talking about bioethics, the Catholic Hospital Association established a “think tank” in 1972 to reflect on the ethical issues arising from developments in medicine and the life sciences. The Association wanted to be prepared to address the ethical issues they knew would arrive in medicine. It was initially named the Pope John XXIII Medical Moral Research and Education Center to honor the man who took the Church boldly into the contemporary world. The name was changed years later. The NCBC is formally committed to doing all of its work in conformity with the magisterial teachings of the Catholic Church.

The Center was forward-looking from the beginning and was established before abortion was “legalized” in this country, before HIV/AIDS had come on the scene, before a stem cell was ever isolated, before fertility clinics were engendering human embryos in Petri dishes and freezing hundreds of thousands of “spare ones” in liquid nitrogen.

The Center’s first president, Fr. Albert Moraczewski, OP, embodied the Catholic tradition of embracing science and religion in his very person. Father Albert had taught pharmacology at Baylor Medical School before discovering his call to the priesthood. He went on to become a Dominican priest, theologian and bioethicist.

The NCBC is the largest Catholic publisher in the area of bioethics. It has a four-page monthly publication, Ethics & Medics, and a scholarly journal, The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly. This publication has been awarded first prize for scholarly excellence six times from the Catholic Press Association.

Then there is education. The Center’s six ethicists travel the world giving presentations on bioethics and the Catholic moral tradition. At the request of a number of bishops, the Center established a National Catholic Certification Program in Bioethics, which is an online educational program requiring completion of weekly assignments, two onsite meetings and a research paper. There are now hundreds of certified health care professionals, hospital administrators, health care attorneys, chaplains, and conscientious Catholics.

One of the Center’s most impressive educational endeavors is a bioethics workshop that takes place every other year. We invite all bishops from Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. In attendance at our February workshop were over 140 bishops, two apostolic nuncios, and the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It is the largest gathering of bishops apart from their own annual meetings and has been addressed by Supreme Court justices, curial cardinals, scientists, philosophers, and, on two occasions, Cardinal Ratzinger.

One of the NCBC’s most valued services is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week consultation service to assist individuals facing difficult (often life-and-death) ethical decisions, who seek guidance from the Catholic moral tradition. In fact, it was this service the good lady from Legatus wished she had known about.

The Center is here to serve you with the Church’s teachings. Never hesitate to contact us if you need help. The NCBC also offers individual memberships, which provide all its print publications and consultation services. Contact us to see if we can be of assistance. Visit ncbcenter.org or call (215) 877-2660.

JOHN M. HAAS, PH.D., is president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and founding president of the International Institute for Culture. He is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life and serves on its Directive Council.

Making tough end-of-life decisions

John Haas writes that Catholics should be equipped to address end-of-life questions . . .

Dr. John Haas

The National Catholic Bioethics Center provides over 1,400 consultations in a given year. Without a doubt, the issue most often raised with our ethicists has to do with making difficult, sometimes heart-wrenching, decisions at the end of life.

Catholics, however, should be the best equipped to address these challenges calmly. After all, we know that our final destiny lies not here but in the life beyond the grave. Also, how many times a day do we bring up our own death when we pray the Hail Mary? And then there’s the wonderful Catholic devotion of praying to St. Joseph for a holy death.

Nonetheless, when we face the challenge of making decisions for our loved ones, it can be very difficult. We don’t want them to suffer on the one hand, and we don’t want to lose them on the other. We’re also sometimes conflicted because we don’t know exactly what the Church would have us do.

Because of our love for life, many Catholics think the Church insists that we use every means available to keep someone alive as long as possible. This is not the case. The U.S. bishops have issued a guide known as The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. This useful document, however, cannot tell Catholics exactly what must be done in every situation. Decisions must be taken in each individual case — and there are countless details that can enter into each situation.

For this reason, the Church generally discourages the use of a “living will” or “advance medical directive” which presume to state what one wants at the end of life (for example, “I do not want tubes”). However, one cannot know ahead of time whether the “tube” will alleviate suffering or assist in significantly extending one’s life. This is why we at the Center encourage people to designate a “health care proxy,” someone to make decisions on their behalf when they’re no longer able to do so.

One time I received a “living will” from a parish priest who asked me to read through it to see if it was ethically sound. He had written 27 pages, single-spaced, about what medical interventions ought to be taken if this or that happened. I wrote him back and said, “Father, I have one criticism of your living will: It’s not long enough!” It was not long enough because we simply cannot anticipate all the problems that could arise. That’s why it’s better to designate a trusted friend or family member who can make such decisions when you can’t.

But what about some specific advice our tradition can give us? Directive 56 of the Directives reads: “A person has a moral obligation to use ordinary or proportionate means of preserving his or her life. Proportionate means are those that in the judgment of the patient offer a reasonable hope of benefit and do not entail an excessive burden or impose excessive expense on the family or the community.” This is a very helpful guideline for Catholics, and it’s obvious that the facts of the case can vary with each individual.

It’s important to note that the judgment with respect to what would constitute an excessive burden or an excessive expense rests with the patient. It might be that the patient simply doesn’t believe that an experimental cancer treatment which has terrible side-effects and which might extend his or her life for two months offers a “reasonable hope of benefit.”

Or the patient might prefer that family resources be used to send his last child to college rather than be used on an experimental treatment. This ought to be a judgment made by the patient, not by an insurance company or a governmental agency!

And one step we should certainly take near the end of our earthly pilgrimage is to call a priest to bring the comfort and joy of the sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing.

The bishops’ Directives remind us that we must ultimately be prepared for eternity. “The dignity of human life flows from creation in the image of God, from redemption by Jesus Christ, and from our common destiny to share a life with God beyond all corruption.” The only thing that could risk the loss of that shared destiny is sin.

The bishops’ Directives are available at the USCCB website or through The National Catholic Bioethics Center. The Center also provides the simple and easy to understand Catholic Guide to End of Life Decisions, which includes a form for an “advance medical directive” or the designation of a “health care proxy” which conforms to Catholic moral teaching.

John M. Haas, PH.D., is president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and founding president of the International Institute for Culture. He is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Sexual ‘disorientation’

Dr. John Haas writes that homosexuality is not actually an ‘orientation’ . . .

Dr. John Haas

Activists working for the social acceptance of homosexual activity and lifestyles know the power of words. For a while, they chose to refer to the psychological phenomenon of “same-sex sexual attraction” as “sexual preference.” After all, in a society in which unrestrained “choice” is the highest good, “sexual preference” seemed an acceptable term for those attracted to their own sex.

Lately, these activists have taken another approach to the issue that denies the element of choice. Their new claim is that that those who experience “same-sex attraction” (SSA) are “made” that way. This approach prefers the term “sexual orientation.” In a most profound way, however, it’s incorrect to refer to SSA as an “orientation.” Orientation has the original meaning of being ordered toward “the East” (Orient). Early Christians prayed toward the East because Jesus was understood to be the “Sun of Righteousness,” arising in the East. Christians adopted the practice of building churches to face East with the altar in the eastern portion of the building.

To this day, when a priest celebrates Mass facing the altar, he assumes the “eastward” position (he is praying ad orientem), regardless of the direction he may actually be facing. “Orientation” means to be properly ordered, directed toward the East, the place of our salvation, the “axis” around which all else is ordered. So when the term “orientation” is applied to sexual attraction, it refers properly only to heterosexual attraction, the only sexual attraction ordered in the right direction. A homosexual attraction is properly termed a “disorientation,” since the attraction is toward an inappropriate “object” or person.

In 1975, the Vatican issued a Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics and noted that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” Regrettably, it’s toward those very acts that a homosexual person feels drawn. Consequently, the attraction or tendency is itself disordered. “Homosexual relations are acts which lack an essential and indispensable finality,” the document said. In other words, the act itself has no proper final goal. God created the sex drive to draw husband and wife to one another so that, through their expressions of self-giving love, children could be engendered and the family established. Homosexual acts, on the other hand, are always sterile.

In 1986, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons. The letter points out that some had come to think that the homosexual condition itself was “neutral or even good.” But Cardinal Ratzinger went on to say that, even though the particular inclination of a homosexual person may not be a sin, nonetheless “it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”

Holy See documents dealing with this issue usually refer to the homosexual “condition,” “disposition” or “tendency.” In 1992, Cardinal Ratzinger issued a letter indicating that it’s appropriate to exclude homosexual persons from the military, from adopting children, and from employment as teachers or athletic coaches. In that letter, he refers to “sexual orientation.” He puts the expression in quotation marks as a way of indicating that he is acknowledging the use of the terminology in the current debates, but that it’s not truly a correct use of the term.

There are many reasons why people suffer from SSA disorder. Some “discover” this tendency within them. Others grow into it through pursuits of pleasure or experimentation. Some use it to punish themselves or others. Whether the disorder has some deep, unknown roots over which one has virtually no control, or whether it’s a developed disorder resulting from bad choices, it leaves an individual disposed toward activities and a lifestyle that are dangerous — physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Fortunately there is hope for those who suffer from the disorder. The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality reports that significant numbers of homosexual persons have undergone treatment and had their sexual drives properly ordered. These findings are a beacon of hope to those suffering from SSA, as well as for their family and friends who desire their happiness and good health. Finally, for those who for whatever reason cannot be cured, there is a support group known as Courage to help them live safe, moral, chaste lives. Those who continue to suffer from this disorder can find true help through an orientation toward their Savior and Redeemer, “the Orient from on High,” and the life that He offers them in Himself.

John M. Haas, Ph.D., is president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and founding president of the International Institute for Culture. He is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.