"In terms of cases, we don't get the easy ones – and that's when they call us," said Dr. Edward J. Furton, director of publications for the NCBC.
Even though the cases the team receives are difficult ones, and each case is different, the NCBC strives to provide practical answers to people's ethical dilemmas.
"We are so practical," Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education and ethicist for the NCBC told CNA. "It's not like sitting and writing scholarly journals at the university – we do some of that as well – but our focus is an intensely practical one."
The NCBC's consultation work also is an opportunity for ministry and even to provide comfort for people facing some of life's most difficult challenges, Fr. Pacholczyk said. Whether it's a doctor facing a difficult choice in treating a patient or a family weighing their options as a loved one reaches the very end of life, the ethicists try to assist and guide those they counsel as best as they can. Often, Dr. Haas added, they receive notes thanking them for being so helpful in life's most difficult choices.
The National Catholic Bioethics Center extends its ministerial efforts to more than individual consultations. Fr. Pacholczyk's work focuses on outreach and education, as well as answering consultations – especially those of priests and clergy. Throughout the year, Fr. Pacholczyk travels the country giving talks, helping to run National Catholic Bioethics Center's certification program in healthcare ethics, and a workshop for bishops on how to apply Catholic teaching on ethics in practical situations.
"It's a multi-pronged form of outreach," Fr. Pacholczyk said.
This multi-pronged approach also applies to the center's work on public policy, which is headed by Dr. Hilliard. The center's work in responding to topics such as physician-assisted suicide, abortion, disabilities, conscience rights and religious freedom, scientific advancement and public funding of various research and public health measures, is an essential conversation for Catholics to be involved in, Dr. Hilliard said.
"We live in a real world and we have to be there," she said, stressing that Catholics need to be there to respond to "policies that are going to impact the world."
Her role in offering an ethical analysis of policy proposals and measures has gained Dr. Hilliard recognition outside the Church as well.
"Sometimes I get called ahead of time because they know I'll be commenting extensively on something they're proposing," Dr. Hilliard said of notifications she receives of upcoming policy proposals from various government figures.
Other faith traditions and secular institutions also look to Dr. Hilliard and the NCBC for collaboration and explanations of the natural moral law, because "we don't have to pull out the Bible," but can justify their positions from a position of both faith and reason.
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The NCBC's publications also have garnered attention within the scholarly community as well. The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly is an award-winning publication and major journal of medical ethics, and its readers include major pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and ethics professors of medical schools.
The publications and the work the NCBC does more broadly fill a much-needed role in rigorously examining ethical issues. "No one out there has a moral tradition as highly sophisticated as that of the Catholic Church," Dr. Furton said.
"There's a great need for what we do, not only in the larger sphere in public comment and publications and educating people, but just one on one, it's a challenging thing to deal with these difficult moral questions that come to you in the course of a day."
Part of that great need has come in recent decades from a growing perception that science and religion are at odds with one another. "These researchers think you just divide the world into objective and subjective. We scientists are objective; religious believers are subjective and make a leap of faith without any standing," he said.
Dr. Haas added that this false distinction mistakenly drives faithful college students from scientific fields.
"We're losing young people by the dozens and the primary reason is they see an incompatibility between science and the faith," he said. "If there is one area where there ought not to be any perceived incompatibility between science and a religion it's within the framework of Catholicism."