Who you gonna call (on murky moral issues)? Catholic bioethicists

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What would you do if you're a young medical student who was told that you must participate in abortion in order to get your degree? 

Or if you and your family have to make the decision about what kind of life support and extraordinary care to provide a loved one in their final days? 

Or if you're a priest trying to counsel a couple in your parish through the difficult struggle with infertility? 

These are all questions Catholics in the 21st-century are facing – and each have complicated answers. 

Luckily, the Church has the National Catholic Bioethics Center, an independent Catholic institution based in Philadelphia, Pa., working to provide guidance based in Church teaching to laity, clergy, and scientific professionals to help them clarify the murky bioethical issues Catholics wade through in our world today. 

"What makes us unique," said Dr. Marie Hilliard, director of bioethics and public policy for the National Catholic Bioethics Center, or NCBC, "is that we are not a part of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops." 

Hilliard added that the group is recognized by the U.S. bishops and has their support and has many bishops and cardinals and board members, but pointed out that the NCBC is focused not on creating doctrine or defining teaching for new situations, but putting existing Church teaching in practice in difficult situations. 

"We are there applying the principles with great adherence to the teaching of the Church," she said. "We fill a very unique role that's very different."

The NCBC was founded in 1972 as the Pope John XXIII Medical-Moral Research and Education Center, in order to deal with new bioethical challenges facing the scientific and Catholic communities. The organization's founding was "ahead of the times," as it was there to address game-changing bioethical challenges like the Supreme Court decisions permitting abortion in 1973, the HIV/AIDS crisis, stem cell isolation and research and the sequencing of the human genome, said president Dr. John M. Haas. 

The council's existence has enabled the NCBC to respond quickly to major developments in biotechnology, or even anticipate them, Haas said. He recalled a workshop the NCBC ran for the U.S. bishops in the late 1990s on the nature of man and how to approach the subject of humanity in the wake of new medical developments: one week after the conference ended, scientists announced that they had sequenced the human genome.

"It couldn't have been more timely or convergent with our program," Haas told CNA. 

Over the years, the NCBC has developed a set of specialties where they focus their efforts. Their main areas of focus are publishing, including their award-winning National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, along with various commentaries and books; public policy; education for scientists, bishops, and medical professionals; and consultations. In their consultation work, the team fields and responds to more than 2000 individual consultation requests a year, as well as consultations for Catholic organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Catholic hospitals, along with consultations for bishops and dioceses. 

Most laypeople people who interact with the NCBC do so through their individual ethical consultations – the organization's personal consultations for people facing ethical dilemmas involving science or health care. Among the most common requests the staff ethicists receive are end-of-life issues, career selection, questions regarding sexuality and infertility, and resolving perceived contradictions between science and religion. 

"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. 

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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." 

Adding to the confusion is poor catechism and a misunderstanding of the Church's natural law tradition, substituting Protestant or materialist views of science, reason, and faith that drive false wedges between faith and reason. 

Also, misunderstandings of the Church's moral tradition can drive people to take a position that is "too rigid" and misunderstands what the Church teaches, he said. "There's a lot of ignorance out there that needs to be overcome."

However, overcoming ignorance and providing people with practical answers is precisely what the NCBC seeks to do.

"The Church brings something very substantive and when people can tap into that they realize that this goes back centuries – centuries of moral reflection," Fr. Pacholczyk said. That tradition of the Church, he offered, is the center's secret weapon.

"It's a very powerful thing to have an institute or a group like this where we can sit and no two days working on this job are ever the same."

This article was originally published on CNA Oct. 4, 2016.

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