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High School Bioethics Program a Great Success

Bioethics program at John Paul the Great High School


John Burger - published on 11/06/13

Conceived amid the nation’s stem-cell debate, the John Paul the Great Catholic High School bioethics program is the only program of its kind - and it's working.

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When current high school students were born, the United States was engaged in a debate over something that most Americans could not even see – days-old human embryos and whether the federal government should fund research that used their stem cells.

President George W. Bush settled the question on Aug. 9, 2001, with an executive order allowing funding for research involving stem-cell lines already created, but not for any future lines. After much apparent consultation, including with members of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Bush hoped his solution would satisfy, on the one hand, a lobby that insisted that science needed the ability to extract stem cells from human embryos in order to find cures, and on the other, the Catholic Church and others defending human life principles, who pointed out that the procedure required the killing of an unborn human being in its first days.
That same year, Bishop Paul S. Loverde committed his support to building a new high school in the Diocese of Arlington, Va. It was decided that the school would feature a bioethics curriculum.

It would be – and remains – the only Catholic high school in the nation with a four-year bioethics program.

Pope John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Dumfries, Va., some 33 miles south of Washington, D.C., opened in August 2008, just weeks before the election of President Barack Obama. Within months of his inauguration, Obama reversed Bush’s policy on stem-cell funding. Taxpayers now are forced to subsidize human embryonic stem-cell research.

Pope John Paul the Great High School was conceived and born, and has since grown up in a world that is increasingly struggling with such bioethical issues – and that struggle will not subside any time soon. From questions having to do with permissible ways to generate new life to valid reasons for ending a life, there is no escaping bioethics. And yet, statistics suggest there is a serious lack of preparation among Catholics for dealing with those questions.

According to a 2010 survey, only 33% of Americans age 18-29 who identified themselves as Catholic realized that embryonic stem-cell research is immoral, while 65% of them consider medical testing on animals to be morally wrong.

Indeed, current law, culture, and practice seem to have a much stronger influence than the Catholic teaching young people should be getting in their family, church, school, or religious education program.

“Young Catholics today have grown up in a country where it is a woman’s legal right to kill her unwanted or diseased unborn child,” said Dominican Sister Terese Auer, chairwoman of the bioethics department at John Paul the Great and the author of the bioethics curriculum there. “They are living in a society where approximately 80% of their fellow Catholics are either sterilized, contracepting, or using abortifacients. In this society, over 400,000 human embryos are frozen and stored in embryo banks, waiting to be needed some day for reproduction or for research. Others have been ‘custom made’ to satisfy the desires of their makers. Young people today have heard of the ‘right’ to doctor-assisted euthanasia, have seen their parents’ tax dollars fund destructive embryo stem cell research, and have been bombarded with propaganda advocating redefining marriage. They are living in a society that spent an estimated $41 billion on the health and happiness of their pets in 2007, while homeless and poor human beings abound. If ever there has been a generation in need of an education in bioethics, it is the present one.”
John Paul the Great – like its namesake – Is here to help.

Philosophical Approach

Far from merely holding discussion groups in which teachers ask students, “What do you think about cloning?” the bioethics program at John Paul the Great strives to give its 600 students a philosophical grounding for thinking about bioethical issues.

“Students should have the philosophical foundation whereby they will be able to understand both the nature and the dignity of the human person, as well as how he can best use his human faculties to achieve genuine fulfillment as a human being in this life and in the life to come,” said Sister Terese, who has a doctorate in philosophy from the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

Sister Terese is a Dominican Sister of St. Cecilia, one of four sisters at John Paul the Great. Her community – the Nashville Dominicans – asked her to start the bioethics program six years ago.

When she was a freshman at John Paul four years ago, Sinclaire Hamilton remembers being taught the “background information, context, vocabulary when dealing with biotechnologies or philosophical ideas, case studies, arguments that were reasoned out, and logical conclusions. This informed our mind about the technology or occurrence at hand so we could formulate our beliefs in light of the truth, or what we found to be true based on experiences and class material.” Now a freshman at Harvard College in Cambridge, Mass., Hamilton recalls being taught how to ethically judge an act based on its object, end, and circumstances.

The approach at John Paul the Great focuses on natural law and reasoning based on human experience. “If our reasoning is correct, then it will be fully in line with the Church’s teaching,” Sister Terese pointed out. “These truths are something that everyone who is able to think should be able to comprehend. The philosophical perspective also gives the students the tools they will need to explain the issues to a world that does not accept our faith.”

Said Hamilton, “Bioethics sharpened my logical reasoning, allowed me to communicate intense ideas about controversial matters that most high school students hardly thought deeply about, and introduced me to new ways of thinking and processing information. … I wasn’t regurgitating memorized material or being tested on how well I could use formulas, so I had to become used to voicing my ideas, challenging opinions, and applying ethical analyses to various technologies. Because of this, bioethics was perfect for my growth as a student and a member of society.”

The curriculum “first seeks to acquaint our students with the foundational principles they will need in order to truly understand why a particular course of action is morally right or wrong,” said Sister Terese. “So our first two bioethical courses are designed to lay a foundation of philosophical principles that the students can apply in later courses. We do not want our students just to know what the Church teaches on the various bioethical issues; we also want them to understand why she teaches as she does. We are hoping that this deeper knowledge will enable our students to see its reasonableness as well as to articulate for others a rational explanation of the truth.”

One Step at a Time

The bioethics curriculum consists of four required semester-long courses, taught by four teachers who hold degrees in science, religion, or philosophy. In their first year, students take “The Human Person,” which focuses on the exalted dignity of the human person. The course is divided into two parts: the first presents a philosophical understanding of the human person according to St. Thomas Aquinas, and the second looks at Pope John Paul’s Theology of the Body.

“It is in this second half of the semester that the students learn the meaning of the sexual act and the purpose of marriage,” Sister Terese said. “They come to realize that what we do with our bodies, especially sexually, is of tremendous importance, for our bodies express our persons and affect other persons.”

In the second course, “Principles of Ethics,” students study Thomistic ethics and focus on understanding the nature of the voluntary human act and how it is that we can determine whether these acts are morally good or evil. Topics covered include human happiness, moral law, conscience, and virtue.

In the final two courses, students explore beginning-of-life issues such as artificial human reproduction (in vitro fertilization and cloning), abortion, stem cell research, contraception, genetic manipulation, and embryo adoption. They also examine end-of-life issues, including pain management, redemptive suffering, end-of-life medical care, organ donation, euthanasia and assisted suicide. Hamilton recalls doing ethical analyses of these technologies. “Our analyses went further than ‘Is it right or wrong to do this?’ to ‘Are there any times in which one could argue that it is ethically or morally permissible for this technology to be used? Under which circumstances? Why? What kind of ethical ideologies are you using to prove your point? What are any related case studies to prove this side? Can you formulate any counterarguments to your position?’”

The school also offers two elective courses: case studies and application in bioethics and the human person in a biotech age.

Pervasive Subject

But bioethics is not confined to these six courses; the curriculum pervades pretty much all the subjects at John Paul the Great. Said Sister Terese, “Because we want the students … to encounter in other classes of the curriculum the values, concepts, and issues studied in their bioethics classes, our faculty and staff are also receiving bioethical instruction. We are hoping that this integrated approach will enable our students to see the truth that is evident in one subject manifested in others.”

For example, she explained, “They should see that the dignity of the human person is pivotal not only to understanding bioethics, but also to viewing rightly the atrocities of the Nazi Holocaust they study in history class. And, in reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in English class, students find a clear example of the dangers of manipulating human life which they discuss in bioethics class.”

The program is bearing fruit. “Our graduates tell us wonderful stories of how well prepared they are to think critically and to engage in argumentation at the collegiate level,” said Sister Terese. “Even on the high school level, students are readily and confidently entering into discussions with their peers about the topics of the day, such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and artificial human reproduction.”

“This is one of the biggest issues we have in the nation at this time,” said Sister Clare Hunter, a Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist who directs the Diocese of Arlington’s Respect Life Office. “When I travel, people ask me about [John Paul the Great’s bioethics program]. The energy going into that and the desire for that is having a huge impact on this area.”
With students like Sinclaire Hamilton, the impact may be global.

“Bioethics actually sparked my concern for society and the ways in which lapses in health affect its members in different ways,” she said. “I remember looking at injustices and the nature of suffering in bioethics classes and hoping to change the status quo that keeps certain people oppressed or unable to live to their fullest potential as human beings searching for truth. This is why I would like to involve Global Health and Health Policy in my studies. I even joined the Harvard Undergraduate Global Health Forum to impact change, educate society, and discuss ideas for improving health around the world.”

Stories like those may be multiplied in the years to come. Jennifer Cole, a spokeswoman for John Paul the Great, said other high schools around the country have been expressing interest in starting a bioethics program. The Virginia school, having now worked through the entire four-year curriculum, she said, is “at the point where we can, and will, share with interested schools.”

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