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Friday, May 2, 2014

The Global Reach of the NCBC: Dr. Haas Reflects

Over the course of one month’s time NCBC President, Dr. John Haas, had two trips to Rome for tasks associated with his Vatican appointments. Between February and March, Dr. Haas attended the annual meeting and assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life and a special plenary session of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers.

Amid the whirlwind of activity that has surrounded the The National Catholic Bioethics Center recently, Dr. Haas has had some time to collect his thoughts and recollections of his travels. 

What follows is Dr. Haas’ report of those two trips to Rome:

The Pontifical Academy for Life

The Pontifical Academy for Life had its annual assembly and members’ meeting February 20th and 21st at the Augustinian College by St. Peter’s Square. Customarily the meetings take place in the Synod Hall of Paul VI but this year a consistory was taking place at the same time and the Cardinals of the Church supplanted us! The day before the opening of the Assembly I attended the meeting of the Directive Council which discussed possible themes for future assemblies, reviewed possible candidates, and discussed other business of the Academy.

Because of the Consistory and the creation of new Cardinals, the Holy Father was unable to receive the members of the Academy in a private audience as has been customary. However, the members of the Academy were invited to be seated with him at the time of his public Wednesday audience in St. Peter’s Square.

                                                             Public audience with Pope Francis
The theme this year was “Aging and Disability”, an increasing problem in Europe and North America with the attendant threats to human dignity and increased calls for physician-assisted-suicide or even euthanasia. As a member of the Directive Council of the Academy (thanks to Pope Benedict), I presided over one of the initial sessions of the assembly. Board Member and neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Buchanan gave an excellent presentation entitled: “Disabilities through Cognitive Impairment and Dementia”.

It was quite a festive occasion this year since we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Academy. The meetings began with mass celebrated at the tomb of St. John Paul II who established the Academy. The principal celebrant was Cardinal Willem Eijk, Archbishop of Utrecht, president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, and a member of the Academy.

                                                  Mass in front of the Holy Remains of John Paul II

The Workshop concluded with a banquet for Academy members amidst classical statuary and friezes in the Vatican Museum. 


I also serve on the board of the International Federation of Bioethics Centers and Institutes of Personalist Inspiration (i.e., the thought of John Paul II!) and had a meeting for it as well. This past year we had our program in Havana, Cuba with a theme of health care and social justice.

The Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers

Approximately every five years the Consultors and Members of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers are summoned to Rome. The Plenary Session was opened with a mass for the participants by the Cardinal Secretary of State who had communicated the consent of Pope Francis that the Plenary Session take place. It was the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Council by St. John Paul II. (The Pope had initially formed the Pontifical Academy for Life through the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers. Among Vatican offices, a Council has a higher standing than an Academy.)

At the first meeting of Members and Consultors, there were reports on the activities of the Council since it founding, particularly concerning the observances of the World Day of the Sick on February 11, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. After our first session participants were taken to the Clementine Hall in the Apostolic Palace for a private audience with the Holy Father. He thanked us for our work and praised the work of all Catholic health care workers around the world in their service to the sick and the suffering. (When I met him I told him that I brought greetings from The National Catholic Bioethics Center and from my family, all nine children and spouses and twenty-seven grandchildren at which he gave me a “thumbs-up” which the photographer caught!)

                           The members of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers sit with Francis.

  Archbishop Zimowski Addresses Pope Francis and the Council

                                                                 Dr. Haas with Pope Francis

                                                                     The Papal 'Thumbs Up'!

On the second day of the Plenary Session, March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, mass was offered by the President of the Council, Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, in the Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia just off the Via Conciliazione.

                                                             Mass with Archbishop Zimowski
Following mass and a light breakfast, our work continued. In 1995 the Council had issued its Charter for Health Care Workers under Cardinal Angelini. It has been common knowledge that it was being revised, and there were reports on the revisions taking place.

While in Rome, I took advantage of the occasion to meet with the President, Chancellor and Coordinating Secretary of the Pontifical Academy for Life even though our own assembly had taken place a mere month before. One of the problems with the visits to Rome during conferences and assemblies is that the schedules are so full it is difficult to address other projects with which one is involved. I then had a meeting the day after the Plenary Session with the President, Secretary and Sub-Secretary of the Council. One of the subjects discussed was the International Association of Health Care Institutions. Its President is Dr. Anthony Tersigni who serves on our board and is the President/CEO of Ascension Health.

There was also a meeting at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which has recently sent to the Bishops of the United States guidelines for collaborative ventures with non-Catholic health care institutions. It was also a joy and privilege to be able to have lunch with Cardinal Elio Sgreccia, former President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, founder of the Bioethics Institute at the Gimelli Hospital, and author of Personalist Bioethics which the Center has translated and published. While in Rome, I also take advantage of the opportunity to invite a group of moral theologians out to dinner so I can keep up with developments in the work and thinking taking place in academic circles there.

                                                            Meeting with Cardinal Sgreccia
It was a very full and productive week. However, as I later reflected on it, I saw much of supernatural significance. I would like to share some reflections with the hope I am not being overly pietistic.

We all know that we are facing the gravest governmental threat to the practice of our religion perhaps in the history of our Republic. The HHS Mandate would have all employers cover contraception, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs and devices in the health insurance provided their employees, despite the strong religious and moral objections of many employers. It is a scientific fact that a new human life comes into existence at the moment of conception and that intra-uterine devices and certain “morning after pills” can prevent a new, tiny human being from implanting in the womb. This is a particularly sobering thought when one considers that our redemption began at the moment the Blessed Virgin conceived the Christ Child in her womb at the annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel.

This fact was very much on my mind as Archbishop Zymowski celebrated mass on the Feast of the Annunciation in Santo Spirito in Sassia. I was especially aware that it was on that very day that the Supreme Court was hearing oral arguments on the legal challenges to the HHS Mandate brought by those with strong moral objections. Everything is in God’s Providence, I thought, even the day on which the Justices would hear the case! I prayed intensely for those who would be arguing the moral case and for the Justices that they might judge rightly. Also, I thought the Archbishop’s homily was a moving and a providential reflection on what was actually happening in our own country. I attach it for your edification, HERE.

It just so happened that I was also in Rome on the occasion of the visit of President Obama with the Holy Father on Thursday of that week, March 27. In fact, I stood on the Via Conciliazione as the President’s motorcade went speeding and screaming by. I think I counted 17 vehicles, not to mention the squadrons of motorcycles. I thought of this display of wealth and power on the way to visit a man who has called us to embrace the poor and who himself lived a life of poverty. Nonetheless, I prayed for the President as he sped by and for the Pope who waited to receive him.

While the meeting was taking place I obviously could not help but reflect on the encounter between President Obama and Pope Benedict in July 2009. At that time Pope Benedict had presented the President with a copy of the Vatican Instruction Dignitas Personae, which defended the life of every human being from the moment of conception. It also condemned interventions that would prevent an embryo from implanting in the uterus, the very issue argued before the Supreme Court earlier in the week.

Two world leaders met face to face that day, one a courageous champion of a Culture of Life and the other representing forces who have shaped a Culture of Death. Pope Francis had repeatedly condemned abortion that “kills children that will never see the light of day”. I thought of St. Paul’s words to the Ephesians: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” For our part, none of us play the role of world leaders! But we do nonetheless have our essential roles in the Church and in the world. As our contribution to the struggle, we are called to individual holiness and to fidelity to the tasks with which God has entrusted us in our little part of the world, wherever it may be.

Once again, the Eternal City was the locus of great worldly and spiritual struggles. And we, through our involvement with The National Catholic Bioethics Center and in our own way, were party to it that week.

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