Open Letter to Biology Departments at Catholic Colleges & Universities

Fr. Matthew Habiger OSB, October 10 2009

I wish to make an appeal to the faculty of biology departments at all Catholic colleges and universities.  There is a great service that you can give to your students, to the Church and to the American society. 

I find that many biology departments think it is enough to provide their students with an intellectual formation in the natural sciences.  Thus they load up their students’ schedules with many courses in biology, chemistry and physics. This will prepare them for acceptance into medical schools, and eventually a successful career in medicine, while enjoying a certain level of prestige as well as a high salary.

This is basically what any state university provides for their undergraduates.  But this is not sufficient for a Catholic college or university.  The Church expects more from your department.  The religious sponsoring groups of your institution expect more from you.  Your students have a right to expect more from you than what they could obtain at a state institution.  What is that additional dimension?

Simply put, that unique missing dimension is the integration of Faith into the academic discipline of biology.  It is one thing to know what we can do with medicines, physical examinations, surgeries and therapies.  Modern biology continues to probe more deeply into the material makeup of a human being.  Today there are experiments with genetic engineering, the use of stem cells, employing sonograms to detect fetal abnormalities, etc.  But it is another matter to understand how all these new possibilities should be used on human patients.  Besides answering the question “What can be done?” we must be able to answer, “What are the moral requirements of a possible medical intervention?”

In my work I deal with many medical doctors, especially family practice and ob/gyns.  I work with a group of priests called NFP Outreach, who promote God’s plan for marriage, spousal love and family all over the United States and Canada.  And this includes natural family planning. When I was working with HLI (Human Life International) throughout the 1990s, I met doctors in over 55 countries.  This direct contact with Catholic MDs made me aware of a serious deficiency in their training.  They do not have a significant grasp of Catholic medical ethics. 

Most of them understand the issue of abortion.  But very few could explain the Catholic Church’s teaching about the intrinsic evil of contraception and sterilization, and artificial forms of overcoming infertility.  The medical ethics they received at state universities was of the generic type which stressed pragmatism, keeping the patient happy, and compliance with the conventional practices of their peers.  As a result they were unprepared to take a position contrary to that of their peers, to give a well-reasoned accounting for their position, and to hold firm convictions for themselves.

The results of this moral vacuum are devastating.  Most “Catholic” doctors abandon the teachings of the Church on these issues, and simply follow the trends dictated by secular medical organizations like the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

How devastating this is can be seen in that only one percent of Catholic ob/gyns in this country refuse to prescribe contraception or to do sterilizations.  This means that the vast majority of Catholic ob/gyns and family practice are contributing to the contraceptive mentality that pervades our nation. 

They are blithely ignorant of how contraception supports the culture of death.   They are blind to the connection between contraception and the 50% divorce rate, to the many broken families and emotionally scarred children.  They don’t perceive the connection between contraception and the diminishing numbers of Catholics at Sunday Mass, small families, and the crisis shortage of vocations to religious life and the priesthood.  They don’t see the connection between their rejection of Humanae Vitae and their patients’ rejection of the same.  They do not understand the connection between contraception and abortion.

It is safe to say that that the life issues belong primarily to the men and women in the medical profession.  How can we build a culture of life if our own doctors and nurses are not with the program, and instead side with Planned Parenthood?  Think of it: 99% of Catholic ob/gyns and family practice doctors prescribe the Pill, and either perform or make referrals for sterilization. Contraception is the taproot that feeds the entire culture of death.  We will never bring about a renewed culture of life until we address the root of the problem. 

The solution to the problem is to address these issues in comprehensive medical ethics courses.  At a Catholic college or university there are opportunities and time for addressing these issues.  Future faith-filled Catholic doctors need to know much more than the natural sciences.  They need to understand how developments in modern medicine are to be applied to today’s problems in a morally good way.

It is troubling to discover that some of the biology faculty in Catholic schools do not know, or accept, the rationale behind the Church’s stand on in vitro fertilization, on research using embryonic stem cells, on contraception, sterilization, and euthanasia.  It is a fair question to ask: “If they do not believe in the Church’s teachings on these matters, then why are they accepting a salary in one of the Church’s colleges?”  If getting their graduates into medical school is their only objective, then their goals are set far too low.

If medical students do not understand the morality of their profession, then how can they act as responsible future doctors and nurses?  Does not the Church have a right to expect these students to understand the moral implications of the life and death issues they will encounter on a daily basis?  The widespread ignorance, and disregard, of Catholic medical ethics by our doctors will not change until we begin to address this at our Catholic colleges and universities.

When a biology major enters a state medical school, he or she will be exposed to a culture which very aggressively promotes violations of the Catholic medical ethic.  Most graduation ceremonies at state medical schools no longer use the Hippocratic Oath, since they no longer accept much of the Oath’s contents.  If a Catholic medical student does not have a solid grasp of the Catholic medical ethic before he or she enters medical school, you can be sure that he is totally unprepared to cope with the aggressive culture he will encounter on a daily basis.  Recent graduates of state medical schools assure me that the pressure placed upon them to conform was invasive and unrelenting.

What can be done?  The theology department in most Catholic colleges offers courses in moral theology.  Bioethics, or medical ethics, is one branch of moral theology.  I think that every biology major and every pre-med student should be required to take a comprehensive course in Catholic medical ethics.  They will read the many excellent statements that the Church has published on all the major medical issues.  They will learn how to do moral reasoning that is consistent with valid moral principles.  They will have an opportunity to raise their questions and reservations, and have them addressed by a competent teacher in morality.  They will understand why contraception, to use one example, is intrinsically evil and also bad medicine.  They will learn how to answer objections and misunderstandings. Eventually they will form strong convictions which will serve them well in their future work. 

 If your college or university does not offer a substantial course in bioethics, then I recommend that you consult with the institutions listed in the Cardinal Newman list of recommended Catholic colleges.  Their moral theologians should be able to assist you in locating good resources.  One fine textbook is Dr. William E. May’s Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life. 

The role of the lay apostolate among the Catholic laity is to bring the values of the Gospel to the society they live and work in.   Catholics make up 23 percent of the population in this country.  They have a long ways to travel before they exert an influence in the nation commensurate with their numbers.  One clear step in the right direction would be to insist that biology majors and pre-med students in our Catholic colleges and universities receive a solid foundation in Catholic medical ethics.

 Cordially yours,

 Fr. Matthew Habiger OSB PhD