Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Sunday, February 25, 2018

MsgrLiptak_TNCardinal Francis Arinze’s lecture for the Pope John Paul II Bioethics Center, delivered within the new chapel in Cromwell on 12 October, was a superb synopsis of the Church’s over all guidance in bioethics from the beginning. The Cardinal, who only recently retired from leading the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, is still quite active not only in matters liturgical, but in bioethical issues, especially in the area of reverence for human life. (His talk is available on the Center’s Web site and on The Catholic Transcript’s Web site.)

A special, preliminary talk was delivered by a colleague, Dr. John Haas, of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.

The John Paul II Bioethics Center was launched in 1980. Three of us on the faculty met several times during that year and the next two years, to plan and implement the Center. The inspiration really came from an academician par excellence, Father Francis Lescoe, whose field was philosophy, refined at Toronto’s famed Institute of Mediaeval Studies, under two veritable geniuses: Etienne Gilson and Anton Pegis.

Joining with Father Lescoe in this project were Dr. Leo Duffy, a physician from West Hartford, and myself. Dr. Duffy had recently retired from the staff of St. Francis Hospital, Hartford, where he chaired the OB-GYN Department. In his retirement, he taught briefly at Georgetown Medical School while working at the FDA.

From the beginning, Father Lescoe, Dr. Duffy and I insisted that bioethics should be taught on a transdisciplinary basis. Dr. Duffy would be responsible for the regular medical lectures, while I would try to keep up with related ethical issues. Father Lescoe, who was soon to become Rector and President of the Seminary, was already involved deeply in administrative and purely academic matters (e.g., the First Vatican Visitation to the American seminaries; satisfying various accreditation protocols for the Connecticut and New England boards of regents).

The only stable transdisciplinary element initially lacking was the legal aspect. However, an attorney chanced to be in our first formal class; we quickly asked him to do the legal lectures. Soon afterward, Attorney Joseph Nucera of Trumbull volunteered to help us for a few years.

Dr. Duffy and I collaborated on one of our first textbooks: The Gift of Life, a commentary on the 1987 Vatican "Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation." The book was published just days prior to Dr. Duffy’s death; he had continued to lecture almost to the week he died.

Taking his place was another "beloved physician" (in St. Paul’s phrase about St. Luke), Dr. Mary Cullen of West Hartford, whom I first met in 1953, during my first priestly assignment, the year I spent at St. Augustine in Hartford’s South End. Dr. Mary had interned at Hartford Hospital. For most of her life, she had given her services to the poorest in Hartford, often working without a standard dispensary. (Her husband, now retired, became a leading neurologist at St. Francis Hospital; two of their sons are successful physicians practising out-of-State today.) Dr. Mary’s lectures, extraordinary by any assessment, continued even when she was under treatment for a serious health condition.

When Dr. Mary (who also holds a law degree) had to retire for health reasons, Dr. Gerald Shaw, a Deacon of the Norwich Diocese, stepped up to the plate, as it were, with up-to-date medical lectures. At that time, we were also able to add a few highly specialized courses in bioethics. One was led by Dr. Donald DeMarco, an internationally recognized bioethicist, who had served as a professor in a Canadian university for years. Another new course was taught by a personal friend, who had just ended a successful teaching career, following years of dental practice, Dr. Michael Sponzo, a highly accoladed Professor of Restorative Dentistry at UConn-Dempsey. He focused on science and spirituality, to help future priests deal with a new reality.

The Bioethics Lecture Series was conceived of as a separate, but obviously interrelated, service. Twice a year, the Center invited some of the outstanding theological and philosophical minds of the American Church to speak on bioethical issues. The first two lectures, which drew several hundred, featured two outstanding theologians: Father Ronald D. Lawler (who later served as Rector of Holy Apostles) and Professor William E. May of the Pope John Paul II Institute on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. (Dr. May is a personal friend; we both shared the expertise of the same editor, Anne Geoghegan at the old Bruce Publishing Co. in Milwaukee.) Other speakers have been Notre Dame’s finest mind, the late philosopher Ralph McInerny, ethicist Donald DeMarco, theologian Germain Grisez, and metaphysician Raymond Dennehy.

Currently, the lecture series is being continued under the leadership of Deacon Tom Davis, an accomplished attorney of uncommon brilliance and faith, who certainly merits inclusion among the more significant bioethicists in the American Church; so much so, in fact, that he was invited to address the last bioethics meeting of the U.S. Bishops in Dallas.

Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.