Pick a word — any word — that the typical American teenager uses at the dinner table. Chances are, however many words you pick, “potency” and “act” won’t be anywhere near the top of your list. But, at dinner tables in and around Dumfries, Va., “potency” and “act” are exactly what teens are talking about.

These budding Thomists are students at Pope John Paul the Great Catholic High School, the newest high school in the Diocese of Arlington and the first Catholic high school in the country to feature a four-year bioethics curriculum.

The curriculum was the brainchild of Arlington’s Bishop Paul Loverde and the diocese’s former superintendent of schools, Timothy McNiff. The bishop in particular was concerned — in the words of the school’s principal, Dominican Sister Mary Jordan Hoover — with the question, “What do students need now, in the 21st century, to be equipped to live their faith in the world?”

The answer to that question, he concluded, was a high school education that gave students a deep understanding of the dignity of the human person and the philosophical tools to evaluate scientific advances in light of that dignity.

Think with Church

“Over the past 10 to 15 years, there have been so many advances in science and technology, advances that have a profound effect on the human person,” said Sister Mary Jordan. “Because of that, it’s no longer enough to just teach students the faith. You have to help them understand why the Church teaches what it does, so they can apply that teaching to what’s coming at them from science and the culture.”

The actual bioethics curriculum encompasses four semester-long courses, plus the state-mandated health course that the school teaches with a focus on ethics. During their freshman year, students take a class on the human person. During their sophomore year, they devote a semester to ethics. During their last two years at the school, they begin to apply that philosophical foundation, studying beginning-of-life issues as juniors, and end-of-life issues as seniors.

The reasoning behind the program’s structure, said Sister Mary Jordan is that, “If we give students a sure foundation of philosophical principles, we’re giving them what’s necessary to think clearly and with the Church, today and in the future, regardless of what technologies or issues emerge.”

Along with their required bioethics courses, questions about science, truth and human dignity are intentionally raised across the entire curriculum — in English, history, biology and even mathematics classes.

Table conversations

“We try to present a united front,” the bioethics department chair, Dominican Sister Terese Auer, told Our Sunday Visitor. “We want them to understand that truth is truth across the board, not just in one particular class.”

In order to ensure that all teachers are able to accomplish the integration of philosophical and bioethical issues into their own subject matter, the school offers ongoing formation and education in bioethics for faculty. They also offer regular seminars for parents.

“We don’t want the kids to be ahead of the parents,” explained Sister Terese. “We want conversations that begin in the classroom to continue around the supper table.”

Because the school only opened its doors in 2008 and built its curriculum from scratch, Sister Mary Jordan said it wasn’t difficult to incorporate the bioethics component into the overall academic plan. Students at John Paul the Great simply take fewer electives and more required courses than their peers at other schools.

What did prove challenging, she said, was “finding teachers trained in Thomistic philosophy who want to teach high school, not college.”

Although she said the school has managed to meet that challenge thus far, it’s a challenge that won’t go away anytime soon, with the school needing more teachers as its student body continues to grow.

Another challenge, added Sister Terese, has been helping the students adjust to the level of abstract thinking philosophy requires.

“I have to work hard to make it as relevant and concrete as possible,” she said.

There’s also the challenge of overcoming the philosophical presuppositions some students bring with them from the culture.

“I’ve spent a lot of time arguing with the freshman about why animals are not on the same level as human beings,” she admitted. “Then there’s the whole issue of sexuality. Many don’t rightly value their own dignity and the dignity of their body. They’ve already bought into what the culture has to say about those things.”

‘New horizons’

Despite those challenges, bioethics teacher Richard Gildersleeve said high school is the perfect time to tackle the questions philosophy in general and bioethics in particular raises.

“They’re at an age where they want to know what’s true,” he explained. “They’re searching for truth — particularly about themselves, about who they are, why they exist. They’re after ultimate answers, and science can’t give those to them. Science can tell them what’s possible, but not who they are or why they should or should not do something.”

In his classes, Gildersleeve, who also chairs the school’s science department, sees the students responding eagerly to what they’re learning.

“It’s opening up new horizons for them as they discover that the human person is more than their textbooks led them to believe,” he told OSV. “Being made self-aware and realizing they’re made for and called to relationship is very attractive to high school students because they’re very, very social.”

Gildersleeve also sees that philosophical training paying off immediately in how students approach their studies.

“We’re forming them as truth-seekers, enabling them to ferret out the truth of the matter in every subject. That gives them a leg up in being able to scale up to the summit of literature, art, history. It opens them up to an authentic experience of beauty and helps them appreciate the wonder of creation,” he said.

The immediate benefits of the bioethics classes, however, aren’t confined to the classroom.

Sister Mary Jordan recalled how one father, who attended the school’s bioethics seminar for parents, came up afterward and thanked her, saying he was glad to finally understand what his son was talking about when he mentioned potency and act at the dinner table.

Another mother told Sister Mary Jordan how her daughter got in the car one day after school and informed her: “I’ll never watch a movie the same way again. From now on, when I watch a movie, I’ll be looking at how human dignity is presented.”

Freshman Micah McGowan is one of those students who can’t stop talking about what he’s learning in his bioethics courses.

“I like it very much,” he said. “I like it so much that I want to take the next level as soon as possible.”

He added: “It challenges you to think in new ways, ways I wouldn’t have before. And without talking about God, you begin to see all people as a creation of God. You see that every person has value.”

Responses like that help explain why other administrators and teachers have approached Sister Mary Jordan about helping them offer bioethics courses at their own schools. But while she’s happy to answer questions as they come, the principal said for now the focus has to be on completing their own four-year cycle of bioethics courses for the first time — something that won’t happen until 2012 when the school’s original freshman class graduates.

And after that?

“We’d like to possibly offer a seminar for high school teachers from around the country to come and learn about how to teach bioethics,” she said.

In the meantime, the need for such courses will likely only continue to grow.

“When it comes to attacks on the dignity of the human person in the scientific and medical fields, we don’t have to look to the future. They’re happening right now,” said Sister Terese. “As a society, we’re accepting them without realizing the violence they’re doing to the human person, and we’re passing that lack of clarity on to young people.”

She concluded, “If we want them to achieve the happiness for which they were created, we need to be teaching them not only about what’s possible, about what they can do, but also about what they should do.”

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor. For more information on Pope John Paul the Great Catholic High School, visit jpthegreat.org

Curriculum Close-Up (sidebar)

Administered by the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia (the Nashville Dominicans), Pope John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Dumfries, Va., is the only Catholic high school in the country to offer a four-year bioethics curriculum.

In addition to an ethics-focused health class, the curriculum entails four required courses and two electives.

Required Courses

Grade 9: The Human Person

Questions Addressed: What is the human person? What is the soul? What is the power of the soul? What is the nature of human sexuality? What is the source of the body’s dignity?

Grade 10: Ethics

Questions Addressed: What is happiness? How do we achieve happiness? What makes an action good or bad?

Grade 11: Bioethical Issues at the Beginning of Life

Topics Addressed: Abortion, Stem Cell Research, Contraception, Genetic Manipulation, Embryo Adoption, In-Vitro Fertilization

Grade 12: Bioethical Issues at the End of Life

Topics Addressed: Euthanasia, Organ Transplants, Pain Management, Redemptive Suffering, End-of-Life Care, Assisted Suicide.

Electives (Offered in grades 11 and 12)

The Human Person in a Biotech Age

Case Studies & Applications in Bioethics