Inside USD

Professors Explore Catholic Perspective on Health Care

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

seminar-photoA typical day for University of San Diego Chemistry Professor Tammy Dwyer might involve analyzing the structural aspects of DNA or teaching undergraduates the latest in laboratory techniques in organic chemistry.

So what was Dwyer doing in Rome earlier this year, discussing the finer points of Catholic teaching on reproductive technology, stem cell research, end-of-life decisions and other controversial issues with a group of USD faculty?

She and other professors were participating in USD’s first Faculty Travel Seminar, offered by its new Center for Catholic Thought and Culture.

“If we want the church to have a voice in the dialogue,” said Maria Pascuzzi, associate professor of theology and religious studies and director of the center, faculty have to know something about “what the church actually says.”

Pascuzzi said the trip, funded by a donor and led by Brian Johnstone, an internationally recognized Roman Catholic scholar specializing in bioethics, provided a comprehensive look at the church’s teachings.

“As a scientist, it was fascinating” to be part of such a stimulating dialogue on complex moral issues, said Dwyer, who has written a paper, “Genetic Intervention: Ethical and Scientific Challenges,” based on the experience.

Today and tomorrow (March 25 and 26), Dwyer and eight other professors who made the trip, will present their papers. The forum “Catholic Health Care and Health Care Ethics” will run from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. each day in Room 102 of the Mother Rosalie Hill Hall. The public is invited to listen to the presentations.

During the trip, professors visited historic sites such as the Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica and Tiber Island, which has housed a Catholic health care center since A.D. 1584.

Associate professor of nursing Mary Rose-Mueller said she is now able to bring to class a perspective about the church’s commitment to health care, “not just as a philosophical or ethical perspective but also in practice, realizing that for 1600 years the church has been actively involved in caring for the poor and the infirmed.”

Rose-Mueller, who will present a paper on “Religious Influences on the Reproductive Health Decisions of HIV-Positive Latinas Living on the Border,” said she also was impressed with Johnstone’s approach to the discussions. “He was just able to guide us in thinking about things highly complex, sometimes abstract and sometimes controversial, in ways that permitted real discussion and conversation.”

“Not everyone agrees all the time, and that’s fine,” Pascuzzi said. The purpose of the seminars is for professors to become conversant with the church’s teachings and better understand how they agree or conflict “with their own scientific and professional understanding.”

For example, Pascuzzi said the seminar focused on how the church doesn’t say no to all reproductive technologies but has concerns about their unpredictability and impact on future generations, such as the use of in vitro fertilization that resulted in the birth of octuplets for a Los Angeles mother.

One of the things that professors came to appreciate is that “the church isn’t just a big no: no to science, no to progress,” but that the church has a set of principles it tries to apply consistently, she said.

Plans are already under way for next year’s seminar that will focus on “Sustainability, Eco-Theology and Eco-Justice” and take place in the Dominican Republic.

For more information on the center go to

— Liz Harman

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