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Sister encourages John Paul the Great students to ask why

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In the early 2000s, Bishop Paul S. Loverde contacted the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, Tenn., with a special request. Not only did he want the sisters to staff the diocese’s newest high school, he also wanted to find someone to develop a one-of-a-kind bioethics curriculum.


That someone turned out to be Dominican Sister Terese Auer. Her bioethics curriculum has revolutionized the culture of Saint John Paul the Great High School in Dumfries for the past 11 years.


“Bishop Loverde wanted the graduates to be able to address the bioethical issues of the day,” said Sister Auer. “He didn’t want unthinking Catholics.”


Her philosophical nature, love of St. Thomas Aquinas and more than 20 years of high school teaching experience made her a perfect fit to pioneer the new curriculum.


“I want to ask why. I don’t what to follow a certain path without understanding,” said Sister Auer. “Philosophers are looking for those deeper answers and more full knowledge of reality.”


She was teaching philosophy at Aquinas College in Nashville before embarking on her new assignment. Adapting a college-level curriculum for high schoolers fit perfectly for today’s student.


“Teenagers are at an age when they are looking for the answers to important questions like: Who am I? Why am I here? What is life all about? How can I be truly happy?” said Sister Auer. “I love helping them find the answers — the truth.”


The curriculum begins freshman year by focusing on the dignity of the human person followed by Thomistic philosophy sophomore year. Juniors transferring into the school are required to take these four classes that teach students how to think critically and argue without emotion while also respecting their opponents.


The remaining two years are devoted to a deeper study of bioethical issues, such as abortion, contraception, in vitro fertilization and transgenderism.


Some topics bring out a lot of arguing in the classroom, which she loves. “When they argue, it means they are thinking,” said Sister Auer. “We don’t want the kids to just know this is right or wrong. We want them to know why it is right and wrong. That way, they will be able to make it their own and pass it on.”


She says it is important that students realize they can learn the truth through reason and natural law, not on the authority of the church alone.


Many students say they use what they learn in class to navigate the issues of morality and conscience they face daily, according to Sister Auer. She recently received an email from an alum who said that while he didn’t appreciate her class at the time, he was grateful for it now that he is in college.


The principles Sister Auer teaches don’t stop at her classroom door. Thanks to an introductory bioethics course given to all new teachers, each subject is informed by the bioethics curriculum.


For Sister Auer, the most rewarding part of her job is combating relativism, the idea that there is no objective truth.


“I get so frustrated with the culture,” said Sister Auer. “We have messed up God’s plan for the human person. Teaching is a way to put God’s order back into things and do something that will lead to their happiness.”


Kassock is a freelance writer from Stafford.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019