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Ethics students achieve victory through dialogue

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This past February, eight students from St. John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Dumfries participated in the National High School Ethics Bowl at American University in Washington.


Five months earlier, in a quiet corner of the library, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the after-school rush of students hurrying to get to football or volleyball practice, these eight students — Isaac Cotnoir, Annaliese Tamke, Joseph Clement, Faith Newbold, Greg Myrvold, Padric Brown, Gabriel Short, and Sean Sirks — began practicing for a much bigger goal than just winning a game.


Attending the only school in the nation with a four-year bioethics curriculum, these students had a unique mission to bring the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas into a world of relativism and consequentialism by participating in the Ethics Bowl. Each of them shared a passion for debate, a strong love of truth and a commitment to excellence.


It’s not a team made up of people you’d normally expect to see together: Isaac Cotnoir is a virtuoso on the violin, Joe Clement plays lacrosse, Faith Newbold runs cross country. What bonded them as a team at the same time divided them: Their different approaches to ethical issues caused many a spirited debate at the weekly meetings. That’s part of what made the work ahead of them so difficult.


Providing vision and leadership were Dominican Sister Therese Auer, who has been the backbone of John Paul the Great’s bioethics program since its inception, and Andrew Kubick, a four-year veteran of the bioethics department. Both are passionate about the Thomistic ethics that make up the cornerstone of the school’s curriculum. Together they moderated, motivated and provided insight to the team, which day by day looked more competition-ready. Practice sessions were a realization of what goes on in the classroom. Knowing right from wrong isn't about a grade; it's about how to make each and every decision in light of what is true about the human person. And these kids know that.


The first day of practice was spent preparing cases, debating ethical dilemmas and going over the finer points of strategy. After that, the real work began. Long hours were spent debating in the library, as the weeks rolled by from September to January. Unlike the football or the volleyball team, a simple win wasn’t the goal. As Sister Therese liked to remind the students, bringing Thomistic teachings into a secular world, bringing God’s Word into a secular world, is a greater victory.


“From understanding and opposing utilitarianism to understanding the intrinsic value of every human being, we learn how to respond to different philosophical ideologies,” said senior Tamke. “I love conversing with people of different philosophical backgrounds. Getting a variety of different angles and perspectives is a vital part of forming your own opinion and developing your beliefs.”  


When the day of the competition finally came, it was exhilarating, yet nerve racking. Held at American U., the 2019 Ethics Bowl was a friendly dialogue between people of opposing viewpoints. It was also, for the John Paul the Great students, an uphill battle against a secular worldview. The students met at American U., anxious but excited to show the world what they could bring to the table. They bravely confronted rampant secularism with reason and compassion. In the end, the goal was accomplished. These students have done something no other team could do. They witnessed to the truth of the Gospel through Thomistic ethics, perhaps providing the only exposure to an ethical system ordered to the dignity of every human person that some of their opponents will ever encounter.


That victory made all the long hours in the library and the heated discussions and disagreements worthwhile. The students were able to translate what they learned in the classroom into a respectful dialogue with their peers, a unique opportunity only possible with the ethical training they received at school. The opportunity to touch the lives of others with the profound truths of natural law is something these students will never forget.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019