Respect for dignity of all human beings is at the heart of Bishop Olson’s bioethics

By Jerry Circelli

Correspondent

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Deacon Michael Olson met Pope John Paul II while in Rome in December 1993. (Photo courtesy of Bishop Olson)

The dean of St. Mary’s Seminary at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Dr. Sandy Magie, said she knew from the start that God had something special in store for a particularly bright, yet humble, student at the school. The young man, Michael F. Olson, was a “stand out,” Magie recalled.

“I taught his first bioethics class at St. Mary’s,” the seminary dean said. The year was 1990, and Magie still clearly remembers the young student who would often ask “hard, searching questions,” tempered with compassionate understanding. “Michael is what I would call the smartest boy in the class, but he didn’t flaunt it,” she said.

“I was thoroughly convinced that Michael would end up in the episcopacy. I never had any doubt about that from the time I met him when he was a student.”

Magie would later work with her former student as a colleague when, as an ordained priest, then-Father Olson served on the formation faculty at St. Mary’s Seminary. “Students loved him,” Magie said. “He was very demanding, but he has the ability to make even the most complicated material understandable to a wide range of students. And that’s a real gift.” Magie, who holds doctorates in molecular biology and sacred theology, also found herself turning to Olson for advice on complex bioethical questions.

“Michael is smart,” Magie said. “Not just book smart, but he has walking-around sense. He’s able to connect with people, and he has great understanding of the Church. He loves the Church. I mean he’s a man of the Church right down to his bones.”

Bishop Olson’s formation, particularly in the field of bioethics, began after receiving his master’s degree in philosophy from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., in 1989. He was drawn to classes that explored moral theology and bioethical topics, including beginning-of-life studies and end-of-life issues. In 1994 Bishop Olson earned a master’s degree in theological studies as well as a Master of Divinity in theology at the University of Saint Thomas in Houston through St. Mary’s. Three years after being ordained to the priesthood in 1994, then-Father Olson was awarded a Presidential Fellowship to Saint Louis University, where he entered doctoral studies at the Center for Health Care Ethics from 1997 to 2001.

With a Doctorate in Sacred Theology earned in 2011 from Accademia Alfonsiana in Rome, Italy, then-Monsignor Olson’s quest for greater knowledge and spiritual guidance in the field of bioethics followed a parallel path with practical experience in the field. His doctoral dissertation dealt with end-of-life issues, and his real-life experiences in the field have included administering the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick to those who were dying and gravely ill. He has also served on the University of Texas Medical Center Ethics Committee for Research Involving Human Subjects, worked as a hospital ethicist, and taught undergraduate and graduate courses in bioethics around the nation.

In addition, Bishop Olson has served as episcopal vicar for bioethical concerns in the Diocese of Fort Worth, earned numerous certifications in the field, and has published insightful research papers on bioethics. Bishop Olson’s practical experience in the field also includes serving as a consultant to the Texas Catholic Conference on bioethical issues and testifying before the Texas State Legislature on legislation concerning end-of-life decisions.

While the field of bioethics includes a wide field of topics, ranging from nutrition and hydration for dying patients to respect and care for the unborn, from universal health care issues to doctor-patient relationships, and from organ transplants to the use of life support, answers to difficult decisions are rooted in our faith, Bishop Olson said.

Bioethics, said Bishop Olson, is often misunderstood and thought of as a complex field involving ethics and science, and governed by a specific set of rules. Bioethicists, therefore, have come to be regarded as highly trained people with specialized skills who can quickly come up with answers, based on their scientific and spiritual knowledge. That is not the case, however, said the bishop.

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Michael Olson graduated with an MA in theological studies and an M.Div. in theology from St. Mary’s Seminary at the University of St. Thomas in 1994. (Photo Courtesy of Bishop Olson)

“Ethics is more about practice,” he said. “And not so much about having a special, gnostic answer. People have the capacity for right reason and to make basic decisions.”

A bioethicist, Bishop Olson continued, helps people with their prudence — one of the four cardinal virtues that also include justice, fortitude, and temperance. Prudence, he explained, integrates all the other virtues. “And it helps people make the right decision in difficult circumstances.”

While extensive information and Church guidance on bioethical topics are widely available from a number of sources, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the National Catholic Bioethics Center, many people don’t begin to explore the topic until faced with life and death decisions.

For them, Bishop Olson simplifies the discussion. “Bioethics is an area involving theology and faith. We know that each human being is created in the image and likeness of God. They are made in this image and likeness of God even when they are devoid of the capacity for reason or free exercise of will. They always have dignity.”

With the capacity to reason, enter into relationships, and love one another, humans flourish when they strive for the good of one another, he said.

“We live the faith, we practice the Gospel, we love our neighbor, we care for the poor, we stand up for the rights of the unborn… we help each other and respect one another.”

Bishop Olson said his experiences in dealing with bioethical issues, especially with the sick and their families, have taught him valuable lessons as he prepares for the road ahead as the new shepherd of the Diocese of Fort Worth.

“I have learned the importance of listening carefully to people. And I have learned that keeping the ultimate end in mind is the most essential priority. We have an ethics guided by our ultimate love of God and neighbor and not simply an obligation to a faceless set of rules.”

Bishop Olson said he also learned that God is merciful. “People already have in their hearts and minds the right answer to challenging questions. As Christians, we need to be reminded of that more than we need to be informed. We need to be reminded of what God has done for us. That’s what we do every Sunday at Mass.”

The bishop also said that the terminally ill have taught him that life and good health are truly gifts. “And it’s important that we use our time wisely.”

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Bishop Olson met with the seminarians at Holy Trinity Seminary for a question-and-answer session the evening after his appointment as the next bishop of Fort Worth. (Photo courtesy of Holy Trinity Seminary)

Going forward, the bishop said his motto will be Veritatis Spendor, Latin for “The Splendor of Truth,” inspired by Blessed John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical of the same name.

“Soon to be ‘Saint’ John Paul II wrote that encyclical about moral theology and calling us back from … simply a system of obligation first, to a system of love first, and then obligations flowing out of that love,” Bishop Olson said. “In my own background in moral theology, that had a lot to do with my formation — the splendor of the truth.”

While faithful in the Diocese of Fort Worth are expressing excitement about the appointment of a new bishop, following 13 months without one, others around the state and the nation are also lauding the selection by Pope Francis.

Sister Patricia Talone, RSM, vice president of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, is one of those people.

She said Bishop Olson “has a real understanding of what families and individuals face in sickness and the challenges the faithful face in their everyday lives.”

“I’m happy for your diocese,” she told the North Texas Catholic. “And frankly, I’m happy from the point of view of the Catholic Health Association. I’m happy that we have a bishop whose interests are and have been, in moral theology and health care ethics.”

Sr. Talone said the USCCB will also be blessed with Bishop Olson as a part of the conference.

In Austin, Jennifer Carr Allmon, associate director of the Texas Catholic Conference (TCC), agrees that the Catholic Church and the USCCB will benefit from Bishop Olson’s wisdom. She said, however, that bishops were already well aware of the cleric’s talents long before his recent appointment.

Several years ago, Allmon said TCC began working on advance directive reform legislation concerning end-of-life matters and was in need of a bioethics expert who also understood Church teachings.

Allmon said when she polled bishops for a cleric or layman who might have this insight, the answer was always the same. “They all responded immediately: ‘Monsignor Michael Olson.’”

The future bishop not only helped the TCC draft language for the bill, but offered testimony to the Texas Legislature.

Allmon said then-Monsignor Olson’s testimony left an impression on those who heard him and had the chance to speak with him during his Austin visits. “Lobbyists and legislators were coming up to us after he left and saying, ‘That priest was awesome. He was fun. We loved him. He was great….’”

While they enjoyed his company, Allmon said, “at the same time, he let them know exactly what the Church taught. It was not just fun and games; it was a balance, and that was a real gift he brought to Austin.

“He can reach people in a real practical and natural way, but strongly advocate for the Church’s teachings,” Allmon said.

“We were very grateful to have someone who understands Texas politics, Texas culture, and the kind of environment we’re working in, and who also understands medical ethics issues from the perspective of the Church,” Allmon said. “It is a unique background and training that he has and brings to the Bishops Conference.”

“And now he will be a bishop in Texas.”

See Also

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Bp-Olson-w-JPII-BUTTON.jpgWith a Doctorate in Sacred Theology earned in 2011 from Accademia Alfonsiana in Rome, Italy, then-Monsignor Olson’s quest for greater knowledge and spiritual guidance in the field of bioethics followed a parallel path with practical experience in the field. His doctoral dissertation dealt with end-of-life issues, and his real-life experiences in the field have included administering the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick to those who were dying and gravely ill. He has also served on the University of Texas Medical Center Ethics Committee for Research Involving Human Subjects, worked as a hospital ethicist, and taught undergraduate and graduate courses in bioethics around the nation.

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