History Alumnus Heads National Catholic Bioethics Center
Date published: July 2, 2020
During his Rome semester in 1991, Joseph Meaney, BA ’93, with his friends (now Father)
Kevin Cook, BA ’94, and (now Texas State Representative and UD Trustee) Tan Parker,
BA ’93, attended a private Mass with Pope St. John Paul II. Several weeks earlier,
they had hand-delivered a letter to the Swiss Guards outside St. Peter’s requesting
the Mass and including their contact information; at last, they’d received the phone
call instructing them to be at the Bronze Gates at 5 a.m.
“UD helped me grow as a person through my classes and the spiritual and intellectual
atmosphere of the university, but also by providing some extraordinary experiences,”
said Meaney. “For most people, that’s their one chance to actually live in Rome. So
many unique events and friendships made my undergraduate years at UD very special
As it turned out, it was not Meaney’s one chance to live in Rome: In 1998, he founded
the Rome office of Human Life International (HLI) and lived in the city for a total
of nine years, helping to run the office and collaborating closely with dicasteries
of the Holy See, particularly the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Pontifical
Academy for Life. A onetime UD history major with leanings toward archaeology, it
may be an understatement to say this was not the career path he had originally envisioned,
but at the same time it made perfect sense for the dual U.S./French citizen whose
mother had been a leader of the pro-life movement in his native Corpus Christi, Texas.
“I was born into the pro-life movement,” explained Meaney. “My mom is a medical doctor,
though she never practiced in the U.S. After Roe v. Wade, she went to the bishop and
said, ‘What are we going to do?’ He said, “What are YOU going to do?’ Her response
was to start a crisis pregnancy center and many other pro-life initiatives. She served
as the first head of the Respect Life Office of the Diocese of Corpus Christi.”
Today, the largest abortion “desert” in America is in South Texas, with a million
people living in communities with no abortion clinics. The last abortion center in
Corpus Christi closed a few years ago. Meaney credits his mother’s work and the patient,
persevering actions of the Church and many pro-lifers for this achievement.
It may have been fate, then, that led Meaney in his mother’s footsteps. After participating
in some archeological digs, including one on the Palatine Hill prior to his Rome semester,
he determined that archaeology wasn’t really for him; he then turned his focus to
history, specifically Latin America and European interventions, thinking that he would
ultimately become a history professor. After one semester in a doctoral program at
the University of Texas at Austin, however, he questioned this path as well. Taking
a semester off, he explored a religious vocation, visiting various congregations.
Going back to school, he switched from history to Latin American Studies and earned
a master’s in that discipline, focusing on Catholic health care in Guatemala in his
thesis. Ultimately, he volunteered for a medical missionary group working in Guatemala
as a translator and mission coordinator.
On his trips to Guatemala, however, Meaney encountered an international population
control program that offered midwives bonuses for each mother they persuaded to get
sterilized once she had given birth; duly appalled by this practice, he eventually
realized that his vocation lay in the direction of the international pro-life movement,
which led him to lobbying at international UN conferences.
“It was a knock-down drag-out fight between pro-lifers and radical feminists at the
1994 Cairo conference,” he said. “They failed to pass a resolution proclaiming a universal
‘right’ to abortion because of JPII; it was the same thing in Beijing, with the pro-lifers
limiting the damage; then, in Istanbul in 1996, the conference was supposed to be
about urban planning and affordable housing, but abortion became the main topic again.
There, pro-lifers basically won after a difficult struggle. This was a wonderful experience
and my intro to international pro-life work.”
At that fateful Istanbul conference, he also met his wife, Marie. She and another
friend he made there were the ones who suggested that he look into working with HLI.
He reached out to HLI, but the connection didn’t happen immediately. Then, in 1998,
HLI wanted to open an office in Rome, with the idea of working more closely with the
Church. They were looking for someone who spoke Italian.
“I thought hey, I spent a semester in Rome, took elementary Italian,” said Meaney.
“I was a French citizen so didn’t need a work visa, but honestly, my Italian was not
so good at first — I took a crash course, and it improved quickly when I was living
and working with Italians.”
During his time with HLI he frequently served as a translator, getting to use all
of his languages. During the Jubilee of Families in 2000, he did a reading at the
Mass for the marriages celebrated by Pope John Paul II. Cardinal Lopez-Trujillo had
offered him and Marie the opportunity to be among the couples in St. Peter’s Square
that day, but Marie wanted a private ceremony with family in France. He translated
during the 2000 World Youth Days for the international youth forum, into English from
French, Spanish and Italian. Once, he wore a cowboy hat to a private audience with
the pope because the international youth delegates were told to sport their national
“It was such an extraordinary thing to have these opportunities starting with UD;
I got to meet JPII on multiple occasions,” he said.
He and Marie were married in 2000 (though not at the Jubilee of Families), but their
daughter, Thérèse, was not born until almost a decade later.
“It’s strange how prevalent infertility is among pro-lifers,” said Meaney. “We’re
spending our whole lives trying to help babies come into the world and not be aborted,
yet there are tons of infertile couples working in the pro-life movement. Infertility
affects about 10% of couples and is a growing problem. My wife wrote a book on embracing
the cross of infertility, and the spiritual challenges of infertility.”
The experience of infertility alongside his work in the pro-life movement helped prepare
him for his current work as president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC).
In vitro fertilization, which is one of many topics the NCBC addresses, was encouraged
by the Meaneys’ doctors; IVF, however, goes against Catholic doctrine.
“IVF was not really a big temptation for us, but this is one area of interest for
the NCBC,” said Meaney. “Unethical scientific research, gender reassignment, etc.:
These go against doctrine but are areas we explore. We also stand against Vitalism,
or prolonging life at any cost. The Church believes human life is sacred and must
be respected and treated with special dignity. This means that extraordinary means
in health care are morally optional; the Church is all about freedom and only requires
that ordinary means of caring for patients not be refused or denied.”
In 2010, after some time in the U.S., HLI sent Meaney back to Rome to earn his doctorate
in bioethics at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart.
“It’s a school of medicine with an institute of bioethics inside of it,” explained
Meaney. “The Gemelli is the pope’s hospital, a wonderful huge institution with wings
in all directions.”
In 2019, Meaney was appointed president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center
after 23 years of work in the international pro-life movement, including travel to
81 countries, primarily as director of international outreach and expansion for HLI.
“The NCBC has so many programs and activities going on,” he said. “We work closely
with the U.S. bishops and Catholic health care ministries on bioethics topics. The
NCBC has a peer-reviewed academic journal, The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly,
and a monthly newsletter, Ethics and Medics. We offer an online certification program
in Catholic health care ethics.
“The NCBC is much more academic than HLI,” he added. “Still, anyone can call or email
and get a Ph.D. on the line to discuss an ethical quandary by going to ncbcenter.org.
We have six full-time Ph.D. ethicists, three part time. We do about 2,000 consults
a year, in which we help people make difficult ethical decisions — many consults are
about end-of-life issues.”
On a sometimes daily basis, difficult ethical questions and problems are part of Meaney’s
life and work now.
“Being president of a center involves a lot of things: publications, education, consultation
with both individuals and institutions,” he said. “The president has to be a jack-of-all-trades
— I’m called in for some ethical consultations; I speak across the country; I grade
papers for students in our online certification program.”
Then there is the financial side; the NCBC has a fairly substantial budget that needs
to balance. The center raises about one-third of its operating costs from donors and
other fundraising, and receives income from institutional work, memberships, selling
books, tuition for courses, etc., for the other two-thirds.
“There’s a fair amount of media work as part of my job,” said Meaney. “Bioethics is
in the news almost every day; we comment on current events and issues from the Catholic
moral tradition; we do a lot of radio and some TV. My favorite is when EWTN has me
on. Journalists frequently call us to give them quotes for articles they are writing.”
Meaney’s first bioethics class was at UD, with Professor Janet Smith. He also took
Philosophy and the Ethical Life and a metaphysics course with her.
“UD gave me a taste for it,” he said. “I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of wrestling
with ethics quandaries.
“UD in general was a very good, very wholesome environment for a Catholic; I was intellectually
engaged, and I played tennis on the team all four years,” he said. “The tennis coach
would laugh that he had never before UD had athletes discussing Plato and Aristotle
on roadtrips. I remember in the midst of Groundhog festivities hearing discussions
about Dante or other classical thinkers.
“It was a very unusual combination of intellectual, Catholic and just generally fun,”
One unrepeatable experience was taking a class with the Politics Department on American
foreign policy during Operation Desert Shield.
“We debated just war theory, etc.,” he said. “Half the class were peaceniks, the other
warhawks; by the time the class was finished, Operation Desert Storm had taken place,
and we could see the results and see whose predictions had been right or wrong.
“UD consistently delivered remarkable experiences like that,” he added. “Many of the
students I met there were intellectual, faithful Catholics, and knew they had a mission
to take this wonderful education and make a difference. UD was very good at providing
a solid foundation and helping students to mature, and even discern vocations. I’m
excited that UD is set to make an even greater impact in a world and culture that
desperately needs Catholic wisdom and faithfulness.”