Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

Cardinal Bernardin’s enduring legacy

November 17, 2021

In his landmark speech at Fordham University in 1983, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin introduced his famous consistent ethic of life approach to considering critical issues of the day. He was guided by three convictions. What he did in pressing these convictions was quite revolutionary.

First, he was convinced of the need to heed the Second Vatican Council’s call to read the signs of the times. The cardinal understood that the church could only be viewed as credible if it was fully engaged in the world and attentive to what was happening in the lives of real people, the forces influencing policies and public opinion.

His reading of the signs of our times brought him to the conclusion that it was futile to treat issues like abortion, capital punishment, nuclear proliferation, the use of military force and others as discrete topics. He recognized that this was due in large part to the fact that these issues were divisive in themselves.

Yet he was convinced that a comprehensive commitment to respecting life as a principle, connecting these issues, would benefit them all. As he put it: “The purpose of proposing a consistent ethic of life is to argue that success on any one of the issues threatening life requires a concern for the broader attitude in society about respect for human life. … The viability of [this] principle depends upon the consistency of its application.”

Second, the cardinal was convinced that the integrity of Catholic social teaching meant that the church had a special capacity to take the lead in defining such questions in the public square. As a case in point, he asked how it was that the Catholic bishops found themselves in the nearly unique position of witnessing ardently against both abortion and the nuclear war policies of the United States. It was the integrity of her teaching, that is, its consistency, that set the church apart.

As a result, Catholic social teaching could not be fitted into the partisan political framework that governs American public life. Yet this ultimately is why the consistent ethic of life has attracted hostility. It asserts that Catholic teaching cannot be contoured to our political divisions, nor should it be undermined by downplaying key social teachings, even to advance important political goals.

Finally, the cardinal was convinced that the church is uniquely positioned to be a force for promoting the common good through public policy advocacy. Our worship, pastoral life, ministries of health care and education all demonstrate the integrity of Catholic social teaching.

In fact, Cardinal Bernardin readily admitted that he chose a Catholic university to introduce his consistent ethic of life approach, appreciative of the fact that a Catholic university has a particular role in shaping public discourse.

In many respects, the cardinal’s address was a breakthrough moment. Now we have the task of developing the consistent ethic of life, for in our day the problem is not that issues are divided into discrete topics, but rather that we are polarized as a people.

We live in silos of our own choosing, fearful to engage one another on a panoply of issues, many of which are indeed matters of life or death. Consider the health care crisis we face as it relates to the pandemic, or issues of racial injustice that inspired powerful protests in the summer of 2020, or the threat climate change poses to all life on earth.

Like Cardinal Bernardin, Pope Francis has been unrelenting in respecting the integrity of Catholic social teaching, warning against attempts to reduce it to any single issue. The Holy Father builds on the cardinal’s insights in a way that helps us address polarization by urging what I call a consistent ethic of solidarity. He calls us to place maximum value on encountering one another, listening to one another and discerning a pathway forward together.

We are the privileged beneficiaries of the kind and wise spirit that animated Cardinal Bernardin. As a successor of the good cardinal, I am so happy to celebrate his memory and to encourage all of us to carry on his legacy.

His words and example continue to inspire us to work for peace, for the full development of our ministries, for the education and formation of young people, for fostering ecumenical and interfaith understanding and collaboration, and — of course — for a respect for life in all its precious forms.


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