Cardinal Bernardin’s consistent life ethic

By Bishop Thomas Paprocki | Archdiocesan Auxiliary Bishop
Sunday, January 3, 2010

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of the homily by Bishop Thomas Paprocki for the memorial Mass for Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and deceased priests of the archdiocese at Holy Name Cathedral Nov. 20.

It is an honor and a privilege to preach the homily today at this Memorial Mass for the late archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, and all of the deceased bishops and priests of the Archdiocese of Chicago, especially those priests who have died during this past year. It was in November of 1996 that Cardinal Joseph Bernardin passed from this world to his eternal reward.

Cardinal Bernardin served as Archbishop of Chicago for 14 years, from 1982 until his death in 1996. It was a blessing for me to have served as his chancellor for the last five years of his life.

Cardinal Bernardin was a dedicated churchman who spent long days and nights in service to God and the church, living out the words of his episcopal motto, “As Those Who Serve.” Working closely with him provided an invaluable education, which taught me many lasting lessons that now help to guide my pastoral ministry as a bishop.

Time of debate

Our memorial Mass this year occurs while our nation is in the midst of a great debate about health care, a debate that has gone on now for several years, extending back to the years when Cardinal Bernardin served here as archbishop of Chicago. Health care was a topic that Cardinal Bernardin addressed frequently with great compassion and conviction.

Cardinal Bernardin became identified with a principle known as the “consistent ethic of life.” The main feature of the “consistent ethic of life” is its insistence on the interconnectedness of life issues across the span of life from conception to natural death. Such issues would obviously include abortion and euthanasia at the beginning and end of the life spectrum, but would also include a myriad of issues in between those two points along the span of life. Examples would be concern for the poor and for immigrants, the death penalty and health care.

The denial of respect or even the diminishment of respect for any one aspect of life would lead adversely to a denial or diminishment of respect for life in other aspects of life due to the fact that they are all related. In other words, since they are tied together, to pull out the thread of any one issue would lead to the unraveling of the whole cloth, hence, the “consistent ethic of life” came to be known by many as the “seamless garment” of life.

‘An overall vision’

In an interview published in the National Catholic Register on June 12, 1988, Cardinal Bernardin said, “The beauty of the consistent ethic is that it provides an overall vision and it shows how issues are related to each other, even though they remain distinct. You can’t collapse them into one. Each requires its own moral analysis.”

Unfortunately, the “consistent ethic of life” was sometimes misunderstood by some to imply that all life issues were of equal weight. However, Cardinal Bernardin stated, “I’ve made it very clear that at any given time one issue may have to be given much higher priority than others. I’ve never said that they were all equal or that they all required the same attention.”

Cardinal Bernardin then stated that “one of the most serious life issues or evils that we’re witnessing today is abortion. As a nation we have to address that problem. And I think we’re beginning to address it. There are many more people now than before who see abortion as evil. … I submit that the consistent ethic has played a role in that sensitization.”

Cardinal Bernardin was then asked by the interviewer if Catholic voters could disqualify candidates for political office who violate the consistent ethic of life because of their support for abortion rights.

Cardinal Bernardin answered, “Well, certainly. That’s what the consistent ethic of life is all about. I feel very, very strongly about the right to life of the unborn, the weakest and most vulnerable of human beings. I don’t see how you can subscribe to the consistent ethic of life and then vote for someone who feels that abortion is a ‘basic right’ of the individual.”

‘Single-issue voters’?

That led the interviewer to ask then how Catholics could defend themselves from being called “single-issue voters.”

Cardinal Bernardin responded, “Depends on how you approach it. In one sense I think there is a single issue, and that issue is life.” He went on to say, “I know that some people on the left, if I may use that label, have used the consistent ethic to give the impression that the abortion issue is not all that important anymore, that you should just be against abortion in a general way but there are more important issues, so don’t hold anybody’s feet to the fire just on abortion. That’s a misuse of the consistent ethic, and I deplore it.”

In the current debate about health care, the consistent ethic of life continues to underlie the approach of the American bishops. The bishops of the United States have advocated for health care reform for decades. Statements of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have emphasized that health care should be affordable and available to the poor and vulnerable, but also that no one should be forced to pay for or participate in an abortion.

Let us then remember in our prayers our government leaders, that they may act with properly formed and correct consciences, that the legislation they pass may promote ethical health care reform and protect all human life from conception to natural death.

May God give us this grace. Amen.