Cardinal Bernardin's consistent ethic of life

By Steven P. Millies | Catholic News Service
October 5, 2018

Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin, pictured with children in an undated photo, argued, in those years following Roe v. Wade, that human life always is valuable and it must be respected consistently from conception to natural death. (CNS photo/courtesy John H. White)

I once heard someone argue that Jesus' family from Nazareth must have been prosperous and wealthy.

The argument ran like this: "The Gospel tells us how soldiers cast lots for his tunic, which 'was seamless, woven in one piece from the top down' (Jn 19:23). Obviously it was expensive, the kind of garment only a gentleman would wear!"

People can find whatever they are looking for when they read a text.

Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin introduced his consistent ethic of life in remarks at Fordham University in 1983, and quickly it came to be selectively misread. The consistent ethic was born in the aftermath of the U.S. bishops' pastoral letter, "The Challenge of Peace," which described the Catholic response to the moral problems posed by the nuclear arms race.

Cardinal Bernardin argued, in those years following Roe v. Wade, that human life always is valuable and it must be respected consistently from conception to natural death. Being pro-life is not only about abortion. It must encompass war, poverty, access to health care, education and anything that threatens a human life or human well-being.

In the Q-and-A that followed his remarks, Cardinal Bernardin offhandedly offered the seamless garment as a metaphor: There is no easy way to tear one concern away from another.

Countless misunderstandings have suggested he meant that all threats to human life are 'seamless'ly the same, and he spent the rest of his life struggling against that misperception. Cardinal Bernardin's efforts were not wasted because the consistent ethic is better for the years he spent working on it.

But it is regrettable that the consistent ethic, which was Cardinal Bernardin's effort to help Catholics think about important political and ethical choices, became a source of misunderstanding and division in an increasingly polarized church.

The charge usually levelled against the consistent ethic of life is that it blurs the moral differences among issues. To name a recently relevant example, critics suggest that Cardinal Bernardin treated abortion and capital punishment as though they are morally identical.

Of course, the cardinal was sophisticated enough to see the difference. One is the punishment of the guilty for a crime, while the other is the killing of innocents. Several times he observed that each issue "requires its own moral analysis" and they are "distinct problems, enormously complex." Nevertheless he did insist that all of those issues are "linked."

In remarks he made in 1984, Cardinal Bernardin offered us a vital clue about what he meant. He said, "While the state has the obligation to defend its people against attacks on their lives ... we believe the exercise of the right to capital punishment does not foster the kind of reverence for life that is needed to deal creatively and effectively with the whole range of life questions we face in our society today."

A year later, the cardinal made his point even more clearly when he observed how recent polling had found that "51 percent of the respondents said 'they would still support capital punishment even if studies showed conclusively it does not deter crime'! ... Thirty percent of those who favored capital punishment indicated their reason was simple: revenge!"

The consistent ethic of life tells us that those callous attitudes are unacceptable. Once we become used to dehumanizing criminals, it becomes much easier to dehumanize the sick, the poor or the unborn. 

That cuts both ways. In "The Challenge of Peace," the U.S. bishops asked, "In a society where the innocent unborn are killed wantonly, how can we expect people to feel righteous revulsion at the act or threat of killing noncombatants in war?" A culture that accepts abortion so easily also can dehumanize people just because they live in another country. The issues are linked.

For 35 years, the consistent ethic of life has called us to change our attitudes and examine questions that affect human life with fresh eyes. It has been effective. Earlier this year, Pope Francis amended the Catechism of the Catholic Church to describe the death penalty as "inadmissible."

For many Catholics, that seemed natural. But not everyone agrees. People can feel uncomfortable when this radical attitude disturbs long-held church teachings to reflect a greater, more absolute priority for the dignity of all life.

It is important, especially now, to remember that the consistent ethic (like the Gospel that inspires it) never was meant to reassure us. Instead, Cardinal Bernardin challenged us to respect life when it is not easy, or expected, or required.

We must go beyond the minimum in the cases that risk leading us where we do not want to go (Jn 21:18). That consistency is the measure of our commitment to every life given by God at every time, in every place.

We must do better than those who see a rich man in a seamless garment. We must accept a more demanding burden. That was what Cardinal Bernardin was trying to offer us -- not a political program or a policy road map with easy answers, but a challenging moral vision to guide each of us while we make difficult choices as believing citizens.


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