Vatican cardinal unpacks church’s understanding of ‘a consistent ethic of life’

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Vatican cardinal unpacks church’s understanding of ‘a consistent ethic of life’

Cardinal Michael Czerny, prefect for the Vatican Diacastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, gives a public address at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago on Sept. 17, 2022. His address explored the message contained in the encyclical “Fratelli tutti” and church teaching to call on Christians to foster solidarity and ethics in order to help rebuild a broken world. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Participants gather for a short prayer service at the beginning of the event. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Steve Millies, director of the Bernardin Center for Theology and Ministry at Catholic Theological Union, introduces Cardinal Czerny. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Participants listen to Cardinal Czerny. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
A male religious holds a program during the presentation. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Cardinal Czerny pulls out a water bottle to demonstrate that market forces have taken something that should be a human right and turned it into a commodity. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Participants clap at the end of the lecture. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Scott Alexander, director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Catholic Theological Union, asks a question during a Q & A with Cardinal Czerny. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Dominican Sister Barbara Reid, president of Catholic Theological Union, visits with Cardinal Czerny following the lecture. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Embracing a consistent ethic of life must include working to create economic and social systems that foster relationships and build the common good, rather than focusing only on what are seen as traditional life issues such as abortion and euthanasia.

That was the message of Cardinal Michael Czerny, a Jesuit, who serves as the prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development at the Holy See during a public lecture on “Life, Solidarity and Fraternity: The Consistent Ethic of Life in Light of ‘Fratelli Tutti’” Sept. 17 hosted by the Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union.

“The church is calling for a consistent ethic of solidarity that aims at making sure no one, from the first moment of life to natural death, from the wealthiest community to our poorest neighborhoods, is excluded from the table of life,” he said. “Our church teaches that promoting the development of human life, meaning in the fullest sense the flourishing of human life in salvation history, must be a multifaceted mission that protects and enhances life’s sacredness, its solidarity in which we are all sibling offspring of God and its caring nurture of our common good. We call this integral human development, the name of the dicastery in which I serve.”

Economics is also a life issue, said M. Therese Lysaught, a professor of bioethics at Loyola University Chicago and member of the Pontifical Academy of Life. Lysaught attended the lecture and said she had never seen the connections between solidarity, economics, ecology and life drawn quite so clearly.

The failure to see humanity as one family in which all the members have an obligation to one another generates isolation, fear and division, Cardinal Czerny said. It has led to a situation in which people see both the earth — our common home — and other people as things to be used, rather than cared for.

“Tragically, unjustly, and acting contrary to life, the momentum of our age is against integral human development, against our divinely appointed role to care for our common home, against the sacredness of human life, against human solidarity,” he said. “At its core, many of the contradictions that our present ages pose for integral human development turn on erroneous understandings of the human person, a flawed anthropology.”

Catholic social teaching has been developed along this thread for the past 130 years, since Pope Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum,” considered the first social encyclical, he said. Pope Francis’ encyclicals “Evangelii Gaudium,” “Laudato Si’,” and “Fratelli Tutti” build on the theme.

“Evangelii Gaudium,” Pope Francis’ first encyclical, released in 2013, focuses on who must do the work, Cardinal Czerny said. The answer is “an evangelizing church,” because a church that does not evangelize has no purpose.

“Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home,” released in 2015, answers the what: people must care for the earth and for one another, in an “integral ecology” that hears and addresses both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, he said.

“Fratelli Tutti” addresses how to do that, Cardinal Czerny said. The answer is by treating all people as brothers and sisters.

“When does a person fully experience his or her dignity as a creature lived by God and acknowledged by humankind? This happens when a person reaches the existential point of freely and consciously opting for the gift of self to others,” he said. “Because our present age militates against this Christian understanding of the human person, it therefore also fails to promote authentic human development, and instead pushes so many fake models, so many deformations. Pope Francis takes aim at the ideology where self-interest and indifference are not only tolerated but justified and even invoked and solidarity is sidelined as an option and the common good is viewed as an abstraction.”

The results can be seen the results of an unfettered marketplace, where even human beings can be bought and sold, he said.

“If suppliers are willing to sell, and consumers are willing to buy, then anything can be traded, and human trafficking is just one horrible example,” he said. “The market mindset shapes how human beings understand themselves, their value and their worldview.”

In such a social and economic system, poor people are seen “as the lazy and the losers, further adding to their isolation and loneliness,” he said, and it creates an “us vs. them” worldview, leads to growing nationalism and creates new forms of selfishness that can be harnessed in submission to political leaders “who feed on resentment.”

People who claim to support the sanctity of life cannot ignore what the current economic and social paradigm does to people, he said.

“Do not the shorter lifespans and higher infant mortalities of those in poverty cry to heaven for justice and mercy in the same way the deaths of the unborn do? Are not the indignities and mistreatment in the lives of those marginalized and oppressed by the invisible hands of the market also contrary to what we should perceived as the consistent ethic of life?”

In the end, a system built on individualism and pursuit of individual profit ends up undermining whatever laws or limits it has, he said.

“When the culture itself is corrupt, and the objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided,” Cardinal Czerny said. “A larger picture of what it means to be pro-life, of what we should understand to be the consistent ethic of life, begins to become clearer. It is certainly not enough to simply oppose abortion and euthanasia. Nor is it enough to recognize and tolerate the dignity of the lives of all, even with a special tolerance for those who, unlike us, are marginalized from the world. No, if Christ’s garment is truly seamless and whole, being genuinely pro-life requires accompanying, welcoming and joining with others as sibling children of God, especially those who, because of their differences, are hardest for us to love. A consistent ethic of life is also a consistent ethic of solidarity.”

In response to a question, the cardinal said that when it comes to people who seem to buy into a market-driven, individualistic system, it is not the responsibility of individual Catholics or Christians to change their hearts and minds. Rather, Catholics should fulfill their own obligation to stand with people on whatever peripheries they can reach.

“I don’t think you should worry about your friends and relations,” the cardinal said. “But you should worry about the poor. Leave the rest to the Holy Spirit.”

While visiting Chicago, Cardinal Czerny blessed “Be Welcoming,” a new sculpture at St. Mary of the Lake and Our Lady of Lourdes Parish on the North side of Chicago on Sept. 19.

The statue was created by renowned sculptor Timothy Schmalz based on the “be welcoming” theme of Heb 13:1-2 passage, “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

When approaching the statue from the south side (left) of St. Mary of the Lake Church, guests see the back of a stranger sitting on a bench. When exiting the church, now on the north side, guests see the image of an angel. “There but for the grace of God go I” is engraved on the back of the statue. This statue reminds everyone to be mindful of all those with whom we encounter as if we are sharing their sorrow or joy.


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