Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Ethic of Life
Everyone knows there is darkness in
our lives, in our world. Violence of all kinds threatens life:
in our homes, in our cities, in nations near and far. "Violence
has many faces: oppression of the poor, deprivation of basic human
rights, economic exploitation, sexual exploitation and pornography,
neglect or abuse of the aged and the helpless, and innumerable
other acts of inhumanity. Abortion in particular blunts a sense
of the sacredness of human life."
We see this passage from the U.S. bishops'
1983 pastoral letter on peace exemplified almost every day in
the headlines. Many of us have directly encountered some form
of violence in our own lives. Many more of us suffer with families
and friends who have. How can we respond to this violence and
A moral vision that holds together
these many different issues and offers not only direction for
action but also energy and hope is the consistent ethic of life.
The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin articulated this perspective
in the early 1980's, and it has become a centerpiece of the U.S.
Catholic bishops' moral teaching. Pope John Paul II has affirmed
similar themes in his 1995 encyclical The Gospel of Life.
In this Catholic Update we will explore the richness of
A moral framework
What is the consistent ethic of life?
It is a comprehensive ethical system that links together many
different issues by focusing attention on the basic value of life.
In his attempts to defend life, Cardinal Bernardin first joined
the topics of abortion and nuclear war. He quickly expanded his
understanding of a consistent ethic of life to include many issues
from all of life. Already in the first of a series of talks, this
one at Fordham University, Cardinal Bernardin stated: "The
spectrum of life cuts across the issues of genetics, abortion,
capital punishment, modern warfare and the care of the terminally
Cardinal Bernardin also acknowledged
that issues are distinct and different. Capital punishment, for
example, is not the same as abortion. Nevertheless, the issues
are linked. The valuing and defense of life are at the center
of both issues. Cardinal Bernardin told an audience in Portland,
Oregon: "When human life is considered 'cheap' or easily expendable
in one area, eventually nothing is held as sacred and all lives
are in jeopardy."
Along with his consistent linking of
distinct life issues, Cardinal Bernardin acknowledged that no
individual or group can pursue all issues. Still, while concentrating
on one issue, he insisted in another address, the individual or
group must not be seen "as insensitive to or even opposed to other
moral claims on the overall spectrum of life." The consistent
ethic of life rules out contradictory moral positions about the
unique value of human lifeand it would be contradictory,
for example, to be against abortion but for capital
punishment or to work against poverty but support euthanasia.
This linkage of all life issues is,
of course, the very heart of the consistent ethic of life. This
linking challenges us to pull together things that we might have
kept apart in the past. Often our convictions seem to cluster
around 'conservative' or 'liberal' viewpointsas in the above
examples. But the consistent ethic of life cuts across such divisions,
calling us to respect the life in the womb, the life of a criminal,
the life on welfare, the life of the dying.
Sources of life
Where does the consistent ethic of
life come from? It comes largely from the insights of Cardinal
Bernardin, the teachings of the U.S. Catholic bishops and, most
recently and significantly, John Paul II's encyclical The Gospel
of Life. The ultimate source, however, is the Bible, especially
the life and teaching of Jesus.
Cardinal Bernardin spent much time
and energy on two issues: abortion and nuclear war. He found committed
people concerned about one issue but not the other. As he worked
to bring together those seeking an end to abortion and those trying
to prevent nuclear war, Cardinal Bernardin began to emphasize
the common link among the life issues. This emphasis has been
continued in the teachings of the U.S. bishops.
Pope John Paul II's encyclical The
Gospel of Ljfe is a bold and prophetic defense of life. Although
it does not use the phrase, The Gospel of Life strongly
affirms the consistent ethic of life. John Paul describes what
is going on in our world today: a monumental abuse of life through
drugs, war and arms, abortion, euthanasia, destruction of the
environment, unjust distribution of resources. This abuse is often
caused and supported by the economic, social and political structures
of the nations. So the pope speaks of a "structure of sin" and
a "culture of death" and a "conspiracy against life" (#12).
The pope also proclaims the Christian
understanding of the value of life. Created in God's image, redeemed
by Jesus, called to everlasting life, every human being is sacred
and social; every human being is a sign of God's love. In much
more detail than Cardinal Bernardin's addresses, the pope provides
the foundation for building a culture of life by weaving together
a wealth of biblical texts which clearly proclaim human dignity.
The consistent ethic of life is ultimately
rooted in Jesus, in whom the meaning and value of life are definitively
proclaimed and fully given. In John Paul II's words, "The gospel
of life is not simply a reflection, however new and profound,
on human life. Nor is it merely a commandment aimed at raising
awareness and bringing about significant changes in society. Still
less is it an illusory promise of a better future. The gospel
of life is something concrete and personal, for it consists in
the proclamation of the very person of Jesus" (#29).
Who is this Jesus? He is Jesus who
was sensitive to the vulnerable at all stages and from every walk
of life. In being so, he often was at odds with society's standards,
associating with religious and social outcasts. This is the Jesus
of the Sermon on the Mount who proclaims as blessed not the leaders
of society but the mourning and the meek, the poor and the pure,
the persecuted and the peacemaker (Mt 5:1-12).
This is the Jesus who praises not power
but reconciliation in the story about the forgiving father of
the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32). This is the Jesus of faithful
ministry, of suffering and death, of new life (Mk 14:316:8).
This is the Jesus who says, "I came so that they might have life
and have it more abundantly" (Jn 10:10). Who Jesus is and what
Jesus means by abundant life, then, are surely different from
what the consumerism and individualism of our culture tell us
The consistent ethic of life challenges
us every day. 1) It encourages us to hold together a great variety
of issues with a consistent focus on the value of life. 2) It
challenges us to reflect on our basic values and convictions which
give direction to our lives. 3) It leads us to express our commitment
to life in civil debate and public policy.
From womb to tomb. A consistent
ethic includes all life issues from the very beginning of life
to its end. An excellent example of how the life ethic holds together
many distinct issues is the U.S. bishops' statement Political
Responsibility, issued prior to every presidential election.
The 1996 edition of Political Responsibility provided direction
concerning many issues, including abortion, racism, the economy,
AIDS, housing, the global trade in arms, welfare reform, immigration
Several examples can give the spirit
of Political Responsibility and help us examine our consciences.
The bishops oppose the use of the death penalty, judging that
the practice further undermines respect for life in our society
and stating that it has been discriminatory against the poor and
racial minorities. The bishops express special concern for the
problem of racism, calling it a "radical evil" which divides the
human family. Dealing with poverty, the bishops claim, is a moral
imperative of the highest priority, for poverty threatens life.
In the domestic scene, there is a need for more jobs with adequate
pay and decent working conditions; at the international level,
the areas of trade, aid and investment must be reevaluated in
terms of their impact on the poor.
Capital punishment, racism, poverty:
certainly these are very different issues, with different causes
and different solutions (many of which may be very complex). Still,
underneath all these differences is life and, for us, the challenge
of respecting the lives of people who may be very different from
us. What actions concerning these issues would a consistent ethic
of life suggest?
Here are a few possibilities. For capital
punishment, spend time learning why many churches are opposed
to the death penalty; then write to your governor and other officials
expressing your opposition. For racism, start or join a parish
group that is working to bring together people of different races,
perhaps by a formal, ongoing interchange between two parishes
("twinning"). For poverty, read the bishops' pastoral letter Economic
Justice for All; volunteer in a soup kitchen or an AIDS clinic;
if possible. exercise your leadership in business or politics
to change oppressive policies and regulations. Surely, we cannot
do everything; but we can do one thing.
A question of values. The consistent
ethic of life also leads us beyond the specific issues to the
depths of our convictions about the meaning of life. A careful
and prayerful study of Political Responsibility allows
us to appreciate not only the expanse of the seamless garment
of the consistent ethic of life but also its profound challenge
to our most important attitudes and values.
Emphasizing the consistent ethic of
life and recognizing its countercultural directions, the bishops
state: "Our moral framework does not easily fit the categories
of right or left, Republican or Democrat. We are called to measure
every party and movement by how its agenda touches human life
and human dignity."
It is not sufficient to be pro-life
on some issues; we must be pro-life on all issuesno
matter what our political party, business, union, talk shows,
advertising or family may say. These powerful forces significantly
shape our values and convictions, sometimes away from a consistent
ethic. Yet our faith ought to be the deepest source of our values.
We ought not underestimate the challenge
of being pro-life; it might seem easier to appeal to common sense
or accepted business practiceor even ethical relativism.
In The Gospel of Life John Paul II urges all persons to
choose lifeconsistently, personally, nationally, globally.
This invitation is really a profound challenge: to look deeply
into ourselves and to test against the gospel some of our own
deeply held beliefs and practices.
John Paul writes: "In a word, we can
say that the cultural change which we are calling for demands
from everyone the courage to adopt a new lifestyle, consisting
in making practical choicesat the personal, family, social
and international levelon the basis of a correct scale of
values: the primacy of being over having, of the person over
things. This renewed lifestyle involves a passing from
indifference to concern for others, from rejection to acceptance
of them" (#98).
Public policy. Our Church leaders
have necessarily discussed the relationship between moral vision
and political policies. Indeed, the consistent ethic of life was
developed to help shape public policy. Political policies and
economic structures provide means to create a societal environment
that promotes the flourishing of human life. During the past century,
bishops and popes have addressed these very issues in their social
As Cardinal Bernardin told the audience
at Fordham University, we must also be able to state our case
"in nonreligious terms which others of different faith convictions
might find morally persuasive." For example, we may be opposed
to euthanasia and assisted suicide fundamentally because of our
faith convictions about God as giver of the gift of life and about
our own stewardship of life. For public policy discussion, however,
we may stress other reasons, such as human dignity, the undermining
of trust in the medical profession, the threat to women and the
Political Responsibility and
The Gospel of Life emphasize that faithfulness to the gospel
leads not only to individual acts of charity. It also leads to
actions involving the institutions and structures of society,
the economy and politics. The U.S. bishops, for example, state:
"We encourage people to use their voices and votes to enrich the
democratic life of our nation and to act on their values in the
political arena. We hope American Catholics, as both believers
and citizens, will use the resources of our faith and the opportunities
of this democracy to help shape a society more respectful of the
life, dignity and rights of the human person, especially the poor
Clearly, religion and politics must
mix in our lives! We face the challenge of embodying consistently
an ethic of life in the candidates we support and in our own direct
involvement in forming public policy (whether that be in the Girl
Scouts, in a parish committee, in a local school board or in the
As we enter a new millennium, world
events and Church teachings direct our attention to life itself
as the very center of our concern. The consistent ethic of life
provides both a solid foundation and a powerful challenge to live
as faithful disciples and involved citizens. It calls into question
all views that contradict the message and meaning of Jesus. It
challenges us to reject the culture of death. It challenges us
to create a culture of life every day, at home, at work and in
How? The way we vote, the jokes we
tell, the language we use, the attitudes we hand on to children,
the causes we support, the business practices we use, the entertainment
we attend, the way we care for the sick and elderly: in all these
ordinary activities we express consistency in respecting life
or we get trapped in contradictions.
If we are consistent, we must speak
and act concerning abortion and euthanasia but also concerning
welfare and immigration, sexism and racism, cloning and health-care
reform, trade agreements and sweatshops, the buying and selling
of women for prostitution, genocide and many other issues. Based
on our ancient Scriptures and attentive to contemporary experiences,
the consistent ethic of life provides an ethical framework for
confronting the moral dilemmas of a new millennium. It helps us
to promote the full flourishing of all life.
A condensed version of
The Gospel of Life, in Catholic Update format, is
available from St. Anthony Messenger Press (C0995). Cardinal
Bernardin's writings can be found in Consistent Ethic of Life
(Sheed and Ward) and A Moral Vision for America (Georgetown