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Living the Gospel of Life -- Study Guide

Paragraph Twenty-three


This is an especially important paragraph of the document, because it clarifies the concept of the "consistent ethic of life," sometimes known as the "seamless garment" philosophy. Clearly, there are many issues that impact human life and dignity, and the bishops call both public officials and citizens to be actively concerned about them all. Yet in this section, the bishops not only assert that these many issues are linked, but explain how they are linked. They improve upon the "seamless garment" image and use the image of a house, pointing out that the right to life is the foundation.

Every four years since the mid-1970's, the Administrative Committee of the bishops' conference issues a document to help citizens prepare for our national elections and to reflect on "faithful citizenship." This document always points out a multitude of issues, which is fine. But many are confused by this, thinking that the bishops are giving equal weight to all the issues. Living the Gospel of Life, along with many other statements, indicates clearly that they do not give all the issues equal weight. Even the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the most well-known spokesperson regarding the consistent ethic of life, had this to say in 1984 about the role of such statements: "The purpose is surely not to tell citizens how to vote, but to help shape the public debate and form personal conscience so that every citizen will vote thoughtfully and responsibly. Our "Statement on Political Responsibility" has always been, like our "Respect Life Program," a multi-issue approach to public morality. The fact that this Statement sets forth a spectrum of issues of current concern to the Church and society should not be understood as implying that all issues are qualitatively equal from a moral perspective…As I indicated earlier, each of the life issues—while related to all the others—is distinct and calls for its own specific moral analysis. (A Consistent Ethic of Life: Continuing the Dialogue, The William Wade Lecture Series, St. Louis University, March 11, 1984).

Notice that the Cardinal stated that not all issues are qualitatively equal from a moral perspective. A consistent ethic recognizes that there is justification for placing priority emphasis on certain issues at certain times. Cardinal Bernardin pointed out that there is a hierarchy among the issues. "The fundamental human right is to life—from the moment of conception until death. It is the source of all other rights, including the right to health care" (The Consistent Ethic of Life and Health Care Systems, Foster McGaw Triennial Conference, Loyola University of Chicago, May 8, 1985).

To ignore the priority attention that the problems of abortion and euthanasia demand is to misunderstand both the consistent ethic and the nature of the threats that these evils pose. On Respect Life Sunday, 1 October 1989, Cardinal Bernardin issued a statement entitled "Deciding for Life," in which he said, "Not all values, however, are of equal weight. Some are more fundamental than others. On this Respect Life Sunday, I wish to emphasize that no earthly value is more fundamental than human life itself. Human life is the condition for enjoying freedom and all other values. Consequently, if one must choose between protecting or serving lesser human values that depend upon life for their existence and life itself, human life must take precedence."

Yes, all life issues are linked. Some people see life issues as linked arithmetically; they are lined up and counted. This was done in 2004 when some Catholic senators issued a "Catholic Scorecard" to rate how well they were doing in their voting patterns. But they gave each issue an equal value, so that the issue of limiting the use of mercury fever thermometers was on an equal par with partial-birth abortion. Such an approach sees the issues as simply linked arithmetically. Actually, they are linked geometrically. People sometimes say to me, "Abortion is only one among many issues." I respond by saying, "Yes, and the foundation of the house is only one of many parts of the house. Take it away, and see how well you can build the rest."

The primacy we give to the right to life is not because we are unaware or unconcerned about the other issues, but precisely because we are.

Discussion Questions

How are the many different "life issues" related to one another? Are some more important than others?

In what sense is it proper to be a single-issue voter?

Describe the difference between seeing abortion as "the only issue" and seeing it as "the fundamental issue."

What does the Church mean by "the consistent ethic of life?" How has the phrase been misinterpreted in the past, and how do the bishops attempt to correct that misinterpretation in this document?

Further Reading

For an extensive study of the Consistent Ethic of Life and its articulation by Cardinal Bernardin, see

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