Address: Consistent Ethic of Life Conference
Joseph Cardinal Bernardin
October 4, 1986
I am deeply grateful for the invitation to address you on a topic
to which I have devoted much time and energy during the past three years: the
"consistent ethic of life."
This morning I will (1) give an overview of the concept, (2) explore the
movement from moral analysis to public policy choices, and (3) identify issues
needing further development: the implications of the consistent ethic for
citizens, office seekers, and office holders.
I. The Consistent Ethic of Life: An Overview
The idea of the consistent ethic is both old and new. It is "old" in the
sense that its substance has been the basis of many programs for years. For
example, when the U.S. bishops inaugurated their Respect Life Program in 1972,
they invited the Catholic community to focus on the "sanctity of human life and
the many threats to human life in the modern world, including war, violence,
hunger, and poverty."
Fourteen years later, the focus remains the same. As the 1986 Respect Life
brochure states, "The Pastoral Plan is set in the context of a consistent ethic
that links concern for the unborn with concern for all human life. The
inviolability of innocent human life is a fundamental norm."
Moreover, the bishops' pastoral letter, "The Challenge of Peace: God's
Promise and Our Response," emphasized the sacredness of human life and the
responsibility we have, personally and as a society, to protect and preserve its
sanctity. In paragraph 285, it specifically linked the nuclear question with
abortion and other life issues:
When we accept violence in any form as commonplace, our sensitivities
become dulled. When we accept violence, war itself can be taken for granted.
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. 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
non-combatants in war?
However, the pastoral letter—while giving us a starting point for developing
a consistent ethic of life—does not provide a fully articulated framework.
It was precisely to provide a more comprehensive theological and ethical
basis for the Respect Life Program and for the linkage of war and abortion, as
noted by the pastoral letter, that I developed the theme of the consistent
ethic. Another important circumstance which prompted me to move in this
direction was that I had just been asked to serve as Chairman of the Bishops'
Pro-Life Committee. It was October of 1983, and I knew that both abortion and
defense-related issues would undoubtedly play an important role in the upcoming
It was urgent, I felt, that a well-developed theological and ethical
framework be provided which would link the various life issues
while, at the same time, pointing out that the issues are not all the same. It
was my fear that, without such a framework or vision, the U.S. bishops would be
severely pressured by those who wanted to push a particular issue with little or
no concern for the rest. With such a theological basis, we would be able to
argue convincingly on behalf of all the issues on which we had taken a position
in recent years.
I first presented the theme in a talk at Fordham University in December,
1983. At that time, I called for a public discussion of the concept, both in
Catholic circles and the broader community. In all candor I must admit that the
public response greatly exceeded my hopes and expectations.
Since that time there has been a lively exchange by both those who agree and
disagree with the theme and its implications. By far, the majority of the
reactions have been supportive. Nonetheless, it has been
used and misused by those who have tried to push their own, narrower agendas. I
myself have made further contributions to the discussion through subsequent
talks and articles.
The concept itself is a challenging one. It requires us to broaden,
substantively and creatively, our ways of thinking, our attitudes, our pastoral
response. Many are not accustomed to thinking about all the life-threatening and
life-diminishing issues with such consistency. The result is that they remain
somewhat selective in their response. Although some of those who oppose the
concept seem not to have understood it, I sometimes suspect that many who oppose
it recognize its challenge. Quite frankly, I sometimes
wonder whether those who embrace it quickly and whole-heartedly truly understand
its implicit challenge.
Last November, when the U.S. bishops updated and reaffirmed the Pastoral Plan
for Pro-Life Activities, they explicitly adopted the "consistent ethic" for the
first time as the theological context for the Plan.
In sum, to the delight of those who agree with its theological reasoning and
to the dismay of the small minority who do not, the "consistent ethic" has
entered into our theological vocabulary.
Let me now explain in greater depth the theological basis and strategic value
of the "consistent ethic." Catholic teaching is based on two truths about the
human person: human life is both sacred and social. Because we esteem human life
as sacred, we have a duty to protect and foster it at all stages of development,
from conception to natural death, and in all circumstances. Because we
acknowledge that human life is also social, society must protect and foster it.
Precisely because life is sacred, the taking of even one life is a momentous
event. Traditional Catholic teaching has allowed the taking of human life in
particular situations by way of exception—for example, in self-defense and
capital punishment. In recent decades, however, the presumptions against taking
human life have been strengthened and the exceptions made ever more restrictive.
Fundamental to these shifts in emphasis is a more acute perception of the
many ways in which life is threatened today. Obviously, such questions as war,
aggression, and capital punishment are not new; they have been with us for
centuries. Life has always been threatened, but today there is a new context
that shapes the content of our ethic of life.
The principal factor responsible for this new context is modern technology
which induces a sharper awareness of the fragility of human life. War, for
example, has always been a threat to life, but today the threat is qualitatively
different because of nuclear and other sophisticated kinds of weapons. The
weapons produced by modern technology now threaten life on a scale previously
unimaginable. Living, as we do, therefore, in an age of extraordinary
technological development means we face a qualitatively new range of moral
problems. The essential questions we face are these: In an age when we can do
almost anything, how do we decide what we should do? In a time when we can do
anything technologically, how do we decide morally what we should not do?
We face new technological challenges along the whole spectrum of life from
conception to natural death. This creates the need for a consistent ethic, for
the spectrum cuts across such issues as genetics, abortion, capital punishment,
modern warfare, and the care of the terminally ill.
Admittedly, these are all distinct problems, enormously complex, and deserve
individual treatment. Each requires its own moral analysis. No single answer or
solution applies to all. But they are linked!
Given this broad range of challenging issues, we desperately need a societal
attitude or climate that will sustain a consistent defense and promotion of
life. When human life is considered "cheap" or easily expendable in one area,
eventually nothing is held as sacred and all lives are in jeopardy. Ultimately,
it is society's attitude about life—whether of respect or non-respect—that
determines its policies and practices.
The theological foundation of the consistent ethic, then, is defense of the
person. The ethic grows out of the very character of Catholic moral thought. I
do not mean to imply, of course, that one has to be a Catholic to affirm the
moral content of the consistent ethic. But I do think that this theme highlights
both the systematic and analogical character of Catholic moral theology.
The systematic nature of Catholic theology means it is grounded in a set of
basic principles and then articulated in a fashion which draws out the meaning
of each principle and the relationships among them. Precisely because of its
systematic quality, Catholic theology refuses to treat moral issues in an ad
hoc fashion. There is a continual process of testing the use of a principle
in one case by its use in very different circumstances. The consistent ethic
seeks only to illustrate how this testing goes on when dealing with issues
involving the taking of life or the enhancement of life through social policy.
The analogical character of Catholic thought offers the
potential to address a spectrum of issues which are not identical but have some
common characteristics. Analogical reasoning identifies the unifying elements
which link two or more issues, while at the same time recognizing why similar
issues cannot be reduced to a single problem.
The taking of life presents itself as a moral problem all along the spectrum
of life, but there are differences between abortion and war, just as there are
elements that radically differentiate war from decisions made about the care of
a terminally ill patient. The differences among these cases are universally
acknowledged. A consistent ethic seeks to highlight the fact that differences do
not destroy the elements of a common moral challenge.
A Catholic ethic which is both systematic in its argument and analogical in
its perspective stands behind the proposal that, in the face of the multiple
threats to life in our time, spanning every phase of existence, it is necessary
to develop a moral vision which can address these several challenges in a
coherent and comprehensive fashion.
The theological assertion that the human person is made in the image and
likeness of God, the philosophical affirmation of the dignity of the person, and
the political principle that society and state exist to serve the person—all
these themes stand behind the consistent ethic. They also sustain the positions
that the U.S. Catholic bishops have taken on issues as diverse as nuclear
policy, social policy, and abortion. These themes provide the basis for the
moral perspective of the consistent ethic.
II. From Moral Analysis to Public Policy Choices
Some commentators on the consistent ethic saw it primarily as a political
policy. They missed its primary meaning: It is a moral vision and an ethical
argument sustaining the vision. But the moral vision does have political
consequences. The consistent ethic is meant to shape the public witness of the
Catholic Church in our society.
Before exploring some of the political consequences, I would like to comment
briefly on some related issues which provide a broader context for such a
discussion. The movement from moral analysis to public policy choices is a
complex process in a pluralistic society like ours.
First, civil discourse in the United States is influenced, widely shaped, by
religious pluralism. The condition of pluralism, wrote John Courtney Murray, is
the coexistence in one society of groups holding divergent and incompatible
views with regard to religious questions. The genius of American pluralism, in
his view, was that it provided for the religious freedom of each citizen and
every faith. However, it did not purchase tolerance at the price of expelling
religious and moral values from the public life of the nation. The goal of the
American system is to provide space for a religious substance in society but not
a religious State.
Second, there is a legitimate secularity of the political process, just as
there is a legitimate role for religious and moral discourse in our nation's
life. The dialogue which keeps both alive must be a careful exchange which seeks
neither to transform secularity into secularism nor to change the religious role
into religiously dominated public discourse.
John Courtney Murray spent a substantial amount of time and effort defending
the Church's right to speak in the public arena. But he also stressed the limits
of the religious role in that arena. Today religious institutions, I believe,
must reaffirm their rights and recognize their limits. My intent is not, of
course, to produce a passive Church or a purely private vision of faith. The
limits relate not to whether we enter the public debate but how we advocate a
public case. This implies, for example, that religiously rooted positions
somehow must be translated into language, arguments, and categories which a
religiously pluralistic society can agree on as the moral foundation of key
Third, all participants in the public discourse must face the test of
complexity. From issues of defense policy through questions of medical ethics to
issues of social policy, the moral dimensions of our public life are interwoven
with empirical judgments where honest disagreement exists. I do not believe,
however, that empirical complexity should silence or paralyze religious or moral
analysis and advocacy of issues. But we owe the public a careful accounting of
how we have come to our moral conclusions.
Fourth, we must keep in mind the relationship between civil law and morality.
Although the premises of civil law are rooted in moral principles, the scope of
law is more limited and its purpose is not the moralization of society. Moral
principles govern personal and social human conduct and cover as well interior
acts and motivation. Civil statutes govern public order; they address primarily
external acts and values that are formally social.
Hence it is not the function of civil law to enjoin or prohibit everything
that moral principles enjoin or prohibit. History has shown over and over again
that people cherish freedom; they can be coerced only minimally. When we pursue
a course of legal action, therefore, we must ask whether the requirements of
public order are serious enough to take precedence over the claims of freedom.
Fifth, in the objective order of law and public policy, how do we determine
which issues are public moral questions and which are best defined as private
For Murray, an issue was one of public morality if it affected the public
order of society. Public order, in turn, encompassed three goods: public peace,
essential protection of human rights, and commonly accepted standards of moral
behavior in a community. Whether a given question should be interpreted as one
of public morality is not always self-evident. A rationally
persuasive case has to be made that an action violates the rights of another
or that the consequences of actions on a given issue are so important to society
that the authority of the State and the civil law ought to be invoked to govern
personal and group behavior.
Obviously, in a religiously pluralistic society, achieving consensus on what
constitutes a public moral question is never easy. But we have been able to do
it—by a process of debate, decision-making, then review of our decisions.
Two cases exemplify how we struggled with public morality in the past.
First, Prohibition was an attempt to legislate behavior in an area ultimately
decided to be beyond the reach of civil law because it was not sufficiently
public in nature to affect the public order. Second, civil rights, particularly
in areas of housing, education, employment, voting, and access to public
facilities, were determined—after momentous struggles of war, politics, and
law—to be so central to public order that the State could not be neutral on the
Today, we have a public consensus in law and policy which clearly defines
civil rights as issues of public morality, and the decision to drink alcoholic
beverages as clearly one of private morality. But neither decision was reached
without struggle. The consensus was not automatic on either question.
Philosophers, activists, politicians, preachers, judges, and ordinary citizens
had to state a case, shape a consensus, and then find a way to give the
consensus public standing in the life of the nation.
The fact that a spontaneous public consensus is lacking at a given moment
does not prohibit its being created. When he was told that the law could not
legislate morality, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., used to say that the law could
not make people love their neighbors but it could stop their lynching them. Law
and public policy can also be instruments of shaping a public consensus; they
are not simply the product of consensus.
In sum, in charting the movement from moral analysis to public policy
choices, we must take into account the facts that (1) civil discourse in this
nation is influenced and shaped by religious pluralism; (2) there is a
legitimate secularity of the political process; (3) all participants in it must
face the test of complexity; (4) there is a distinction between civil law and
morality; and (5) some issues are questions of public morality, others of
This brings us to the third part of my address.
III. Implications of the Consistent Ethic for Citizens, Office Seekers and
In light of the nearly three-year debate about the consistent ethic,
questions have surfaced at the level of theological principle and ethical
argument. As noted earlier, I have addressed these as they have arisen. The area
that now needs attention is precisely how the framework of the consistent ethic
takes shape (a) in the determination of public policy positions taken by the
Church and (b)in the decisions that legislators and citizens take in light of
the Church's positions.
Let me hasten to acknowledge that I do not have all the answers to the next
set of questions. At this point in the dialogue I have chosen simply to identify
questions which need further reflection and discussion. I also acknowledge that
others have raised some of the questions; they are not all mine. Although I am
not prepared to give answers to these questions, I do intend to address them at
a later date.
What role does consensus play in the development of public policy and civil
law? Earlier I suggested that its role is essential in the long run. But what
about the short term? Moreover, what are the appropriate roles of civic and
religious leaders in providing moral leadership in the public policy debate
within a pluralistic community? What is the difference between a bishop's role
and a politician's in the public debate about moral issues which the consistent
ethic embraces? Should a politician wait until a consensus is developed before
taking a stand or initiating legislation?
Must a Catholic office seeker or office holder work for all clearly
identified Catholic concerns simultaneously and with the same vigor? Is that
possible? If such a person need not work for all these concerns aggressively and
at the same time, on what basis does one decide what to concentrate on and what
not? Does theology provide the answer or politics or both? What guidelines does
one use to determine which issues are so central to Catholic belief that they
must be pursued legislatively regardless of the practical possibilities of
passage? What are the consequences if a Catholic office seeker or office holder
does not follow the Church's teaching in the campaign for or exercise of public
What is a Catholic office holder's responsibility in light of the Second
Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Liberty to protect the
religious beliefs of non-Catholics? What is his or her responsibility under the
Constitution? How are these responsibilities related?
How is the distinction between accepting a moral principle and asking
prudential judgments about applying it in particular circumstances—for example,
in regard to specific legislation—worked out in the political order? What is the
responsibility of a Catholic office holder or office seeker when the bishops
have made a prudential judgment regarding specific legislation? How are Catholic
voters to evaluate a Catholic office holder or office seeker who accepts a moral
principle and not only disagrees with the bishops regarding specific legislation
but supports its defeat?
Until questions like these are explored and ultimately answered, using the
consistent ethic of life to test public policy, party platforms, and the posture
of candidates for office will remain problematic and controversial. I firmly
believe, however, that the consistent ethic, when pursued correctly and in
depth, can make a genuine contribution. Solid, credible answers to the questions
raised above will require an honest exchange of the best there is to offer in
theological, political and social thought.
I assure you that the Catholic bishops will remain in the public debate, and
we need help. Public officials will remain in the line of fire, and they need
help. Citizens will ultimately make the difference, and they, too, need help if
the dialogue about how we are to respond to the broad range of contemporary
issues is to proceed in a constructive fashion.
As the debate proceeds, we have a wonderful opportunity to bring together the
best of our religious, political and social traditions in the service of each
other and the wider society to which we are bound in hope and love.
Teachings of the
Magisterium on Abortion