Address at Seattle University
Joseph Cardinal Bernardin
March 2, 1986
I wish to express my sincere appreciation to Seattle University,
to its President Fr. William Sullivan, SJ., and to the Board of Trustees for the
honor bestowed on me today. The relationship between centers of scholarship and
learning and the episcopacy is one of the pre-eminent issues in the Church in
the United States today. I accept your honorary degree with the pledge that I
will do all I can to strengthen that relationship—to keep it based on standards
of intellectual honesty, professional respect, and a shared concern for the
welfare of the church and its witness in society.
It is the Church's witness to life that I wish to address this afternoon. It
is now over two years since I first proposed consideration of a "consistent
ethic of life" in the Gannon Lecture at Fordham University. Since that time
there has been a sustained process of reflection and analysis in the Church
about the multiple issues which come under the umbrella of the consistent ethic.
Last November, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted the
consistent ethic theme in its revised Plan for Pro-Life Activities. Obviously, I
find that step particularly significant, for it gives the consistent ethic the
status of policy within the Episcopal Conference. Nevertheless, I believe the
concept and consequences of the consistent ethic must be examined more deeply,
its implications make clearer within the Church and in the wider civil society.
So I am returning to the theme this afternoon at another Catholic university,
seeking to press forward the dialogue of several disciplines in the quest for a
comprehensive and consistent ethic of life.
During the past two years, as I have followed the commentary on the
consistent ethic in journals and the media, and as I have carried on a wide
ranging personal correspondence with many bishops, theologians, philosophers,
and social scientists, three topics emerged about the theme which I wish to
address: its theological foundation, its ethical logic, and its political
I. The Theological Foundation: Systematic Defense of the Person
Some commentators, while very positive about the substance and structure of
the call for a consistent ethic, have urged me to focus on its underlying
theological foundations. I see the need for this and will comment here on two
aspects of its theological substance, leaving for the next section some more
detailed moral commentary.
The consistent ethic grows out of the very character of Catholic moral
thought. By that I do not mean to imply 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 it recognizes 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 distinguishing
characteristics between abortion and war, as well as elements which radically
differentiate war from decisions made about care of a terminally ill patient.
The differences among these cases are universally acknowledged; a consistent
ethic seeks to highlight the fact the 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.
If the theological style of the consistent ethic is captured by the two
words, systematic and analogical, the theological rationale for the ethic is
grounded in the respect we owe the human person. To defend human life is to
protect the human person. The consistent ethic cuts across the diverse fields of
social ethics, medical ethics, and sexual ethics. The unifying theme behind
these three areas of moral analysis is the human person, the core reality in
Catholic moral thought.
It is precisely the abiding conviction of Catholic ethics about the social
nature of the person that ties together the emphasis—in the pastoral letter on
the economy—on society's responsibility for the poor, the insistence of the
bishops that abortion is a public not a purely private moral question, and the
constant refrain of Catholic ethics that sexual issues are social in character.
The theological assertion that the person is the imago dei, 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. It is the specifics of that moral perspective which now
must be examined.
II. The Ethical Argument: The Logic of Linkage
The central assertion of the consistent ethic is that we will enhance our
moral understanding of a number of "life-issues" by carefully linking them in a
framework which allows consideration of each issue on
its own merits, but also highlights the connections among distinct issues. This
is the moral logic of an analogical vision.
In essence the consistent ethic is a moral argument, and, therefore, its
principles and perspective must be constantly measured
and tested. The consistent ethic rejects collapsing all issues into one, and it
rejects isolating our moral vision and insulating our social concern on one
issue. What has been the response to the moral argument of the consistent ethic?
First, it has generated precisely the kind of substantive debate in the
Catholic community and in the wider society which I believe is needed. The
response began immediately after the Gannon Lecture in the press and weekly
journals; it has now moved also to scholarly journals. Second, the range of the
commentary has run from the ethical theory of the consistent ethic, to debate
about its specific conclusions, to assessment of its contribution to the public
witness of the Church in U.S. society.
A particularly extensive analysis of the theme appeared in the "Notes on
Moral Theology" in Theological Studies last March. This annual review
of scholarly writing on moral theology has been highly respected for many years.
Among the many commentaries on the consistent ethic, I cite this one because it
engages bishops and theologians in the kind of disciplined debate which is
needed if our theology is to be authentically Catholic, intellectually
responsive to contemporary moral challenges, and pastorally useful to the
Catholic community and civil society.
In a time when continuing respectful dialogue is urgently needed between
bishops and theologians, I believe the kind of theological interest generated by
the two pastoral letters of the U.S. bishops and the consistent ethic proposal
is a healthy sign. The Theological Studies articles on the consistent
ethic were a wide-ranging survey of several specific questions. On the whole, I
found the commentary quite positive and very helpful. I lift it up for
consideration by others even though I do not agree with every conclusion drawn
One of the areas where I differ is the critique of the moral theory made by
Fr. Richard McCormick, SJ. He supports the perspective of the consistent ethic,
calling it "utterly essential," but he believes that I give the prohibition of
direct killing of the innocent too high a status. Rather than calling it a basic
principle of Catholic morality, Fr. McCormick would designate it a moral rule,
"developed as a result of our wrestling with concrete cases of conflict."
Furthermore, he argues that the rule has been formulated in teleological
fashion, by a balancing of values which yield some exceptions to the presumption
While I do not consider it my role to engage in a full review of the moral
theory of the consistent ethic, I think the reduction of the prohibition against
the intentional killing of the innocent to a status less than an absolute rule
is not correct. As I argued in the Gannon lecture, the justification of the use
of force and the taking of human life is based on a presumption against taking
life which then allows for a series of exceptions where the presumption is
overridden. But within this general structure of reasoning, for example in the
Just War doctrine, the direct killing of the innocent has not been regarded as a
This means, as Fr. John Connery, SJ. and others have observed, that Catholic
teaching has not ruled out the taking of life in all circumstances. There is a
presumption against taking life, not an absolute prohibition. But the cutting
edge of the Just War argument has been its capacity to place a double restraint
on the use of force. One limit is based on the calculation of consequences (the
principle of proportionality) and the other based on an absolute prohibition of
certain actions (the principle of non-combatant immunity).
As I read Fr. McCormick's proposal, both principles would become proportional
judgments. My experience in addressing the nuclear question leads me to conclude
that such an interpretation will weaken the moral strength of the ethic of war.
In assessing the strategy of deterrence, having two distinct criteria of moral
analysis provided the bishops with a perspective on the policy debate which was
different from what a totally proportionalist view would have offered. Because
of my experience with this specific moral dilemma of deterrence and because I
find the prohibition against the intentional killing of the innocent a crucial
element across the spectrum of the consistent ethic, I find myself not persuaded
by Fr. McCormick's recommendation, even though I appreciate the care with which
he reviewed my lectures. I know adherence to the absolute prohibition creates
very complex and difficult choices, not least in deterrence theory, but testing
the absolute prohibition across the spectrum of life leads me to reaffirm it
rather than reduce its status.
A very different objection to the consistent ethic arose—primarily from
persons active in the right-to-life movement—immediately after the Gannon
Lecture. The critique continues to this day. The objection is raised against the
way I called for relating our defense of innocent life to support for social
policies and programs designed to respond to the needs of the poor. The passage
of the Gannon Lecture which attracted the most criticism read this way:
If one contends, as we do, that the right of every fetus to be born
should be protected by civil law and supported by civil consensus, then our
moral, political and economic responsibilities do not stop at the moment of
birth. Those who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be
equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us:
the old and the young, the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented
immigrant and the unemployed worker. Such a quality of life posture
translates into specific political and economic positions on tax policy,
employment generation, welfare policy, nutrition and feeding programs, and
health care. Consistency means we cannot have it both ways: We cannot urge a
compassionate society and vigorous public policy to protect the rights of
the unborn and then argue that compassion and significant public programs on
behalf of the needy undermine the moral fiber of the society or are beyond
the proper scope of governmental responsibility.
Reviewing those words in light of the criticisms of the last two years, I
still find what I said to be morally correct and, if anything, politically more
necessary to say than it was two years ago. In the first half of the 1980s we
have seen many of the programs designed to meet basic needs of poor people
systematically cut. Perhaps the prototypical example is what is happening to
children—precisely those who first evoke our right-to-life defense. In the
second draft of the pastoral letter on the economy the bishops graphically
describe the situation of children in our country:
Today one in every four American children under the age of 6 and one in every
two black children under 6 are poor. The number of children in poverty rose by 4
million over the decade between 1973-1983, with the result that there are now
more poor children in the United States than at any time since 1965.
In a recent book of far-reaching significance, Senator Patrick Moynihan has
made the point that children are the most vulnerable group in our society
In the face of this evidence it is precisely the function of a consistent
ethic to gather a constituency which stands against those social forces
legitimating the taking of life birth, and stands against other social
forces legitimating policies which erode the dignity of life after birth by
leaving children vulnerable to hunger, inadequately housing, and insufficient
The criticism of my Gannon Lecture was twofold: that it
confused two different moral issues and that it expected everyone to do
everything. I have responded to this critique previously, but I wish to expand
upon my response. Surely we can all agree that the taking of human life in
abortion is not the same as failing to protect human dignity against hunger. But
having made that distinction, let us not fail to make the point that both are
moral issues requiring a response of the Catholic community and of our society
as a whole.
The logic of a consistent ethic is to press the moral meaning of both issues.
The consequences of a consistent ethic is to bring under review the position of
every group in the Church which sees the moral meaning in one place but not the
other. The ethic cuts two ways, not one: It
challenges prolife groups, and it challenges justice and peace groups. The
meaning of a consistent ethic is to say in the Catholic community that our moral
tradition calls us beyond the split so evident in the wider society between
moral witness to life before and after birth.
Does this mean that everyone must do everything? No!
There are limits of time energy and competency. There is a shape to every
individual vocation. People must specialize, groups must focus their energies.
The consistent ethic does not deny this.
But it does say something to the Church: It calls us to a wider witness to
life than we sometimes manifest in our separate activities. The consistent ethic
challenges bishops to shape a comprehensive social agenda. It challenges priests
and religious to teach the Catholic tradition with the breadth it deserves. And
it challenges Catholics as citizens to go beyond the divided witness to life
which is too much the pattern of politics and culture in our society. Responding
to this multiple challenge requires consideration of the public consequences of
the consistent ethic.
III. The Political Consequences: Shaping Public 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.
The first consequence is simply to highlight the unique place which Catholic
teaching on a range of issues has given the Church in the public arena As I have
said before, no other major institution in the country brings together the
positions the Catholic bishops presently hold on abortion, nuclear policy, and
economic policy. Our positions cut across party lines, and they contradict
conventional notions of liberal and conservative. I find that a healthy
contribution to the public debate, and I believe we ought to stress the point.
The second public consequence of a consistent ethic is to establish a
framework where we can test the moral vision of each part of the Church in a
disciplined, systematic fashion. We will not shape an ecclesial consensus about
the consistent ethic without the kind of vigorous public debate which has gone
on in the Church in the last two years. But our debate will sharpen our
ecclesial moral sense, and it can also be a public lesson to the wider society
if it is marked by coherence, civility, and charity.
The third public consequence of a consistent ethic is that it provides a
standard to test public policy, party platforms, and the posture of candidates
for office Here is where the challenge to moral reasoning, pastoral leadership,
and political sensitivity reaches its most delicate level. But we should not
shrink from the need to make specific the logic of the consistent ethic.
We are a multi-issue Church precisely because of the scope and structure of
our moral teaching. But it is not enough to be interested in several issues. We
need to point the way toward a public vision where issues can be understood as
morally and politically interdependent. I propose the consistent ethic not as a
finished product but a framework in need of development. I invite more debate
about it, precisely at this concrete level where specific choices on issues are
made, where candidates take positions, and where citizens must evaluate them.
I believe our moral vision is broader and richer than we have made it appear
at this concrete, practical level of politics. Precisely because we are not yet
in a national election year, we need to think about how a consistent ethic can
be set forth in a convincing way. It will cut across conventional party lines,
and it will not lead to crystal clear judgments on candidates, but it may give
the Church, as an institution and a community, a better way to engage the
attention of the nation regarding the intersection of moral vision, public
policy, and political choices.
To think through the meaning of such a position, we need bishops who foster
the debate, political leaders who enter the discussion, professors and policy
analysts who can clarify categories, and members of the Church who exercise the
supremely important role of citizens. It is my hope that we can have this kind
of ecclesial and public debate in the months ahead.
Teachings of the
Magisterium on Abortion