A Consistent Ethic of Life: Continuing the Dialogue
The William Wade Lecture Series
St. Louis University
Joseph Cardinal Bernardin
March 11, 1984
I first wish to express my appreciation to St. Louis University
for the invitation to deliver the 1984 Wade Lecture. "The William Wade Lecture
Series" is a fitting way to celebrate Father Wade's life as a priest, a
philosopher, and a teacher. His interest in the moral issues confronting today's
Church and society was an inspiration to all who knew him. I hope that my
participation in this series will help to keep alive his memory and his ideals.
Three months ago I gave a lecture at Fordham University honoring another
Jesuit educator, Father John Gannon, and I addressed the topic of a consistent
ethic of life. That lecture has generated a substantial discussion both inside
and outside the Church on the linkage of life issues, issues which, I am
convinced, constitute a "seamless garment." This afternoon I would like to
extend the discussion by expanding upon the idea of a consistent ethic of life.
The setting of a Catholic university is one deliberately chosen for these
lectures. My purpose is to foster the kind of sustained intellectual analysis
and debate which the Jesuit tradition has cultivated throughout its history. The
discussion must go beyond the university but it will not occur without the
involvement of Catholic universities. I seek to call attention to the resources
in the Catholic tradition for shaping a viable public ethic. I hope to engage
others in the Church and in the wider civil society in an examination of the
challenges to human life which surround us today, and the potential of a
consistent ethic of life. The Fordham lecture has catalyzed a vigorous debate; I
seek to enlarge it, not to end it.
I will address three topics today: (1) the case for a consistent ethic of
life; (2) the distinct levels of the problem; and (3) the contribution of a
consistent ethic to the Church and society generally.
I. The Seamless Garment: The Logic of the Case
The invitation extended to me for both the Gannon Lecture at Fordham and the
Wade Lecture today asked that I address some aspect of the bishops' pastoral,
"The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response." While I would
gladly have spent each lecture on the question of war and peace, I decided that
it was equally necessary to show how the pastoral is rooted in a wider moral
vision. Understanding that vision can enhance the way we address specific
questions like the arms race. When I set forth the argument about this wider
moral vision—a consistent ethic of life—it evoked favorable comments, often from
individuals and groups who had supported the peace pastoral but found themselves
at odds with other positions the Catholic Church has taken on issues touching
human life. At the same time, the Fordham address also generated letters from
people who fear that the case for a consistent ethic will smother the Catholic
opposition to abortion or will weaken our stance against the arms race.
Precisely in response to these concerns, I wish to state the
essence of the case for a consistent ethic of life, specifying why it is
needed and what is
actually being advocated in a call for such an ethic. There are, in my view,
two reasons why we need to
espouse a consistent ethic of life: (1) the dimensions of the threats to life
today; and (2) the value of our moral vision.
The threat to human life posed by nuclear war is so tangible that it has
captured the attention of the nation. Public opinion polls rank it as one of the
leading issues in the 1984 election campaign; popular movements like the
"nuclear Freeze" and professional organizations of physicians and scientists
have shaped the nuclear question in terms which engage citizens and experts
The Church is part of the process which has raised the nuclear issue to a new
standing in our public life. I submit that the Church should be a leader in the
dialogue which shows that the nuclear question itself is part of the larger
cultural--political--moral drama. Pope John Paul II regularly situates his
examination of the nuclear issue in the framework of the broader problem of
technology, politics, and ethics.
When this broader canvas is analyzed, the concern for a
specific issue does not recede, but the meaning of multiple threats to life
today—the full dimension of the problems of politics and technology—becomes
vividly clear. The case being made here is not a condemnation of either politics
or technology, but a recognition with the Pope that, on a range of key issues,
"it is only through a conscious choice and through a deliberate policy that
humanity can be saved." That quote from the Holy Father has unique relevance to
nuclear war, but it can be used creatively to address other threats to life.
The range of application is all too evident: nuclear war threatens
life on a previously unimaginable scale; abortion takes life daily on a
horrendous scale; public executions are fast becoming weekly events in the most
advanced technological society in history; and euthanasia is now openly
discussed and even advocated. Each of these assaults on life has its own meaning and
morality; they cannot be collapsed into one problem, but they must be confronted
as pieces of a larger pattern.
The reason I have placed such stress on the idea of a consistent ethic of
life from the beginning of my term as chairman of the Pro-Life Committee of the
National Conference of Catholic Bishops is twofold: I am persuaded by the
interrelatedness of these diverse problems, and I am convinced that the Catholic
moral vision has the scope, the strength and the subtlety to address this wide
range of issues in an effective fashion. It is precisely the potential of our
moral vision that is often not recognized even within the community of the
Church. The case for a consistent ethic of life—one which stands for the
protection of the right to life and the promotion of the rights which enhance
life from womb to tomb—manifests the positive potential of the Catholic moral
and social tradition.
It is both a complex and a demanding tradition; it joins the humanity of the
unborn infant and the humanity of the hungry; it calls for positive legal
action to prevent the killing of the unborn or the aged and positive societal
action to provide shelter for the homeless and education for the illiterate. The
potential of the moral and social vision is appreciated in a new way when the
systemic vision of Catholic ethics is seen as the background for the
specific positions we take on a range of issues.
In response to those who fear otherwise, I contend that the systemic
vision of a consistent ethic of life will not erode our crucial public
opposition to the direction of the arms race; neither will
it smother our persistent and necessary public opposition to abortion.
The systemic vision is rooted in the conviction that our opposition to these
distinct problems has a common foundation and that both Church and society are
served by making it evident.
A consistent ethic of life does not equate the problem
of taking life (e.g., through abortion and in war) with the problem of promoting
human dignity (through humane programs of nutrition, health care, and
housing). But a consistent ethic identifies both the protection of life and its
promotion as moral questions. It argues for a continuum of life which must be
sustained in the face of diverse and distinct threats.
A consistent ethic does not say
everyone in the Church must do all things, but it does say that as individuals
and groups pursue one issue, whether it is opposing abortion or capital
punishment, the way we oppose one threat should be related to support for
a systemic vision of life. It is not necessary or
possible for every person to engage in each issue, but it is both possible and
necessary for the Church as a whole to cultivate a conscious explicit connection
among the several issues. And it is very necessary for preserving a systemic
vision that individuals and groups who seek to witness to life at one point of
the spectrum of life not be seen as insensitive to or even opposed to other
moral claims on the overall spectrum of life. Consistency does rule out
contradictory moral positions about the unique value of human life. No one is
called to do everything, but each of us can do something. And we can strive not
to stand against each other when the protection and the promotion of life are at
II. The Seamless Garment: The Levels of the
A consistent ethic of life should honor the complexity of the multiple issues
it must address. It is necessary to distinguish several levels of the question.
Without attempting to be comprehensive, allow me to explore four distinct
dimensions of a consistent ethic.
First, at the level of general moral principles, it is possible to identify a
single principle with diverse applications. In the Fordham address I used the
prohibition against direct attacks on innocent life. This principle is both
central to the Catholic moral vision and systematically related to a range of
specific moral issues. It prohibits direct attacks on unborn life in the womb,
direct attacks on civilians in warfare, and the direct killing of patients in
Each of these topics has a constituency in society concerned with the
morality of abortion, war, and care of the aged and dying. A consistent ethic of
life encourages the specific concerns of each constituency, but also calls them
to see the interrelatedness of their efforts. The need to defend the integrity
of the moral principle in the full range of its application is a responsibility
of each distinct constituency. If the principle is eroded in the public mind,
A second level of a consistent ethic stresses the distinction among cases
rather than their similarities. We need different moral principles to apply to
diverse cases. The classical distinction between ordinary and extraordinary
means has applicability in the care of the dying but no relevance in the case of
warfare. Not all moral principles have relevance across the whole range of life
issues. Moreover, sometimes a systemic vision of the life issues requires a
combination of moral insights to provide direction on one issue. At Fordham, I
cited the classical teaching on capital punishment which gives the State the
right to take life in defense of key social values. But I also pointed out
how a concern for promoting a public attitude of respect for life has led
the bishops of the United States to oppose the exercise of that right.
Some of the responses I have received on the Fordham
address correctly say that abortion and capital punishment are not identical
issues. The principle which protects innocent life distinguishes the
unborn child from the convicted murderer.
Other letters stress that while nuclear war is a threat to life,
abortion involves the actual taking of life, here and now.
I accept both of these distinctions, of course, but I also find compelling the
need to relate the cases while keeping them in distinct categories.
Abortion is taking of life in ever growing numbers in our society. Those
concerned about it, I believe, will find their case enhanced by taking note of
the rapidly expanding use of public execution. In a
similar way, those who are particularly concerned about these executions, even
if the accused has taken another life, should recognize the elementary truth
that a society which can be indifferent to the innocent life of an unborn child
will not be easily stirred to concern for a convicted criminal. There is, I
maintain, a political and psychological linkage among the life issues—from war
to welfare concerns—which we ignore at our own peril: a systemic vision of life
seeks to expand the moral imagination of a society, not partition it into
A third level of the question before us involves how we relate a commitment
to principles to our public witness of life. As I have
said, no one can do everything. There are limits to both competency and energy;
both point to the wisdom of setting priorities and defining distinct functions.
The Church, however, must be credible across a wide range of issues; the very
scope of our moral vision requires a commitment to a multiplicity of questions.
In this way the teaching of the Church will sustain a variety of individual
Neither the Fordham address nor this one is intended to constrain wise and
vigorous efforts to protect and promote life through specific, precise forms of
action. Both addresses do seek to cultivate a dialogue within the Church and in
the wider society among individuals and groups which draw on common principles
(e.g., the prohibition against killing the innocent) but seem convinced that
they do not share common ground. The appeal here is not for anyone to do everything, but to
recognize points of interdependence which should be stressed, not denied.
A fourth level, one where dialogue is sorely needed, is the relationship
between moral principles and concrete political choices. The moral questions of
abortion, the arms race, the fate of social programs for the poor, and the role
of human rights in foreign policy are public moral issues. The arena in which
they are ultimately decided is not the academy or the Church but the political
process. A consistent ethic of life seeks to present a coherent linkage among a
diverse set of issues. It can and should be used to test party platforms, public
policies, and political candidates. The Church legitimately fulfills a public
role by articulating a framework for political choices by relating that
framework to specific issues and by calling for systematic moral analysis of all
areas of public policy.
This is the role our Bishops' Conference has sought to fulfill by publishing
a "Statement on Political Responsibility" during each of the presidential
and congressional election years in the past decade. 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. Both the
Statement and the Respect Life program have direct relevance to the political
order, but they are applied concretely by the choice of citizens. This is as it
should be. In the political order the Church is primarily a teacher; it
possesses a carefully cultivated tradition of moral analysis of personal and
public issues. It makes that tradition available in a special manner for the
community of the Church, but it offers it also to all who find meaning and
guidance in its moral teaching.
III. The Seamless Garment: A Pastoral and
The moral teaching of the Church has both pastoral and public significance.
Pastorally, a consistent ethic of life is a contribution to the witness of the
Church's defense of the human person. Publicly, a consistent ethic fills a void
in our public policy debate today.
Pastorally, I submit that a Church standing forth on the entire range of
issues which the logic of our moral vision bids us to confront will be a Church
in the style of both Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes and in the style of
Pope John Paul II's consistent witness to life. The pastoral life of the Church
should not be guided by a simplistic criterion of relevance. But the capacity of
faith to shed light on the concrete questions of personal and public life today
is one way in which the value of the Gospel is assessed.
Certainly the serious, sustained interest manifested throughout American
society in the bishops' letter on war and peace provides a unique pastoral
opportunity for the Church. Demonstrating how the teaching on war and peace is
supported by a wider concern for all of life may bring others to see for the
first time what our tradition has affirmed for a very long time: the linkage
among the life issues.
The public value of a consistent ethic of life is connected directly to its
pastoral role. In the public arena we should always speak and act like a Church.
But the unique public possibility for a consistent ethic is provided precisely
by the unstructured character of the public debate on the life questions.
Each of the issues I have identified today—abortion, war, hunger and human
rights, euthanasia and capital punishment—is treated as a separate,
self-contained topic in our public life. Each is distinct, but an ad hoc
approach to each one fails to illustrate how our choices in one area can affect
our decisions in other areas. There must be a public attitude of respect for all
of life if public actions are to respect it in concrete cases.
The pastoral on war and peace speaks of a "new moment" in the nuclear age.
The pastoral has been widely studied and applauded because it caught the spirit
of the "new moment" and spoke with moral substance to the issues of the "new
moment." I am convinced there is an "open moment" before us on the agenda of
life issues. It is a significant opportunity for the Church to demonstrate the
strength of a sustained moral vision. I submit that a clear witness to a
consistent ethic of life will allow us to grasp the opportunity of this "open
moment" and serve both the sacredness of every human life and the God of Life
who is the origin and support of our common humanity.
Teachings of the
Magisterium on Abortion