Do I Believe in the Consistent Ethic of Life?

Fr. Frank Pavone
National Director of Priests for Life
June 09, 1997

I am sometimes asked if I "believe in" the consistent ethic of life.

Consistency is not something one simply "believes in"; it is something one is obliged to! In regard to the sanctity of life, consistency demands that we recognize and defend the dignity of the human person, whoever that person may be, wherever that person may be, and whatever threat to human dignity that person may face. Consistency in this regard is another way of saying that love is indivisible. To love "our neighbor" does not admit of exceptions. We are not free to exclude anyone from our love.

There seem to be two extremes in the way people respond to the consistent ethic of life.

One of those extremes sees the consistent ethic as a totally invalid and dangerous idea, which ruins the pro-life movement and is in fact a mark of those who are opposed to that movement.

Yet to take this position is itself dangerous, because the pro-life effort is not based on a principle of the sanctity of some human life, but on the sanctity of all human life, precisely because it is human!

The other extreme holds that all issues regarding human dignity are to be equated. As a result, those who talk about abortion are expected to talk about capital punishment, drug abuse, teen suicide, poverty, and, well, everything.

But that doesn't make too much sense either. To criticize someone for having a practical focus on abortion is comparable to criticizing Alcoholics Anonymous for having a practical focus on alcoholics!

In other words, everyone in the Church must adhere to a consistent ethic. But to translate that ethic into concrete action that responds to every issue involving human dignity is a task of the Church as a whole. The Church is one Body with many members, not all of which have the same function. To demand that every group in the Church address every issue also fails to take heed of something we all experience: the limitations of our time, resources, and energy!

In this context, the US bishops have spoken clearly: "Because victims of abortion are the most vulnerable and defenseless members of the human family, it is imperative that we, as Christians called to serve the least among us, give urgent attention and priority to this issue of justice…This focus and the Church's firm commitment to a consistent ethic of life complement each other. A consistent ethic, far from diminishing concern for abortion or equating all issues touching on the dignity of human life, recognizes the distinctive character of each issue while giving each its proper role within a coherent moral vision"(Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, A Reaffirmation, 1985, p.3-4).

Criticism of groups that focus only on abortion is not a corollary of the consistent ethic. The sooner we get away from this misapplication of a very valid truth, the sooner we will enable the entire Church to see that the consistent ethic should indeed be embraced by all.

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