The Consistent Ethic of Life: Myths and Realities

Fr. Frank Pavone
National Director, Priests for Life

Why consistency?

The Catholic Church professes a consistent ethic of life. Pope John Paul writes in The Gospel of Life, "Where life is involved, the service of charity must be profoundly consistent. It cannot tolerate bias and discrimination, for human life is sacred and inviolable at every stage and in every situation; it is an indivisible good. We need then to show care for all life and for the life of everyone" (EV, 87).

Consistency is not hard to understand. It flows from the nature of love itself. If we love God, we love the people He has created and redeemed. Moreover, if we acknowledge that only God has dominion over human life, this obviously includes every human life. To stand with God is to stand with life, and therefore to stand against whatever destroys life. The Church defends the dignity of the human person, no matter what the assault on that dignity may be.

Catholics, and all people by their common humanity, are called to be concerned about abortion and euthanasia, education and health care, capital punishment and crime, war and hunger, and a much lengthier list of issues impacting the dignity of human life. In fact, we are called to see the person before we see the "issue." With this view, we are not so much concerned about "homelessness" as we are about the homeless person; we do not simply look at "capital punishment," but at the person on death row.


As our obligation to be consistent has been expressed by the United States bishops, both individually and as a body, it has been summarized by the phrase "the consistent ethic of life."

One of the key proponents of this teaching was Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. Cardinal Bernardin began his public reflections on this theme in the light of the work he did on the US Bishops' pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace, and in the context of his position as Chairman of the Pro-life Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. He saw a new kind of interconnection between the forces of destruction made possible by modern technologies. In order to effectively articulate the Christian response to a wide range of menacing threats to human life, he realized it was necessary to highlight the interconnection of the many and varied efforts to defend human life. He noted that progress in the defense and protection of life in one arena meant progress for the defense of life in all arenas.

This makes sense from many angles. If, for example, one sees killing as a solution to the problems of society, that view encourages capital punishment as well as abortion. If one holds that a person's value depends on his or her productivity, that can spell trouble for a terminally ill patient as well as for an uneducated immigrant.

If we can create a society that welcomes the poor and opens the door to a good education for them, we reinforce the attitude that enables that same society to welcome the unborn and make room for them as well.


"All issues are equal"

Some interpret "consistency" to mean "of equal importance or urgency." That is a common misunderstanding of the teaching. The heart of the consistent ethic is precisely the linkage of the issues; but they are specifically different issues that are linked.

Cardinal Bernardin spoke to this point when discussing the bishops' statements on political responsibility by saying, "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… [E]ach 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).

Moreover, the Cardinal 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).

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. Today the recognition of human life as a fundamental value is threatened. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of elective abortion. At present in our country this procedure takes the lives of over 4,000 unborn children every day and over 1.5 million each year."

This theme is reiterated by the entire body of bishops in their Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities (2001 Revision, A Campaign in Support of Life), which begins with a section on the consistent ethic. The bishops write, "Among important issues involving the dignity of human life with which the Church is concerned, abortion necessarily plays a central role. Abortion, the direct killing of an innocent human being, is always gravely immoral (The Gospel of Life, no. 57); its victims are the most vulnerable and defenseless members of the human family. It is imperative that those who are called to serve the least among us give urgent attention and priority to this issue of justice.

"This focus and the Church's commitment to a consistent ethic of life complement one another. A consistent ethic of life, which explains the Church's teaching at the level of moral principle—far from diminishing concern for abortion and euthanasia or equating all issues touching on the dignity of human life—recognizes instead the distinctive character of each issue while giving each its proper place within a coherent moral vision."

Some people see life issues as linked arithmetically; they are lined up and counted. Actually, they are lined geometrically. In their 1998 document Living the Gospel of Life, the US bishops use the image of the house to depict the many interrelated rights and issues impacting human dignity. The foundation of the house is the right to life itself.

"Everyone must do everything"

Cardinal Bernardin cleared up another common misapplication of the consistent ethic when he said, "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" (Address at Seattle University, March 2, 1986).

And on another occasion he said, "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" (A Consistent Ethic of Life: Continuing the Dialogue, The William Wade Lecture Series, St. Louis University, March 11, 1984).

Putting it into practice

The consistent ethic cannot just be an idea; it has to manifest itself. For this to happen, activists in any given cause should be gaining accurate information about what activists in other causes are doing. This can be done be reading some of the materials those activists produce, and even more effectively by interacting with them.

Because life issues are necessarily linked, those who specialize in one topic should not fail to at least mention, from time to time, the fact that the other issues are linked. For the speaker on abortion to say that capital punishment fosters a view of life as disposable, and for the speaker on capital punishment to say that abortion does the same can only strengthen the mission of both speakers. In fact, why not have more joint speaking engagements in which prominent spokespersons for various interrelated causes share the same podium?

We can also envision activities that concretely manifest the Church's wide range of concerns. Why not have a prayerful demonstration an abortion clinic conclude with a march to the nearest soup kitchen to feed the hungry?

The voting booth

One of the most difficult areas of application for the consistent ethic is the realm of politics. The first consideration here, of course, is that Christians are not a sect fleeing the world, but rather a community of faith called to renew the earth. In his April, 2003 Encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, John Paul II reminds us, "Certainly the Christian vision leads to the expectation of "new heavens" and "a new earth" (Rev 21:1), but this increases, rather than lessens, our sense of responsibility for the world today. I wish to reaffirm this forcefully at the beginning of the new millennium, so that Christians will feel more obliged than ever not to neglect their duties as citizens in this world. Theirs is the task of contributing with the light of the Gospel to the building of a more human world, a world fully in harmony with God's plan" (n. 20).

This task brings us into the voting booth, and with the responsibility of voting comes the responsibility to know where the candidates, and their respective parties, stand on the issues. Relying on a few news reports here and there is not enough to appreciate where a candidate really stands on issues that matter. A serious effort should be made to gather and analyze pertinent information. Nor does simple loyalty to a party suffice. No party and no candidate perfectly embody the teachings of the Gospel. "[W]e urge our fellow citizens to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically, and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest" (1998, US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, n.34).

The principles outlined above regarding the linkage and hierarchy of issues should shape our evaluation of candidates. Positions on key issues give us a glimpse of the candidate's character and his/her likely response to other similar issues. Pope John Paul II points out in his 1988 apostolic exhortation, The Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World (Christifideles Laici): "The common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights -- for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture -- is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition of all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination" (38). To put it another way, it does not make sense to guarantee someone a share in the good things of life if you cannot guarantee them a share in life itself.

We will hardly find a candidate with whom we agree on everything. The key question, however, is the relative importance of the issues on which we disagree.

Some disagreements pertain to how best to secure a basic right. Hence, candidates will have different approaches as to how to reduce poverty, without disagreeing that the poor have rights. Other disagreements, however, pertain to whether certain groups have rights at all, such as the disagreement as to whether the unborn are persons. This latter type of disagreement is much more decisive. If a candidate supports policies that deprive human beings of fundamental rights, he or she also supports a certain view of government, namely, one which dominates rather than serves the human person. Under such a government, no rights can ultimately be secure.


"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" (Cardinal Bernardin, Address at Seattle University, March 2, 1986).

There is no justification for a gap between "social justice" and "right to life." The heart of justice is the defense of life and of all the rights that flow from it. Consistency is not optional. If our positions flow primarily from political commitments, strange gaps of inconsistency begin to appear. But if our positions flow from our commitment to the Gospel, we will be consistent. And the day of victory for life, justice, and peace will be hastened.

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