A Consistent Ethic of Life: An American-Catholic- Dialogue
Gannon Lecture, Fordham University
Joseph Cardinal Bernardin
December 6, 1983
It is a privilege to be invited to give the Gannon Lecture at
Fordham University. Fr. Gannon's life as a priest, a Jesuit and a scholar offers
a standard of excellence which any Gannon lecturer should seek to imitate.
I was invited to address some aspect of the U.S. Catholic bishops' pastoral
letter, "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response." I am
happy to do so, but I want to address the topic in a very specific manner The
setting of today's lecture has shaped its substance. The setting is a
university, a community and an institution committed to the examination and
testing of ideas. A university setting calls for an approach to the pastoral
which does more than summarize its content; six months after its publication, it
is necessary to examine the document's impact and to reflect upon the
possibilities for development which are latent in its various themes.
More specifically, Fordham is an American Catholic university, an institution
which has consistently fostered the work of enriching American culture through
Catholic wisdom and has simultaneously sought to enhance our understanding of
Catholic faith by drawing upon the American tradition.
Today I will discuss the pastoral letter in terms of the relationship of our
Catholic moral vision and American culture. Specifically, I wish to use the
letter as a starting point for shaping a consistent ethic of life in our
culture. In keeping with the spirit of a university, I have cast the lecture in
the style of an inquiry, an examination of the need for a consistent ethic of
life and a probing of the problems and possibilities which exist within the
Church and the wider society for developing such an ethic.
I do not underestimate the intrinsic intellectual difficulties of this
exercise nor the delicacy of the question--ecclesially, ecumenically and
politically. But I believe the Catholic moral tradition has something valuable
to say in the face of the multiple threats to the sacredness of life today, and
I am convinced that the Church is in a position to make a significant defense of
life in a comprehensive and consistent manner.
Such a defense of life will draw upon the Catholic moral position and the
public place the Church presently holds in the American civil debate. The
pastoral letter links the questions of abortion and nuclear war. The letter does
not argue the case for linkage; that is one of my purposes today. It is
important to note that the way these two issues are joined in the pastoral
places the American bishops in a unique position in the public policy discourse
of the nation. No other major institution presently holds these two positions in
the way the Catholic bishops have joined them. This is both a responsibility and
I am convinced that the pro-life position of the Church must be developed in
terms of a comprehensive and consistent ethic of life. I have just been named
the Chairman of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Pro-Life Committee;
I am committed to shaping a position of linkage among the life issues. It is
that topic I wish to develop today in three steps: (1) a reflection on the
pastoral letter on war and peace; (2) an analysis of a consistent ethic of life;
and (3) an examination of how such an ethic can be shaped in the American public
I. The Church in Public Debate: The Pastoral in Perspective
The pastoral letter on war and peace can be examined from several
perspectives. I wish to look at it today in ecclesiological terms, specifically
as an example of the Church's role in helping to shape a public policy debate.
Early in the letter the bishops say that they are writing in order to share the
moral wisdom of the Catholic tradition with society. In stating this objective
the American bishops were following the model of the Second Vatican Council
which called dialogue with the world a sign of love for the world.
I believe the long-term ecclesiological significance of the pastoral rests
with the lessons it offers about the Church's capacity to dialogue with the
world in a way which helps to shape the public policy debate on key issues.
During the drafting of the pastoral letter one commentator wrote in the
editorial section of the Washington Post:
"The Catholic bishops. . . are forcing a public debate on perhaps the most
perplexing nuclear question of them all, the morality of nuclear deterrence. . .
Their logic and passion have taken them to the very foundation of American
This commentary accurately captures the purpose of the pastoral letter. The
bishops intended to raise fundamental questions about the dynamic of the arms
race and the direction of American nuclear strategy. We intended to criticize
the rhetoric of the nuclear age and to expose the moral and political futility
of a nuclear war. We wanted to provide a moral assessment of existing policy
which would both set limits to political action and provide direction for a
policy designed to lead us out of the dilemma of deterrence.
It is the lessons we can learn from the policy impact of the pastoral which
are valuable today. The principal conclusion is that the Church's social policy
role is at least as important in defining key questions in the public debate as
in deciding such questions. The impact of the pastoral was due in part to its
specific positions and conclusions, but it was also due to the way it brought
the entire nuclear debate under scrutiny.
The letter was written at a time it called a "new moment" in the nuclear age.
The "new moment" is a mix of public perceptions and policy proposals. The public
sense of the fragility of our security system is today a palpable reality. The
interest in the TV showing of "The Day After" is an example of how the public is
taken by the danger of our present condition. But the 'new moment" is also a
product of new ideas, or at least the shaking of the foundation under old ideas.
Another commentary generated during the drafting of the pastoral letter, this
one from The New Republic, identified the policy characteristics of the "new
"The ground is not steady beneath the nuclear forces of the United States.
The problem is not modes of basing but modes of thinking. The traditional
strategy for our nuclear arsenal is shaken by a war of ideas about its purpose,
perhaps the most decisive war of ideas in its history."
The significant fact to which this editorial points is that the "new moment"
is an "open moment" in the strategic debate. Ideas are under scrutiny and
established policies are open to criticism in a way we have not seen since the
late 1950's. From the proposal of "no first use," through the debate about the
MX, to the concept of a Nuclear Freeze, the nuclear policy question is open to
reassessment and redirection. The potential contained in the "new moment" will
not last forever, policies must be formulated, ideas will crystallize and some
consensus will be shaped. As yet, the content of the consensus is not clear.
The fundamental contribution of The Challenge of Peace, I believe, is
that we have been part of a few central forces which have created the "new
moment." We have helped to shape the debate; now we face the question of whether
we can help to frame a new consensus concerning nuclear policy.
The "new moment" is filled with potential; it is also filled with danger. The
dynamic of the nuclear relationship between the superpowers is not a stable one.
It is urgent that a consensus be shaped which will move us beyond our present
posture. The pastoral letter has opened space in the public debate for a
consideration of the moral factor. How we use the moral questions, that is, how
we relate them to the strategic and political elements, is the key to our
contribution to the "new moment." I could spend the entire lecture on the moral
dimension of the nuclear debate, but my purpose is rather to relate the
experience we have had in dealing with the nuclear question to other issues.
Without leaving the topic of the war and peace discussion, I will try to show
how our contribution to this issue is part of a larger potential which Catholic
moral vision has in the public policy arena. This larger potential is to foster
a consideration of a consistent ethic of life and its implications for us today.
II. A Consistent Ethic of Life: A Catholic Perspective
The Challenge of Peace provides a starting point for developing a
consistent ethic of life but it does not provide a fully articulated framework.
The central idea in the letter is the sacredness of human life and the
responsibility we have, personally and socially, to protect and preserve the
sanctity of life.
Precisely because life is sacred, the taking of even one human life is a
momentous event Indeed, the sense that every human life has transcendent value
has led a whole stream of the Christian tradition to argue that life may never
be taken. That position is held by an increasing number of Catholics and is
reflected in the pastoral letter, but it has not been the dominant view in
Catholic teaching and it is not the principal moral position found in the
pastoral letter. What is found in the letter is the traditional Catholic
teaching that there should always be a presumption against taking human life,
but in a limited world marked by the effects of sin there are some narrowly
defined exceptions where life can be taken. This is the moral logic which
produced the "Just-War" ethic in Catholic theology.
While this style of moral reasoning retains its validity as a method of
resolving extreme cases of conflict when fundamental rights are at stake, there
has been a perceptible shift of emphasis in the teaching and pastoral practice
of the Church in the last 30 years. To summarize the shift succinctly, the
presumption against taking human life has been strengthened and the exceptions
made ever more restrictive. Two examples, one at the level of principle, the
other at the level of pastoral practice, illustrate the shift.
First, in a path-breaking article in 1959 in Theological Studies, John
Courtney Murray, SJ., demonstrated that Pope Pius XII had reduced the
traditional threefold justification for going to war (defense, recovery of
property and punishment) to the single reason of defending the innocent and
protecting those values required for decent human existence. Second, in the case
of capital punishment, there has been a shift at the level of pastoral practice.
While not denying the classical position, found in the writing of Thomas Aquinas
and other authors, that the state has the right to employ capital punishment,
the action of Catholic bishops and Popes Paul VI and John Paul II has been
directed against the exercise of that right by the state. The argument has been
that more humane methods of defending the society exist and should be used. Such
humanitarian concern lies behind the policy position of the National Conference
of Catholic Bishops against capital punishment, the opposition expressed by
individual bishops in their home states against reinstating the death penalty,
and the extraordinary interventions of Pope John Paul II and the Florida bishops
seeking to prevent the execution in Florida last week.
Rather than extend the specific analysis of this shift of emphasis at the
levels of both principle and practice in Catholic thought, I wish to probe the
rationale behind the shift and indicate what it teaches us about the need for a
consistent ethic of life. Fundamental to the shift is a more acute perception of
the multiple ways in which life is threatened today. Obviously questions like
war, aggression and capital punishment have been with us for centuries and are
not new to us. What is new is the context in which these ancient questions
arise, and the way in which a new context shapes the content of our ethic of
life. Let me comment on the relationship of the context of our culture and the
content of our ethic in terms of: 1) the need for a consistent ethic of life; 2)
the attitude necessary to sustain it; and 3) the principles needed to shape it.
The dominant cultural fact, present in both modern warfare and modern
medicine, which induces a sharper awareness of the fragility of human life is
our technology. To live as we do in an age of careening development of
technology is to face a qualitatively new range of moral problems. War has been
a perennial threat to human life, but today the threat is qualitatively
different due to nuclear weapons. We now threaten life on a scale previously
unimaginable. As the pastoral letter put it, the dangers of nuclear war teach us
to read the Book of Genesis with new eyes. From the inception of life to its
decline, a rapidly expanding technology opens new opportunities for care but
also poses new potential to threaten the sanctity of life.
The technological challenge is a pervasive concern of Pope John Paul II,
expressed in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, and continuing
through his address to the Pontifical Academy of Science last month when he
called scientists to direct their work toward the promotion of life, not the
creation of instruments of death. The essential question in the technological
challenge is this: In an age when we can do almost anything, how do we decide
what we ought to do? The even more demanding question is: In a time when we can
do anything technologically, how do we decide morally what we never should do?
Asking these questions along the spectrum of life from womb to tomb creates
the need for a consistent ethic of life. For the spectrum of life cuts across
the issues of genetics, abortion, capital punishment, modern warfare and the
care of the terminally ill.
These are all distinct problems, enormously complicated, and
deserving individual treatment. No single answer and no simple responses will
solve them. My purpose, however, is to highlight the way in which we face new
technological challenges in each one of these areas; this combination of
challenges is what cries out for a consistent ethic of life.
Such an ethic will have to be finely honed and carefully structured on the
basis of values, principles, rules and applications to specific cases. It is not
my task today, nor within my competence as a bishop, to spell out all the
details of such an ethic. It is to that task that philosophers and poets,
theologians and technicians, scientists and strategists, political leaders and
plain citizens are called. I would, however, highlight a basic issue: the need
for an attitude or atmosphere in society which is the pre-condition for
sustaining a consistent ethic of life. The development of such an atmosphere has
been the primary concern of the "Respect Life" program of the American bishops.
We intend our opposition to abortion and our opposition to nuclear war to be
seen as specific applications of this broader attitude. We have also opposed the
death penalty because we do not think its use cultivates an attitude of respect
for life in society. The purpose of proposing a consistent ethic of life is to
argue that success on any one of the issues threatening life requires a concern
for the broader attitude in society about respect for human life.
Attitude is the place to root an ethic of life, but ultimately ethics is
about principles to guide the actions of individuals and institutions. It is
therefore necessary to illustrate, at least by way of example, my proposition
that an inner relationship does exist among several issues not only at the level
of general attitude but at the more specific level of moral principles. Two
examples will serve to indicate the point.
The first is contained in The Challenge of Peace in the connection
drawn between Catholic teaching on war and Catholic teaching on abortion. Both,
of course, must be seen in light of an attitude of respect for life. The more
explicit connection is based on the principle which prohibits the directly
intended taking of innocent human life. The principle is at the heart of
Catholic teaching on abortion; it is because the fetus is judged to be both
human and not an aggressor that Catholic teaching concludes that direct attack
on fetal life is always wrong. This is also why we insist that legal protection
be given to the unborn.
The same principle yields the most stringent, binding and radical conclusion
of the pastoral letter: that directly intended attacks on civilian centers are
always wrong. The bishops seek to highlight the power of this conclusion by
specifying its implications in two ways: first, such attacks would be wrong even
if our cities had been hit first; second, anyone asked to execute such attacks
should refuse orders. These two extensions of the principle cut directly into
the policy debate on nuclear strategy and the personal decisions of citizens.
James Reston referred to them as "an astonishing challenge to the power of the
The use of this principle exemplifies the meaning of a consistent ethic of
life. The principle which structures both cases, war and abortion, needs to be
upheld in both places. It cannot be successfully sustained on one count and
simultaneously eroded in a similar situation. When one carries this principle
into the public debate today, however, one meets significant opposition from
very different places on the political and ideological spectrum. Some see
clearly the application of the principle to abortion but contend the bishops
overstepped their bounds when they applied it to choices about national
security. Others understand the power of the principle in the strategic debate,
but find its application on abortion a violation of the realm of private choice.
I contend the viability of the principle depends upon the consistency of its
The issue of consistency is tested in a different way when we examine the
relationship between the "right to life" and "quality of life" issues. I must
confess that I think the relationship of these categories is inadequately
understood in the Catholic community itself. My point is that the Catholic
position on abortion demands of us and of society that we seek to influence an
heroic social ethic.
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.
Right to life and quality of life complement each other in domestic social
policy. They are also complementary in foreign policy. The Challenge of Peace
joined the question of how we prevent nuclear war to the question of how we
build peace in an interdependent world. Today those who are admirably concerned
with reversing the nuclear arms race must also be those who stand for a positive
U.S. policy of building the peace. It is this linkage which has led the U.S.
bishops not only to oppose the drive of the nuclear arms race, but to stand
against the dynamic of a Central American policy which relies predominantly on
the threat and the use of force, which is increasingly distancing itself from a
concern for human rights in El Salvador and which fails to grasp the opportunity
of a diplomatic solution to the Central American conflict.
The relationship of the spectrum of life issues is far more intricate than I
can even sketch here. I have made the case in the broad strokes of a lecturer;
the detailed balancing, distinguishing and connecting of different aspects of a
consistent ethic of life is precisely what this address calls the university
community to investigate. Even as I leave this challenge before you, let me add
to it some reflections on the task of communicating a consistent ethic of life
in a pluralistic society.
III. Catholic Ethics and the American Ethos: The Challenge and the
A consistent ethic of life must be held by a constituency to be effective.
The building of such a constituency is precisely the task before the Church and
the nation. There are two distinct challenges, but they are complementary.
We should begin with the honest recognition that the shaping of a consensus
among Catholics on the spectrum of life issues is far from finished. We need the
kind of dialogue on these issues which the pastoral letter generated on the
nuclear question. We need the same searching intellectual exchange, the same
degree of involvement of clergy, religious and laity, the same sustained
attention in the Catholic press.
There is no better place to begin than by using the follow-through for the
pastoral letter. Reversing the arms race, avoiding nuclear war and moving toward
a world freed of the nuclear threat are profoundly "prolife" issues. The
Catholic Church is today seen as an institution and a community committed to
these tasks. We should not lose this momentum; it provides a solid foundation to
relate our concerns about war and peace to other "pro-life" questions. The
agenda facing us involves our ideas and our institutions; it must be both
educational and political; it requires attention to the way these several life
issues are defined in the public debate and how they are decided in the policy
The shaping of a consensus in the Church must be joined to the larger task of
sharing our vision with the wider society. Here two questions face us: the
substance of our position and the style of our presence in the policy debate.
The substance of a Catholic position on a consistent ethic of life is rooted
in a religious vision. But the citizenry of the United States is radically
pluralistic in moral and religious conviction. So we face the challenge of
stating our case, which is shaped in terms of our faith and our religious
convictions, in non-religious terms which others of different faith convictions
might find morally persuasive. Here again the war and peace debate should be a
useful model. We have found support from individuals and groups who do not share
our Catholic faith but who have found our moral analysis compelling.
In the public policy exchange, substance and style are closely related. The
issues of war, abortion, and capital punishment are emotional and often divisive
questions. As we seek to shape and share the vision of a consistent ethic of
life, I suggest a style governed by the following rule: We should maintain and
clearly articulate our religious convictions but also maintain our civil
courtesy. We should be vigorous in stating a case and attentive in hearing
another's case; we should test everyone's logic but not question his or her
The proposal I have outlined today is a multi-dimensional challenge. It grows
out of the experience I have had in the war and peace debate and the task I see
ahead as Chairman of the Pro-Life Committee. But it also grows from a conviction
that there is a new openness today in society to the role of moral argument and
moral vision in our public affairs. I say this even though I find major aspects
of our domestic and foreign policy in need of drastic change. Bringing about
these changes is the challenge of a consistent ethic of life. The challenge is
worth our energy, resources and commitment as a Church.
Teachings of the
Magisterium on Abortion