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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 consequences.

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 by others.

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 against killing.

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 legitimate exception.

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 health care.

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 

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