This past July I highlighted the growing calls for a new pro-life party, and invited reader feedback as to what such a party should look like. After getting pages and pages of e-mails from readers, and thinking about their arguments long and hard, I wrote a piece proposing that in the short-term pro-lifers should support Ben Domenech’s proposal for a new anti-abortion “party of life.”
But I also proposed that, in the long-term, we begin to build a foundation on which a new party could be built which upholds a consistent ethic of life.
Right now, there are just too many different ideas about what this party should look like to sit down and create it right now. People of different views need to come together to forge a strong foundational consensus as to the party’s animating values and principles—and on which issues the party should focus.
With that goal in mind, I will do a series of weekly posts here at Crux leading up to the election in which I try to articulate a vision of a consistent ethic of life which might be part of this conversation. The pieces come from my manuscript (in process) for a book tentatively-titled Resisting the Throw-Away Culture.
Today’s article focuses on the consistent ethic of life before Pope Francis, but next week’s piece will detail where Francis has taken it. Future posts will then apply the foundational moral principles of the ethic to several issues which the book considers: sexual violence and the hook-up culture, reproduction and abortion, immigrants and refugees, ecology and non-human animals, and euthanasia and ageism.
The consistent ethic of life has its foundation in Scripture and tradition of the Church, but the person who first brought it to the American public in an imagination-catching way was Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago.
The US Bishops had named Bernardin chair of the influential Pro-Life Committee, and when Fordham University invited him to New York City to give the 1983 Gannon lecture the Cardinal gave a now famous talk which he titled: A Consistent Ethic of Life: an American-Catholic Dialogue. (His type-written script is still in the Fordham archives, and I often have my students read a scanned version when we study the consistent ethic of life in class.)
The reach of his message certainly benefited from the fact that the New York Times ran a front page story the next day with the headline “Bernardin Asks Catholics to Fight Both Nuclear Arms and Abortion” and described him as opening “a broad attack on a cluster of issues related to the ‘sanctity of life,’ among them nuclear arms, abortion, and capital punishment.”
The article spurred intense reactions and interest, and this pushed Bernardin to spend more time thinking through the consistent ethic of life. He would eventually go on to connect issues like poverty, euthanasia, genetics, health care and pornography into the ethic.
While Bernardin was clear that we should not paper over the real differences between the issues he attempted to connect, he demonstrated their significant common characteristics and called us to reason consistently across issues. Those of us who are committed to the reason and authenticity, he argued, must refuse to treat individual issues in an ad hoc manner, artificially disconnected from their relationships with other issues.
The consistent ethic of life has seen its share of criticism—much of it surrounding abortion. Some on the political left criticize the ethic for uncritically lumping social justice issues in with limiting abortion rights, while some the political right criticize it as not giving the due weight to the millions of lives lost in abortion compared to less significant issues.
Against this criticism, however, the US bishops’ “Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities” explicitly invokes “A Consistent Ethic of Life” as its central framework. Quoting Pope St. John Paul II, the bishops insist, “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.”
Anyone who has read John Paul’s 1995 encyclical on “The Gospel of Life” (Evangelium Vitae) cannot help but see his consistent ethic at work.
In defending the inherent dignity of human life, especially when it is weak and defenseless, John Paul draws attention not only to “the ancient scourges of poverty, hunger, endemic diseases, violence and war” but also “new threats [that] are emerging on an alarmingly vast scale.” The list gets longer when the Pope joins the Second Vatican Council in “forcefully condemning” practices which are “opposed to life itself”:
“Any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practice them than to those who suffer from the injury.”
It wouldn’t exactly be news that Pope Benedict XVI reflected many of the same views of his predecessor. In Caritas in Veritate Benedict resists the false distinction between ‘pro-life’ and ‘social-justice’ issues. Abortion, euthanasia, and embryo-destructive research can be seen through a social-justice framework—just as global capitalism, ecological concern, and poverty can be seen through a life framework.
For instance, while Benedict makes a ground-breaking call for increased ecological concern in Caritas in Veritate, in true consistent ethic of life fashion he refused to isolate this concern from what he calls “human ecology”:
“If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology….Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other.”
So while Bernardin made the consistent ethic of life famous, the basic thrust of what the Cardinal-Archbishop of Chicago was up to was a robust defense of the teachings of the Catholic Church.
John Paul II and Benedict, though obviously laying down a strong foundation for the consistent ethic, clearly left room for it to grow.
Unsurprisingly, Pope Francis has picked up where his predecessors left off. Affirming what they taught on life issues, he has pushed the consistent ethic tradition even further. His metaphor of the “throw-away culture,” I believe, has been especially powerful in its capacity to speak to a new generation.
Next week’s piece will detail Pope Francis’s contributions to the Church’s teaching of a consistent ethic of life.
Charles C. Camosy is Association Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University. He is co-editor of the just-released book Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal.