Cardinal Blase Cupich on the Signs of the Times

Witnessing to a Consistent Ethic of Solidarity
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CNS Photo / Karen Callaway, Chicago Catholic
Cardinal Blase J. Cupich speaks before the start of the tenth annual March for Life in Chicago.

This summer will mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of the installation of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin as the twelfth bishop and seventh archbishop of Chicago. He served the archdiocese and the church with singular distinction, and is perhaps most remembered for his consistent-ethic-of-life approach to critical issues of the day. He was guided by three convictions: that there was a need to read the signs of the times; that the church’s social teaching had a role not just in deciding issues, but also in shaping and defining them; and that the church was uniquely positioned institutionally to promote the common good in society. In pressing these convictions he was revolutionary—and so it’s no surprise that, even to this day, he has his critics. 

But, nearly four decades after the 1983 address at Fordham University in which he introduced this framework, Bernardin deserves a fresh hearing. He would want us to build on what he did by reading the signs of our times, which I will propose here, makes it clear that the church’s social teaching on solidarity, consistently applied across a full range of issues that impact our human interactions, is required. He understood that the urging of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council to read the signs of the times required the church to be fully engaged in the world by being attentive to what was really happening in the lives of real people, the trends and forces influencing policies and public opinion. Only in this way could the church be viewed as a credible and authentic voice for speaking about human affairs. I suspect he would have liked how Pope Francis has captured that sentiment in his pithy phrase “realities are greater than ideas.” 

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich blesses a rosary during a Thanksgiving dinner put on by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

In reading the signs of his times, Bernardin was concerned about the futility of treating issues like abortion, capital punishment, nuclear proliferation, and the use of military force as discrete topics. He understood how these issues were divisive in themselves. But he was convinced that a comprehensive commitment to respecting life as a principle connecting these issues would benefit them all. “The purpose of proposing a consistent ethic of life,” he said, “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…. The viability of [this] principle depends upon the consistency of its application.”

He knew as well that the integrity of Catholic social teaching made it uniquely suited as a framework for holding these issues together under a common principle. How was it, he asked, that the Catholic bishops, virtually alone among leadership groups in American society, found themselves witnessing ardently against both abortion and the nuclear-war policies of the United States? It was the integrity of its teaching—that is, a consistent ethic of life, that set the church apart. As a result, Catholic social teaching would not and could not be fitted into the partisan political framework that governs American public life, then or now.

Yet this also explains the hostility to the consistent-ethic-of-life approach. It asserts that the integrity of Catholic social teaching cannot be contoured to political divides. It asserts that Catholics are called to allegiance to their faith before allegiance to their partisan worldview. And it asserts that the integrity of Catholic teaching must not be undermined by diminishing the importance of key social teachings in political life, even to advance important political goals.

Cardinal Bernardin was also convinced that the church’s social-policy role had to go beyond deciding key questions in the public debate, arguing it was just as important for the church to take the lead in defining such questions. This is how he put it in observing what was accomplished that same year by the bishops’ pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response: “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.” In other words, it shaped the debate going forward, which was also his intention in proposing a consistent ethic of life. Our Catholic faith, accompanied by our long intellectual tradition, he argued, is uniquely able to assist our society in framing the moral calculi we, as a nation, are called to make, to define the terms and the values that should shape our public-policy discussions and decisions, to offer the moral and human vocabulary that is so often lacking in the technocratic paradigms dominant in our culture. 

The final principle that guided him was that the church should recognize that it is well positioned as an institution to implement a reshaping of public policy. Our worship, pastoral life, ministries of health care, and education all provide a platform of lived experience where the integrity of Catholic social teaching is on display. In fact, he readily admitted in his Fordham address that he intentionally chose a Catholic university to introduce his consistent-ethic-of-life approach to church teaching, appreciative of the fact that a Catholic university has a particular role in shaping public dialogue. As a community and institution committed to the examination and testing of ideas, a Catholic university does more than repeat and summarize those ideas. Rather, he noted, universities have the noble vocation of determining the impact of new ideas and reflecting on the possibilities for development latent in them. 

In fact, I am convinced that the legacy of the cardinal’s contribution has been enhanced over the years as Catholic universities live up to his challenging vision. Consider how his words and example have had a continuing impact:

1. There is more awareness of the role of conscience in public life, and the moral dimensions of issues of life and death, war and peace, and who moves ahead and who is left behind in economic life.

2. The substance and language of the consistent ethic of life are in many ways reflected in Catholic teaching, including the U.S. bishops’ statements on faithful citizenship and Pope Francis’s powerful metaphor of a “throw-away culture.” 

3. Decades after the Supreme Court legalized abortion, a broad, vibrant, and increasingly young pro-life movement is challenging the violence of abortion and offering life-giving alternatives to abortion to women and children. 

4. The use of the death penalty is diminishing as prosecutors, juries, and Catholic and other Americans make the case that you cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing.

5. The church and other moral voices in public life increasingly reflect Cardinal Bernardin’s efforts to engage and persuade, not simply to proclaim and judge on issues of life and death, justice and peace.

6. Catholic social teaching, which was often a centerpiece of Cardinal Bernardin’s legacy, is increasingly seen as a central part of Catholic life, guiding the church’s participation in public life. 

7. There is increased understanding of the connections between issues of human life and human dignity (among young people in particular), care for “the least of these” and care for creation, the pursuit of justice and respect for others. 

Cardinal Bernardin’s call for moral consistency, institutional integrity, and building bridges across political, ideological, and ecclesial lines is reflected in the best of Catholic and interfaith witness and advocacy. In short, many life issues formerly treated in isolation and considered unrelated are now discussed in the same context and within a shared moral framework.

Catholic social teaching would not and could not be fitted into a partisan political framework

What Cardinal Bernardin did in introducing his consistent ethic of life was nothing short of revolutionary, which is why he had his critics—both within and outside the church. Some unfairly charged that his approach ended up making all life issues morally equivalent. Others suggested that the consistent ethic of life diminishes a commitment to resist abortion. He disagreed, and so do I. A full and consistent commitment to human life and dignity and to solidarity will enhance, not diminish, our defense of children and women victimized by the violence of abortion. As Pope Francis has said, “It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.” And it is not conservative either. 

Happily, despite suffering the distortions and misunderstanding of his critics, Bernardin lived long enough to see the impact of his approach. And I suspect he smiled when he heard Saint John Paul II use the phrase a “consistent ethic of life” in an address to a group of U.S. bishops in 1993 on the meaning and purpose of human sexuality. It is also noteworthy that the Holy See used the term in addressing the United Nations on the need to safeguard the human rights of all forcibly displaced people.

But the best way to honor what he did is to apply in our day the three convictions that guided him. What are the signs of the times? What can we retrieve from our Catholic social teaching to present challenges? And how can our institutional resources be used to shape a response going forward?

The world has changed a great deal over the past thirty-five years—or for that matter, the past two. Our time is plagued by global terrorism and threatened by global warming and the exploitation of limited resources. Many people are excluded by unchecked forces of economic exploitation and globalization, and others are left homeless or forced to migrate by wars and privation. As a result, we have become fearful of one another in a world marked by great divisions over race, ethnicity, religion, and place of origin. 

Without oversimplifying, the challenge for us today is not only that the issues are in silos, separated one from another; it is also that people, in their social networks and through the media they consult, are in silos, bereft of challenge or debate, isolated by differences of opinion or politics, race or social class, in a way that obscures our shared humanity and the ties that historically have united us as a nation of immigrants. It is not too strong to say that this sense of disconnectedness is being legitimized not only by voices in the streets, but also by those in the halls of governance here and around the world, giving rise to xenophobia, nationalism, populism, and racial intolerance. All of this makes entire populations more vulnerable to disturbing influences that only further divide while pretending to offer as solutions distorted views of the role of the economy and politics, how we relate to other nations, and how to deal with global conflicts.

I am convinced that just as Cardinal Bernardin proposed that an ethic of life be consistently applied to unite all life issues, we need in our day to mine the church’s social teaching on solidarity, as a means of uniting humanity through a reawakening of our interdependence as a human family, which Pope John Paul II called for in his groundbreaking encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis, and which Pope Francis is advocating in his writings. Solidarity needs to be applied consistently to all our human interactions, John Paul II wrote three decades ago, calling us to “see the ‘other’—whether a person, people or nation...as our ‘neighbor,’ a ‘helper’...a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God.” “World leaders,” he continued, likewise need “to recognize that interdependence in itself demands the abandonment of the politics of blocs, the sacrifice of all forms of economic, military, or political imperialism, and the transformation of mutual distrust into collaboration. This is precisely the act proper to solidarity among individuals and nations.”

We should not be naïve about the resistance that an ethic of solidarity, consistently applied, will meet. It will make demands on how we live our personal lives, and how we view our national agenda and our role in the family of nations. But the first demand according to the Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching is that it will require “men and women of our day [to] cultivate a greater awareness that they are debtors of the society of which they have become a part. They are debtors because of those conditions that make human existence livable, and because of the indivisible and indispensable legacy constituted by culture, scientific and technical knowledge, material and immaterial goods, and by all that the human condition has produced.” “A similar debt must be recognized in the various forms of social interaction,” the compendium continues, “so that humanity’s journey will not be interrupted but remain open to present and future generations, all of them called together to share the same gift in solidarity.”

Solidarity produces the kind of social-market economy that John Paul II advocated

Let me now offer some examples of what an ethic of solidarity consistently applied to the range of issues of our day looks like. The principle of solidarity would critique a narrow approach to the economy that uses a one-dimensional measure of the economic growth of a nation, singularly defined by profits, that promotes policies that maximize the freedom of markets and individual choice, and that believes that market forces left to themselves are the best—indeed, the only—arbiters of economic progress. This narrow approach has produced “an economy that kills,” as Pope Francis has said. In its place, a consistent ethic of solidarity would argue that inclusion and economic security for all are the measures of economic health and the criteria for economic decision-making. Solidarity produces the kind of social-market economy that John Paul II advocated, which involves, as Pope Francis noted, passing from a liquid economy “directed at revenue profiting from speculation and lending at interest, to a social economy that invests in persons creating jobs and providing training.” 

Solidarity also challenges a transactional approach to international relations. I have already quoted from John Paul II’s Sollicitudo rei socialis, which called world leaders to recognize the interdependence of all members of the human family and to promote a solidarity that serves peace and human development and unites rich and poor in a relationship that lifts up the most vulnerable. 

John Paul II also wrote in that encyclical that it would be a desertion of a nation’s moral obligation for it to care only for its own well-being: “If a nation were to succumb more or less deliberately to the temptation to close in upon itself and failed to meet the responsibilities following from its superior position in the community of nations, it would fall seriously short of its clear ethical duty.”

His words have much to say to us in the present climate, on a number of levels. Today, the lines between nationalism and patriotism seem to be blurred. San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy reminded us in his talk at the Erroneous Autonomy symposium this past year that our nation’s sense of being exceptional has never been a done deal; it has always been an aspiration, a work in progress, something that we strive to live up to in each generation. Pope Francis said as much in his closing remarks to the joint session of Congress in 2015: “A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty, as Lincoln did; when it fosters a culture that enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work.”

John Paul II’s words about a leading nation’s moral obligation in building solidarity in the world should force us to examine closely the calls to reignite an arms race, which from all angles will seriously reduce the capacity of our nation to address the root causes of violence in our world: social, political, and economic exclusion.

The question is not whether there should be military spending, but what is the needed proportion so that other ways of making us safe, secure, and whole are not neglected. Our nation already spends more on its military than any other nation on earth. It has been estimated that the world spent about $1.6 trillion on military funding in 2015. U.S. military spending amounted to about 37 percent of this total, equaling the spending of the next seven nations with the largest military budgets—and many of those seven are our allies. 

At the same time, dramatic cuts are being proposed in poverty-reducing humanitarian and development assistance that helps address the root causes of conflict. Here is a small sample gleaned by staff at Catholic Relief Services, the official relief and development agency of the U.S. bishops: a 21 percent cut in Title II Food Aid at a time with a record number of famines; a 20 percent cut in development assistance that funds such priorities as basic education, democracy-building initiatives, human rights, agriculture, and employment; a 17 percent cut in U.S. refugee admissions at a time when the number of displaced people is at its highest since World War II; dramatic reductions in key global health programs, including a 13 percent cut in the fight against polio, a 13 percent cut in nutrition assistance, a 34 percent cut to an account for vulnerable children, a 19 percent cut for addressing tuberculosis, and many others.

Surveys show that if you ask the average American how much of our federal budget is spent on international assistance, they answer between 20 and 25 percent. If you ask them, how much the U.S. should spend, they say 10 percent. When they find out that non-military international aid is less than 1 percent, they are incredulous. What would it mean if funding levels actually reflected the values average Americans say they want embodied in our government expenditures?

These are but a few examples of how an ethic of solidarity, consistently applied to the full range of issues that impact our human living, has the potential of reshaping the debate at a time the nation and the world are deeply divided, and vulnerable to influences that only deepen the fears at the heart of that division. An ethic of solidarity offers a language and a vision, reminding us who we are as a nation—but also what it means to live together in this common home, as the Holy Father calls Earth in Laudato si’. 

Cardinal Bernardin’s consistent ethic of life has led me to once again take up the work of reading the signs of the times and pursuing a path that aspires to define the issues of the day so that the good of humanity will be served by our witness. Just as he did in his day, I now leave it up to all Catholics, and especially Catholic universities, to reflect on and develop ways to apply the church’s teaching on solidarity. There is much work to do. We continue to be haunted by the threat of nuclear war and nuclear weapons. Headlines about North Korea and the ongoing debates about Iran’s nuclear ambitions highlight the continuing wisdom of the pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons. The number of abortions has gone down significantly in the United States, but the violence of abortion continues to haunt our society, and there are new pressures to require cooperation with what we believe is the taking of innocent human life. Our nation is still divided about whether decent healthcare is a human right or a commodity that depends on personal resources. In some states assisted suicide is advocated, in the knowledge that the pressures to end life will probably be more severe on the poor, the isolated, those with disabilities, and those without access to palliative care. The question of national priorities continues to haunt us as leaders advocate steep increases in military spending, renewed investment in nuclear arms, and cuts in the safety net at home and in diplomacy and development around the world. And so, again, no one should be surprised if voices are raised in opposition to an ethic of solidarity, for when consistently applied, it will make demands on us all. 

Cardinal Bernardin was convinced that the church should not shy away from her unique contribution, even if it meant standing apart from the prisms of political decision-making used by other groups, even if the integrity of our social teaching was met with hostility because it could not be made to fit into the partisan political framework that governs American public life. But, as we remain undaunted in our witness to the world, let us also take up the task before us in a way that does not confuse firmness and resolve with a lack of respect for others in the debate. It would be good to once again return to Cardinal Bernardin’s talk at Fordham, which he closed with sage advice about carrying on the debate of serious public issues with civility and mutual respect: “I suggest,” he offered, “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 motives.”

He could offer that advice because he was convinced that the church had so much more to offer the world than what could be gained by the world’s approval. Pope Francis calls us to that same sense of pride as he presses forward in building a world marked by solidarity, unafraid of how our witness will be received: “Serving means working beside the neediest of people, establishing with them first and foremost human relationships of closeness and bonds of solidarity. Solidarity, this is a word that frightens the developed world. People try to avoid saying it. Solidarity to them is almost a bad word. But it is our word.”

Published in the June 2, 2017 issue: 

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich is the ninth archbishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago. This essay has been adapted from the Cardinal Joseph Bernardin Common Cause Inaugural Address delivered by Cardinal Cupich on April 18, 2017, at Loyola University, Chicago.

This story is included in these collections:

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