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.
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