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Special feature: Bernardin’s consistent ethic of life, thirty years later

Thirty years ago Friday, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin came to Fordham University to deliver a follow-up lecture on the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace” [.pdf], a presentation in which he introduced his formulation for a consistent ethic of life [.pdf]. 

I was a freshman at Fordham in December 1983; dealing for the first time with end-of-term papers and final exams, I did not attend the lecture. But it was big news on campus (and off), its key passages highlighted in the official student paper and discussed in my theology, philosophy, and political science courses in the semesters to come. To an eighteen-year-old recently compelled by the 1980 proclamation from President Carter to register for the draft, and made further anxious (like many of my classmates) by the belligerence of the Reagan administration’s nuclear-weapons rhetoric—limned with references to scripture—Bernardin’s wedding of issues made sudden, stunning sense. A pro-life position consisted of more than focusing singularly on abortion; it also meant opposing what he called “the moral and political futility of nuclear war” and directing states “against the exercise” of capital punishment. A formulation like “consistent ethic of life” provided shape for inchoate railings against what I was beginning to think of as the injustices of the day, coming along in time for the moral and political awakening common to first-year students. I still remember the weather (pouring Bronx rain) and how my mother drove the seventy miles from New Jersey to hear Bernardin in person, a basket of all my younger brothers’ laundry in the back seat because the washing machine had broken down and she needed to stop at a Laundromat on the way home.

That’s my personal reflection, in service of directing you to a more thorough and informed discussion over on our website. To mark the thirtieth anniversary of Bernardin’s lecture, we’ve asked four contributors to reassess his idea for a consistent ethic of life and to comment on its influence and its relevance today. Lisa Fullam, David Cloutier, Robert P. Imbelli, and Cathleen Kaveny are the participants in the discussion, “Consistent Ethic of Life, Thirty Years Later,” which you can find here. Once you’ve read it, come back to this post to share your comments. 

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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Used both pastoral letters in teaching during the mid-1980s and have continued to quote and use Bernardin's Common Ground Initiative.  Two of your presentors highlight the connection between Francis and Bernardin's approaches (especially in terms of not making abortion or, now, same sex marriage the only issues as if everything else is secondary). 

Prof. Kaveny's summary hits the nail on the head.........unfortunately, Law (talk about a lack of a consistent ethic of life), Weigel (who never met trickle down economic theory he didn't love), and Neuhaus (whose overbearing neo-conservativism missed the actual *conservative* which is the total and consistent ethic of life across all issues) only reinforced Kaveny's *cultic* religion and whose extremism defeated any type of on-going efforts to engage and influence American culture (all three never passed up a chance to define themselves by being against something......but, by always saying NO, they never engaged and never *encountered* US culture).

IMO, the bishops currently have failed - the Fortnight for Freedom is a good example of cherrypicking so that any consistent ethic for life becomes impossible.  Their continued failure on Humanae Vitae only drives a *cultic* view of catholicism and too often their focus on abortion or same sex marriage becomes anti-abortion or anti-gay rather than any gospel oriented approach on human dignity or even basic pro-life initiatives.


- Cdl Dolan was on Meet the Press last Sunday (the usual blowhard good ole boy act).  So, in addressing the issue of health insurance for all (essential part of human dignity and human rights per papal and USCCB documents for decades) Dolan skipped past this and focused on contraception and abortion and immigration.  Thus, the ACA's consistent ethic of life is not supported because - Congress's compromise eliminated illegal immigrants from the program and ACA covers contraception/abortion.  (except the abortion part is incorrect and a Dolan meme from Fox News and contraception ignores the reality that 90% of all catholics practice birth control). Thus, any type of consistent ethic of life is sacrificed to single issues.   (interesting that folks such as Charles Curran continue to use Bernardin's approach and calls statements such as Dolan's to be asserting *certitude* where there is none)

Almost any reputable study about abortion will show that *poverty* or *lack of education* is the primary driving force behind abortion.  Bernardin's approach would be that the church must address current realities - job loss; lack of educational opportunities; disparities between the rich and poor; access to health clinics, housing; or, as Obama said yesterday, too high a percentage of Americans are born into poverty and have little to no chance of ever escaping poverty (sounds like we still live in Victorian times - Charles Dickens anyone).   Yet, our bishops rarely sponsor a *Fortnight for Freedom* on minimum wage increase; addressing the inequality in prison sentences/population; gun laws; immigration reform; early childhood education; affordable housing.  All of these are *life issues* - why is abortion seen as the only issue and unconnected to all of these other realities?  Fact - poverty; lack of health insurance; poor housing; neighborhood violence can all result in the loss of life - why is abortion special?

Same sex marriage - this now appears to be joining abortion as the top issue rather than any type of consistent approach to human dignity.  Unfortunately, an approach that respects human dignity clashes with an *older( (or outdated) natural law concept that clashes with science; the church's position on equality and freedom; etc.  This outdated natural law approach assumes *certitude* about human sexuality (which science appears to contradict) and, too often, earlier papal pronouncements treated gays as less than human.

Finally, two other discussion points

a)  Ms. Fullum touches upon one of these....too often the current singular focus does not include any feminine perspectives, experiences, or even medical knowledge  (the celibate, male theology appears to be self-referential and clerical vs. a consistent ethic of life that respects all human dignity);

b) too often the use of a new category - *intrinsic evil* - has obscured and discouraged Bernardin's consistent ethic of life.  Yet, even this intrinsic evil approach is not consistent (it feels more like a condemnation battering ram)......intrinsic evils include divorce; lying; etc. and yet the church doesn't react the same way...this only highights the inconsistencies and picking/choosing that is the current USCCB approach.  (could we have an exorcism over that behavior?)

I was a sophomore at Fordham in December 1983 and attended the lecture.  I even had a chance to speak to Cardinal Bernadin after it.  (Personal aside, the NY Times actually used a picture of my conversation with Bernadin on its front page the next day.  My two seconds of fame.  The other student in the photo, his name is Lawrence Downes, made better use of his 2 seconds -- he now sits on the editorial board of the Times.)

My conversation with the Cardinal focused an another lecture given at Fordham about 7 months earlier by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.  Weinberger's speech was an attempt to whitewash the clear prophetic challenge the bishop's Peace Pastoral to Reagan's militarism.  The Reagan Administration clearly did not like the idea of not being able to count on the support or silence of the bishops on these issues.  Bernadin told me he was very much aware of Weinberger's speech and part of the reason he accepted the invitation to give the Gannon Lecture was to respond to Weinberger and re-affirm that the Challenge of Peace was indeed meant to challenge current US nuclear policy.

No rich people on death row and the rich have can go anywhere to have an abortion. Even pay enough to have it done in their homes. Novak, Weigel and Novak appealed to the pope to approve the Iraq war which everyone now sees as a complete disaster. Very little done as to the reasons for abortion. Mostly poor people dying in the wars. Certainly  no one or few in the W administration. Law and Co ganged up on Bernardine and won the war on words (unambiguosly pro life) shouting at the government officials at Cardinal O'Donnell's funeral. The coverup revealed those with no clothes. But the politics continues. 

Francis is shifting the direction. We will see how it plays out.

Should be Nuehaus, Weigle and Novak. 

Re: Professor Fullam's post

If Cardinal Bernadin in his speech left rendered the pregnant woman "invisible," it seems to me, at least from my perch in progressive, brownstone Brooklyn, the fetus/baby suffers that  fate now, at least in some circle.  I dare not mention the question of the life of the unborn fetus/child in polite, liberal society (on either side of the East River) lest I be considered a Republican monster wanting to force back-alley abortions on women.  I would conjecture that society and culture surrounding Fullam in the Bay Area is not that different (though the weather is often more pleasant).  

What a terrific ensemble of contributors on the topic of the Consistent Ethic. There is an interesting symmetry in the views of Lisa Fullam and Joseph Bernardin’s conservative detractors. It seems like their lament is very similar to the inability Lisa articulates “to wholeheartedly embrace the idea of the consistent ethic of life because of important differences between the issue he sought to unite” and when she calls for “recognition that there can be a diversity of particular policy judgments even among those who share fundamental commitments.” Which begs the question: Do we really share fundamental commitments?

I am intrigued with David Cloutier’s appropriation of the term ‘culture warrior’ for Bernardin’s quest to shape a cultural consensus on attitudes but I fear it is too late for such a redefinition. We’re stuck with the traditional meaning which he well renders as “the sense of a hostile, brooding presence condemning some aspect of ‘the culture.’”

It pains me to see how the Bernardin ‘moment’ was squandered (and causes me to fear for the durability of the Bergoglio ‘moment.’) In her essay, Cathleen Kaveny nails the incredible damage conservative Catholic culture warriors inflicted on the Consistent Ethic. While the predominant responsibility for the ethic’s demise rests squarely on the shoulders of anti-abortion culture warriors, not all the responsibility can be laid there. Damage was also inflicted by their mirror image: anti-anti-abortion culture warriors.

Keen fans of the prolife hypocrisy trope, anti-anti-abortion Catholic culture warriors share an often hostile and brooding disdain for those who take the opposite position. They rarely detect and call out prochoice hypocrisy. Catholics for Choice discourse is safe from their scrutiny notwithstanding its major influence on national opinion leaders.

Anti-anti-abortion culture warriors can be incapable of even imagining how compassion rather than control might motivate fierce advocacy for the unborn. Somewhere along the line, prolifers became ‘them,’ and ‘they’ were stereotyped as a pretty loathsome lot at that.  ‘Their’ inability to move on, ‘their’ preoccupation with the unborn is frankly an embarrassment among prochoice friends and colleagues

Anti-anti-abortion Catholics are distinctly unenthusiastic about consistent ethic formulations that don’t deemphasize abortion. It is as if they invert the bishops’ priorities. Whereas for the bishops’ abortion is reflexively assigned the undisputed #1 spot on the Top 10 list, for anti-anti-abortion Catholics it is #11 if it makes the list at all.

Lisa says that renewed attention to the consistent ethic “might even begin to heal the deep ideological divide in the church that, alas, has become deeper and broader since Bernardin’s time.” I hope so. Most Catholics aren’t culture warriors. As noncombatants in the culture wars, they might respond well to a reconsideration of the consistent ethic. So polarized are we, however, I wonder if there are Catholics willing to lead such a discussion without sinking into culture war rhetoric.  The megaphones deployed by both sets of culture warriors serve as impediments to a new appreciation of the seamless garment. As David says, “Any Catholic equally committed to all the components of Bernardin’s framework is likely to feel caught in a no-man’s land between warring camps.”   

One the greatest cultural warriors Pat Buchanan said in 1990: "The agenda [Bill] Clinton and [Hillary] Clinton would impose on America — abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat — that's change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America wants. It is not the kind of change America needs. And it is not the kind of change we can tolerate in a nation that we still call God's country"

America now is not only for homosexual rights but even supports their right to marry. Women in combat is more accepted. Abortion on demand is still prominent despite some wacky legislators. So much for what America wants.

@ A. Andreassi: I think you're right--while magisterial teaching explicitly rules out the woman's health as a consideration in thinking about abortion, and implicitly teaches that the woman's life doesn't matter either, (by ruling the fetus "not an unjust agressor," as Bernardin repeats in the Fordham lecture), on the other side of the divide there's a tendency to disregard fetuses entirely. For most of the women I know who've had abortions, their feelings lie in the middle, between the "only the embryo counts" side and the "only the woman counts" side. But the extreme positions on either side tend not to hear their voices.

In a consistent ethic of life, I'd imagine, women's lives should count for something. 

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