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.