An Ethic of ‘Life,’ Not ‘Purity’

First proposed by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in a lecture at Fordham University thirty years ago, “the consistent ethic of life” challenged American Catholics involved in the pro-life movement to broaden their focus beyond abortion. Bernardin asked them to engage other issues where human life and dignity were threatened, such as the ominous possibility of nuclear conflagration, the routinization of capital punishment, and the specter of legalized euthanasia. Moreover, he contended that a consistent regard for the sacredness of each and every life would not abandon vulnerable human beings after they were born. He proclaimed: “Those who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us: the old and the young, the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker.”

To say that the consistent ethic of life did not catch on with the American hierarchy would be an understatement. Bernardin’s proposal was roundly and repeatedly criticized over the years by an increasingly organized and vocal band of conservative prelates and pundits, most notably Cardinal Bernard Law, the late Richard John Neuhaus, and George Weigel. They feared that grouping abortion with other life issues would dilute its primacy as an issue of social justice. Relatedly, they suspected that the emphasis on issues of social welfare would give dodgy cover to Catholics to vote for Democratic politicians favoring a strong governmental safety net despite the fact that those politicians are pro-choice.

Buttressed by a growing cadre of bishops appointed by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, the opponents of Bernardin’s consistent ethic of life won their battle, at least for the short term. Consider, for example, the two most recent versions of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the voting guide issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in preparation for the national elections.

Abortion is not only paramount in “Faithful Citizenship,” it is also pervasive, occluding other issues that Cardinal Bernardin would have seen as essential to the protection of vulnerable life. Both the 2008 and 2012 versions of the document barely engage the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, despite the fact that it plunged many families into homelessness and many children into food insecurity. While “Faithful Citizenship” does not entirely rule out voting for a pro-choice politician, it makes justifying such a choice only slightly less difficult than the task Odysseus faced in navigating his ship between Scylla and Charybdis.

But to say that “Faithful Citizenship” refuses to situate abortion within Bernardin’s “consistent ethic of life” does not mean that it stands entirely alone. Abortion is not primarily grouped with other issues of life and death, but instead with two other issues that the bishops have recently made their legislative priorities: the protection of traditional marriage and the defense of religious liberty. In my view abortion has now been situated as part of an emerging “consistent ethic of purity.”

Religious liberty is not an abstract constitutional issue for the bishops; it raises the very concrete possibility that Catholic institutions will be tainted by cooperating in their employees’ decision to use contraceptives —which Church teaching presents as a violation of the natural law. The underlying concern for cultic purity tacitly animating the bishops’ religious liberty strategy broke to the surface in Archbishop William Lori’s testimony before a congressional committee, in which he claimed that forcing Catholic institutions to pay for insurance coverage for birth control is analogous to making a Kosher deli sell pork.

To conservative Catholic culture warriors, same-sex marriage is not merely a policy mistake, but an anti-sacrament, a perverse rite that has the potential to contaminate the divinely blessed institution of heterosexual marriage. Bishop Thomas Paproki of Springfield made this view explicit, recently holding an exorcism to banish the “diabolical influence of the devil” from the Illinois legislature, which had recently legalized same-sex marriage. Doubtless because of their own scandals, the bishops seem almost to be obsessed by the connection between sex, purity, and defilement. At their November meeting in Baltimore, they voted to draft a formal pastoral statement on pornography.

Needless to say, the bishops’ understanding of what counts as purity and defilement can be challenged on a number of fronts. Here, however, I want to focus on a different question: what happens when abortion is framed as part of the “consistent ethic of purity” rather than the “consistent ethic of life”? It becomes nothing less than the massacre of the Holy Innocents.

Unborn life can easily be configured as in some sense superior to human beings who have already been born, because it is unsullied, innocent, and new, all of which set it one step closer to its divine origins. (A popular pro-life picture book for children is called Angel in the Waters, by Regina Doman.) Unlike its mother, who after all, has had sex (perhaps under “illicit” circumstances), the potential victim of abortion is virginal and pristine. Moreover, unborn life can quickly take upon itself the character of something greater than itself, becoming a living symbol of the future of humankind. Hidden away in the womb, devoid of distinguishing features, unable to make its own idiosyncratic preferences known, an unborn life can become a veritable icon of sanctity, a living symbol of pure hope and goodness.

It is understandable that pro-lifers would try to combat abortion by inflating the status of its potential victims, by configuring them somehow better and purer than those who already have taken their first breath. In my view, however, this approach is a mistake. It tacitly accepts the sharp division in status between the born and the unborn advocated by many committed pro-choice activists, although it assigns the mirror image values to those falling in each category. It also feeds into worrisome trends in the larger culture, which idolizes youth, beauty, and unlimited potential.

It is time to place abortion back where it belongs: not in a “consistent ethic of purity,” but in a “consistent ethic of life” that recognizes the dignity of all human beings, pure and impure. Thirty years after Cardinal Bernardin began to weave it for us at Fordham, the “seamless garment” should be taken out of mothballs, so that it can be cleaned, pressed, and made ready to meet the challenges of a new era. 

Return to The Consistent Ethic of Life, Thirty Years Later

About the Author

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.



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the “seamless garment” should be taken out of mothballs, so that it can be cleaned, pressed, and made ready to meet the challenges of a new era

'Seamless garment' was first used by Elleen Eagan in 1971.. Abortion was still illegal so the conservative claim it was invented by liberals to give Democrat pols a pass on abortion is another of the GOP fake taking points.

"They [Hierarchs] feared that grouping abortion with other life issues would dilute its primacy as an issue of social justice' they bought the GOP talking points against 'seamless garment'  even  when  abortion was illegal.   

This thoughtful article brings to mind certain questions for those of us raised as old-fashioned Catholics.

Does Original Sin taint the human soul at the moment of birth or before? If the latter, shouldn't baptisms be performed in utero to ensure that, in the event of miscarriage or abortion, the fetus, embryo, or zygote not be unfairly excluded from heaven as purer-than-the-born-but-not-pure-enough? How would one go about baptizing a zygote anyway?

Back in the sixties, I was taught by the Sisters that there was a place called limbo where unbaptized babies and non-Christians were sent after death. At some point since then, limbo seems to have been declared inoperative by the church. Did all those souls excluded from the presence of God suddenly receive full amnesty, or were they re-sentenced to purgatory?

Given what we were told as children, and given the fact that exorcisms are still being performed by the bishop in Springfield, these questions seem perfectly valid to me.






that is a very interesting point.  I think the point about baptism and original sin shows the solidarity of human beings in their sinfulness and potential for it--I tried to address this in a longer version of this little piece.

We all need redepmption--even the very young.  I don't believe that God abandons children who die unbaptized; nonetheless,  they are saved, but through the mercy of God just like everyone else.


Thank insightful on many levels.

Cathleen, I greatly appreciate your insights and the clarity of your presentation.

Neither the Church hierarchy nor their political home in the Republican party offers any vision for a comprehensive health care plan that would save the lives of those already born and provide pre-natal care of the children of the poor. Nor does the hierarchy have any proposal to address the increasing income gap between the rich and the poor that destroys the dignity and quality of life (if not life itself) of the poor. Pope Francis as well as Popes going back to Leo XIII have called into question the injustices of the current capitalist system which the Republican Party champions, but the American hierarchy does not put its significant political influence to address income inequality. No week in the parishes dedicated to energizing Catholics to exert their influence for social and economic liberty. No directives urging Catholics to reject candidates who oppose health care and income equality; no threat to refuse Communion to Paul Ryan. We need many courageous prelates like Cardianl Bernardin (perhaps even more enilghtened in understanding women's situation than the good Cardinal, as Lisa pointed out). Pope Francis has an impossible task to replace the Bishops and redirect the orientation of their seminaries to correct the un-Christ-like governance that the last two Popes have inflicted on the Church in America.


An excellent article. I particularly liked your justaposition of the ethics of life to the ethics of purity.

As I read your short essay, I kept thinking of the Church's teaching that a mother whose life is threatened by a pregnancy with certainty by a non-viable fetus should elect the heroic virtue of death regardless if the fetus can survive outside of the womb of the mother. There continues to be a profound disagreement between the defintions of direct and indirect abortion which gets lost in any discussion "abortion". Note that Not the the report by Theresa Lysaught of Marquette University's to Catholic Healthcare West, that was given to the Bishop of Phoenix, concluded that the procedure that ST. Joseph's Hospital elected to perform was a case of indirect abortion (based on the ethics of Aquinas). Her conclusion was supported by Germain Gresiz and Martin Rhonheimer, both traditionalist theologians, but ignored by the Bishop of Phoenix. The Bioethics committee of the USCCB supported the Bishop's decision but ignored much of the facts made explicit by Lysaught and it refused to consider her rebuttal.

Not only is the innocent pre-born life prioritized over a young mother with husband and existing childern, Catholics are called to practice the extreme of virtue, not the mean of virtue. Apparently, the Church believes that the life of one person is humanily more virtuous and beneovent than to the death of the two.

As you wisely stated, it is time that the "seamless garment” should be taken out of mothballs, so that it can be cleaned, pressed, and made ready to meet the challenges of a new era. 



Sorry for the typos. Also, I meant "that the death of two is more virtuous and benevolent than saving the life of one.



Unborn life can easily be configured as in some sense superior to human beings who have already been born, because it is unsullied, innocent, and new, all of which set it one step closer to its divine origins. 

It can - but I'm not aware that this is currently done in Catholic teaching.  Instead, the emphasis seems to be on the defenselessness of the unborn - that because they are so vulnerable, they are deserving of especial protection.  This seems to me to be profoundly in sync with the principle of the preferential option for the poor.




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