I was a fifth-grader at St. Ferdinand School in Chicago when Cardinal Bernardin framed the “consistent ethic of life.” I didn’t know the speech, but even at the time I sensed what it might be meant to address. People were talking about The Day After, the 1983 television movie about nuclear war, and the bishops were speaking about peace.

Re-reading Bernardin’s lecture thirty years on, I’m struck by two things. First, he emerges as the original “culture warrior” – not in the sense of a hostile, brooding presence condemning some aspect of “the culture,” but as one who grasps the idea that the Church’s most important contribution to public life is in shaping a cultural consensus on attitude. He speaks of the impact of The Challenge of Peace:

The principal conclusion is that the Church’s social policy role is at least as important in defining key questions in the public debate as in deciding such questions. 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.

When Bernardin goes on to explain the consistent ethic, he notes the need for careful defining of principles, but explains the “basic issue” as “the need for an attitude or atmosphere in society which is the pre-condition for sustaining a consistent ethic of life.” In closing, he notes the urgency of “the building of a constituency” for this overall vision, if it is to be effective in shaping the debate. After all, as he notes in summarizing the bishops’ position on abortion and on nuclear war: “No other major institution presently holds these two positions in the way the Catholic bishops have joined them. This is both a responsibility and an opportunity.”

The tone, while always maintaining a noteworthy respect and civility, is candidly political: the bishops are interested in making a real difference in the public square. They will do it first and foremost through the shaping of cultural attitudes. They will not do it by proposing what Pope Francis called “a disjointed set of doctrines” and positions on isolated issues. They will do it by being consistent. Such consistency also leads Bernardin to insist on the linkage of “right to life” and “quality of life,” claiming that “the Catholic position on abortion demands of us and of society that we seek to influence an heroic social ethic,” by which he means being “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.”

The cardinal’s position is not unique: indeed, it is the substance of the teachings of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. What is unique is how he presents himself as an articulate spokesperson dedicated to the challenging task of breaking through a cultural logjam by shaping a new consensus – a role seemingly unsought by anyone in the bishops’ conference today. Any Catholic equally committed to all the components of Bernardin’s framework is likely to feel caught in no-man’s-land between warring camps. Why? If in fact we now have encyclicals like Evangelium Vitae and Caritas in Veritate that develop the substance of Bernardin’s views, why has the church been unsuccessful in building a constituency for such views?

People will cite a range of factors, but I want to highlight one in particular—which is the second thing that strikes me as I re-read this lecture: the fragmentation of the possibilities of meaningful national debate on issues of substance. Bernardin confidently quotes reactions to the bishops’ letter from the Washington Post and the New Republic and seems to stride into the national debate as a savvy participant who knows he has significant power. Indeed, there exists something he calls “the American civil debate” — something we can understand not just as a shouting match or a competition among image-generating machines winning what we now call “news cycles” – and further, he and the bishops can be part of it.

Ah, for the days of three TV networks and a few dominant “establishment” publications! In the American civil debate, it is possible and valuable to take positions such as the one Bernardin describes. It is possible and valuable to imagine building a “constituency,” such that major parties must respond to it. Can anything like this happen today? And if so, how would one go about doing it?

Return to The Consistent Ethic of Life, Thirty Years Later

David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith.

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