A Consistent Ethic of Life



In the early 80’s the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin offered a number of talks and articles laying out the idea of the Consistent Ethic of Life as the most advantageous approach for speaking to our nation (the United States) about social justice in general and the sanctity of life issues in particular. I remain convinced that today, Cardinal Bernardin’s approach is the best approach for speaking effectively with our pluralistic and relativistic culture, specifically as a Catholic.  The “Gospel of Life” is a consistent ethic of life.  Select contributions by the Cardinal to the debate follow.

A Consistent Ethic of Life: An American-Catholic- Dialogue
Gannon Lecture, Fordham University
December 6, 1983

A Consistent Ethic of Life: Continuing the Dialogue
The William Wade Lecture Series
St. Louis University — March 11, 1984

The Death Penalty in Our Time
Address to Criminal Law Committee
Criminal Court of Cook County — May 14, 1985

“Deciding for Life”
Cardinal Bernardin’s Message
For “Respect Life Sunday” in the USA
1 October 1989

“Where life is involved, the service of charity must be profoundly consistent. It cannot tolerate bias and discrimination, for human life is sacred and inviolable at every stage and in every situation; it is an indivisible good. We need then to “show care” for all life and for the life of everyone. Indeed, at an even deeper level, we need to go to the very roots of life and love.”
Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, n. 87, 1995)

In 1996, Cardinal Bernardin was instrumental in establishing the Catholic Common Ground Initiative (in spite of the determined opposition of some of his brother bishops.  The Initiative continues its work.  Learn more here.

A Consistent Ethic of Life: An American-Catholic- Dialogue
Gannon Lecture, Fordham University

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin
December 6, 1983

It is a privilege to be invited to give the Gannon Lecture at Fordham University. Fr. Gannon’s life as a priest, a Jesuit and a scholar offers a standard of excellence which any Gannon lecturer should seek to imitate.

I was invited to address some aspect of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.” I am happy to do so, but I want to address the topic in a very specific manner The setting of today’s lecture has shaped its substance. The setting is a university, a community and an institution committed to the examination and testing of ideas. A university setting calls for an approach to the pastoral which does more than summarize its content; six months after its publication, it is necessary to examine the document’s impact and to reflect upon the possibilities for development which are latent in its various themes.

More specifically, Fordham is an American Catholic university, an institution which has consistently fostered the work of enriching American culture through Catholic wisdom and has simultaneously sought to enhance our understanding of Catholic faith by drawing upon the American tradition.

Today I will discuss the pastoral letter in terms of the relationship of our Catholic moral vision and American culture. Specifically, I wish to use the letter as a starting point for shaping a consistent ethic of life in our culture. In keeping with the spirit of a university, I have cast the lecture in the style of an inquiry, an examination of the need for a consistent ethic of life and a probing of the problems and possibilities which exist within the Church and the wider society for developing such an ethic.

I do not underestimate the intrinsic intellectual difficulties of this exercise nor the delicacy of the question–ecclesially, ecumenically and politically. But I believe the Catholic moral tradition has something valuable to say in the face of the multiple threats to the sacredness of life today, and I am convinced that the Church is in a position to make a significant defense of life in a comprehensive and consistent manner.

Such a defense of life will draw upon the Catholic moral position and the public place the Church presently holds in the American civil debate. The pastoral letter links the questions of abortion and nuclear war. The letter does not argue the case for linkage; that is one of my purposes today. It is important to note that the way these two issues are joined in the pastoral places the American bishops in a unique position in the public policy discourse of the nation. 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.

I am convinced that the pro-life position of the Church must be developed in terms of a comprehensive and consistent ethic of life. I have just been named the Chairman of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Pro-Life Committee; I am committed to shaping a position of linkage among the life issues. It is that topic I wish to develop today in three steps: (1) a reflection on the pastoral letter on war and peace; (2) an analysis of a consistent ethic of life; and (3) an examination of how such an ethic can be shaped in the American public debate.


I. The Church in Public Debate: The Pastoral in Perspective

The pastoral letter on war and peace can be examined from several perspectives. I wish to look at it today in ecclesiological terms, specifically as an example of the Church’s role in helping to shape a public policy debate. Early in the letter the bishops say that they are writing in order to share the moral wisdom of the Catholic tradition with society. In stating this objective the American bishops were following the model of the Second Vatican Council which called dialogue with the world a sign of love for the world.

I believe the long-term ecclesiological significance of the pastoral rests with the lessons it offers about the Church’s capacity to dialogue with the world in a way which helps to shape the public policy debate on key issues. During the drafting of the pastoral letter one commentator wrote in the editorial section of the Washington Post:

“The Catholic bishops. . . are forcing a public debate on perhaps the most perplexing nuclear question of them all, the morality of nuclear deterrence. . . Their logic and passion have taken them to the very foundation of American security policy.”

This commentary accurately captures the purpose of the pastoral letter. The bishops intended to raise fundamental questions about the dynamic of the arms race and the direction of American nuclear strategy. We intended to criticize the rhetoric of the nuclear age and to expose the moral and political futility of a nuclear war. We wanted to provide a moral assessment of existing policy which would both set limits to political action and provide direction for a policy designed to lead us out of the dilemma of deterrence.

It is the lessons we can learn from the policy impact of the pastoral which are valuable today. 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.

The letter was written at a time it called a “new moment” in the nuclear age. The “new moment” is a mix of public perceptions and policy proposals. The public sense of the fragility of our security system is today a palpable reality. The interest in the TV showing of “The Day After” is an example of how the public is taken by the danger of our present condition. But the ‘new moment” is also a product of new ideas, or at least the shaking of the foundation under old ideas.

Another commentary generated during the drafting of the pastoral letter, this one from The New Republic, identified the policy characteristics of the “new moment”:

“The ground is not steady beneath the nuclear forces of the United States. The problem is not modes of basing but modes of thinking. The traditional strategy for our nuclear arsenal is shaken by a war of ideas about its purpose, perhaps the most decisive war of ideas in its history.”

The significant fact to which this editorial points is that the “new moment” is an “open moment” in the strategic debate. Ideas are under scrutiny and established policies are open to criticism in a way we have not seen since the late 1950’s. From the proposal of “no first use,” through the debate about the MX, to the concept of a Nuclear Freeze, the nuclear policy question is open to reassessment and redirection. The potential contained in the “new moment” will not last forever, policies must be formulated, ideas will crystallize and some consensus will be shaped. As yet, the content of the consensus is not clear.

The fundamental contribution of The Challenge of Peace, I believe, is that we have been part of a few central forces which have created the “new moment.” We have helped to shape the debate; now we face the question of whether we can help to frame a new consensus concerning nuclear policy.

The “new moment” is filled with potential; it is also filled with danger. The dynamic of the nuclear relationship between the superpowers is not a stable one. It is urgent that a consensus be shaped which will move us beyond our present posture. The pastoral letter has opened space in the public debate for a consideration of the moral factor. How we use the moral questions, that is, how we relate them to the strategic and political elements, is the key to our contribution to the “new moment.” I could spend the entire lecture on the moral dimension of the nuclear debate, but my purpose is rather to relate the experience we have had in dealing with the nuclear question to other issues. Without leaving the topic of the war and peace discussion, I will try to show how our contribution to this issue is part of a larger potential which Catholic moral vision has in the public policy arena. This larger potential is to foster a consideration of a consistent ethic of life and its implications for us today.

II. A Consistent Ethic of Life: A Catholic Perspective

The Challenge of Peace provides a starting point for developing a consistent ethic of life but it does not provide a fully articulated framework. The central idea in the letter is the sacredness of human life and the responsibility we have, personally and socially, to protect and preserve the sanctity of life.

Precisely because life is sacred, the taking of even one human life is a momentous event Indeed, the sense that every human life has transcendent value has led a whole stream of the Christian tradition to argue that life may never be taken. That position is held by an increasing number of Catholics and is reflected in the pastoral letter, but it has not been the dominant view in Catholic teaching and it is not the principal moral position found in the pastoral letter. What is found in the letter is the traditional Catholic teaching that there should always be a presumption against taking human life, but in a limited world marked by the effects of sin there are some narrowly defined exceptions where life can be taken. This is the moral logic which produced the “Just-War” ethic in Catholic theology.

While this style of moral reasoning retains its validity as a method of resolving extreme cases of conflict when fundamental rights are at stake, there has been a perceptible shift of emphasis in the teaching and pastoral practice of the Church in the last 30 years. To summarize the shift succinctly, the presumption against taking human life has been strengthened and the exceptions made ever more restrictive. Two examples, one at the level of principle, the other at the level of pastoral practice, illustrate the shift.

First, in a path-breaking article in 1959 in Theological Studies, John Courtney Murray, SJ., demonstrated that Pope Pius XII had reduced the traditional threefold justification for going to war (defense, recovery of property and punishment) to the single reason of defending the innocent and protecting those values required for decent human existence. Second, in the case of capital punishment, there has been a shift at the level of pastoral practice. While not denying the classical position, found in the writing of Thomas Aquinas and other authors, that the state has the right to employ capital punishment, the action of Catholic bishops and Popes Paul VI and John Paul II has been directed against the exercise of that right by the state. The argument has been that more humane methods of defending the society exist and should be used. Such humanitarian concern lies behind the policy position of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops against capital punishment, the opposition expressed by individual bishops in their home states against reinstating the death penalty, and the extraordinary interventions of Pope John Paul II and the Florida bishops seeking to prevent the execution in Florida last week.

Rather than extend the specific analysis of this shift of emphasis at the levels of both principle and practice in Catholic thought, I wish to probe the rationale behind the shift and indicate what it teaches us about the need for a consistent ethic of life. Fundamental to the shift is a more acute perception of the multiple ways in which life is threatened today. Obviously questions like war, aggression and capital punishment have been with us for centuries and are not new to us. What is new is the context in which these ancient questions arise, and the way in which a new context shapes the content of our ethic of life. Let me comment on the relationship of the context of our culture and the content of our ethic in terms of: 1) the need for a consistent ethic of life; 2) the attitude necessary to sustain it; and 3) the principles needed to shape it.

The dominant cultural fact, present in both modern warfare and modern medicine, which induces a sharper awareness of the fragility of human life is our technology. To live as we do in an age of careening development of technology is to face a qualitatively new range of moral problems. War has been a perennial threat to human life, but today the threat is qualitatively different due to nuclear weapons. We now threaten life on a scale previously unimaginable. As the pastoral letter put it, the dangers of nuclear war teach us to read the Book of Genesis with new eyes. From the inception of life to its decline, a rapidly expanding technology opens new opportunities for care but also poses new potential to threaten the sanctity of life.

The technological challenge is a pervasive concern of Pope John Paul II, expressed in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, and continuing through his address to the Pontifical Academy of Science last month when he called scientists to direct their work toward the promotion of life, not the creation of instruments of death. The essential question in the technological challenge is this: In an age when we can do almost anything, how do we decide what we ought to do? The even more demanding question is: In a time when we can do anything technologically, how do we decide morally what we never should do?

Asking these questions along the spectrum of life from womb to tomb creates the need for a consistent ethic of life. For the spectrum of life cuts across the issues of genetics, abortion, capital punishment, modern warfare and the care of the terminally ill. These are all distinct problems, enormously complicated, and deserving individual treatment. No single answer and no simple responses will solve them. My purpose, however, is to highlight the way in which we face new technological challenges in each one of these areas; this combination of challenges is what cries out for a consistent ethic of life.

Such an ethic will have to be finely honed and carefully structured on the basis of values, principles, rules and applications to specific cases. It is not my task today, nor within my competence as a bishop, to spell out all the details of such an ethic. It is to that task that philosophers and poets, theologians and technicians, scientists and strategists, political leaders and plain citizens are called. I would, however, highlight a basic issue: the need for an attitude or atmosphere in society which is the pre-condition for sustaining a consistent ethic of life. The development of such an atmosphere has been the primary concern of the “Respect Life” program of the American bishops. We intend our opposition to abortion and our opposition to nuclear war to be seen as specific applications of this broader attitude. We have also opposed the death penalty because we do not think its use cultivates an attitude of respect for life in society. The purpose of proposing a consistent ethic of life 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.

Attitude is the place to root an ethic of life, but ultimately ethics is about principles to guide the actions of individuals and institutions. It is therefore necessary to illustrate, at least by way of example, my proposition that an inner relationship does exist among several issues not only at the level of general attitude but at the more specific level of moral principles. Two examples will serve to indicate the point.

The first is contained in The Challenge of Peace in the connection drawn between Catholic teaching on war and Catholic teaching on abortion. Both, of course, must be seen in light of an attitude of respect for life. The more explicit connection is based on the principle which prohibits the directly intended taking of innocent human life. The principle is at the heart of Catholic teaching on abortion; it is because the fetus is judged to be both human and not an aggressor that Catholic teaching concludes that direct attack on fetal life is always wrong. This is also why we insist that legal protection be given to the unborn.

The same principle yields the most stringent, binding and radical conclusion of the pastoral letter: that directly intended attacks on civilian centers are always wrong. The bishops seek to highlight the power of this conclusion by specifying its implications in two ways: first, such attacks would be wrong even if our cities had been hit first; second, anyone asked to execute such attacks should refuse orders. These two extensions of the principle cut directly into the policy debate on nuclear strategy and the personal decisions of citizens. James Reston referred to them as “an astonishing challenge to the power of the state.”

The use of this principle exemplifies the meaning of a consistent ethic of life. The principle which structures both cases, war and abortion, needs to be upheld in both places. It cannot be successfully sustained on one count and simultaneously eroded in a similar situation. When one carries this principle into the public debate today, however, one meets significant opposition from very different places on the political and ideological spectrum. Some see clearly the application of the principle to abortion but contend the bishops overstepped their bounds when they applied it to choices about national security. Others understand the power of the principle in the strategic debate, but find its application on abortion a violation of the realm of private choice. I contend the viability of the principle depends upon the consistency of its application.

The issue of consistency is tested in a different way when we examine the relationship between the “right to life” and “quality of life” issues. I must confess that I think the relationship of these categories is inadequately understood in the Catholic community itself. My point is that the Catholic position on abortion demands of us and of society that we seek to influence an heroic social ethic.

If one contends, as we do, that the right of every fetus to be born should be protected by civil law and supported by civil consensus, then our moral, political and economic responsibilities do not stop at the moment of birth. 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. Such a quality of life posture translates into specific political and economic positions on tax policy, employment generation, welfare policy, nutrition and feeding programs, and health care. Consistency means we cannot have it both ways. We cannot urge a compassionate society and vigorous public policy to protect the rights of the unborn and then argue that compassion and significant public programs on behalf of the needy undermine the moral fiber of the society or are beyond the proper scope of governmental responsibility.

Right to life and quality of life complement each other in domestic social policy. They are also complementary in foreign policy. The Challenge of Peace joined the question of how we prevent nuclear war to the question of how we build peace in an interdependent world. Today those who are admirably concerned with reversing the nuclear arms race must also be those who stand for a positive U.S. policy of building the peace. It is this linkage which has led the U.S. bishops not only to oppose the drive of the nuclear arms race, but to stand against the dynamic of a Central American policy which relies predominantly on the threat and the use of force, which is increasingly distancing itself from a concern for human rights in El Salvador and which fails to grasp the opportunity of a diplomatic solution to the Central American conflict.

The relationship of the spectrum of life issues is far more intricate than I can even sketch here. I have made the case in the broad strokes of a lecturer; the detailed balancing, distinguishing and connecting of different aspects of a consistent ethic of life is precisely what this address calls the university community to investigate. Even as I leave this challenge before you, let me add to it some reflections on the task of communicating a consistent ethic of life in a pluralistic society.

III. Catholic Ethics and the American Ethos: The Challenge and the Opportunity

A consistent ethic of life must be held by a constituency to be effective. The building of such a constituency is precisely the task before the Church and the nation. There are two distinct challenges, but they are complementary.

We should begin with the honest recognition that the shaping of a consensus among Catholics on the spectrum of life issues is far from finished. We need the kind of dialogue on these issues which the pastoral letter generated on the nuclear question. We need the same searching intellectual exchange, the same degree of involvement of clergy, religious and laity, the same sustained attention in the Catholic press.

There is no better place to begin than by using the follow-through for the pastoral letter. Reversing the arms race, avoiding nuclear war and moving toward a world freed of the nuclear threat are profoundly “prolife” issues. The Catholic Church is today seen as an institution and a community committed to these tasks. We should not lose this momentum; it provides a solid foundation to relate our concerns about war and peace to other “pro-life” questions. The agenda facing us involves our ideas and our institutions; it must be both educational and political; it requires attention to the way these several life issues are defined in the public debate and how they are decided in the policy process.

The shaping of a consensus in the Church must be joined to the larger task of sharing our vision with the wider society. Here two questions face us: the substance of our position and the style of our presence in the policy debate.

The substance of a Catholic position on a consistent ethic of life is rooted in a religious vision. But the citizenry of the United States is radically pluralistic in moral and religious conviction. So we face the challenge of stating our case, which is shaped in terms of our faith and our religious convictions, in non-religious terms which others of different faith convictions might find morally persuasive. Here again the war and peace debate should be a useful model. We have found support from individuals and groups who do not share our Catholic faith but who have found our moral analysis compelling.

In the public policy exchange, substance and style are closely related. The issues of war, abortion, and capital punishment are emotional and often divisive questions. As we seek to shape and share the vision of a consistent ethic of life, I suggest a style governed by the following rule: We should maintain and clearly articulate our religious convictions but also maintain our civil courtesy. We should be vigorous in stating a case and attentive in hearing another’s case; we should test everyone’s logic but not question his or her motives.

The proposal I have outlined today is a multi-dimensional challenge. It grows out of the experience I have had in the war and peace debate and the task I see ahead as Chairman of the Pro-Life Committee. But it also grows from a conviction that there is a new openness today in society to the role of moral argument and moral vision in our public affairs. I say this even though I find major aspects of our domestic and foreign policy in need of drastic change. Bringing about these changes is the challenge of a consistent ethic of life. The challenge is worth our energy, resources and commitment as a Church.


A Consistent Ethic of Life: Continuing the Dialogue
The William Wade Lecture Series
St. Louis University

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin
March 11, 1984

I first wish to express my appreciation to St. Louis University for the invitation to deliver the 1984 Wade Lecture. “The William Wade Lecture Series” is a fitting way to celebrate Father Wade’s life as a priest, a philosopher, and a teacher. His interest in the moral issues confronting today’s Church and society was an inspiration to all who knew him. I hope that my participation in this series will help to keep alive his memory and his ideals.

Three months ago I gave a lecture at Fordham University honoring another Jesuit educator, Father John Gannon, and I addressed the topic of a consistent ethic of life. That lecture has generated a substantial discussion both inside and outside the Church on the linkage of life issues, issues which, I am convinced, constitute a “seamless garment.” This afternoon I would like to extend the discussion by expanding upon the idea of a consistent ethic of life.

The setting of a Catholic university is one deliberately chosen for these lectures. My purpose is to foster the kind of sustained intellectual analysis and debate which the Jesuit tradition has cultivated throughout its history. The discussion must go beyond the university but it will not occur without the involvement of Catholic universities. I seek to call attention to the resources in the Catholic tradition for shaping a viable public ethic. I hope to engage others in the Church and in the wider civil society in an examination of the challenges to human life which surround us today, and the potential of a consistent ethic of life. The Fordham lecture has catalyzed a vigorous debate; I seek to enlarge it, not to end it.

I will address three topics today: (1) the case for a consistent ethic of life; (2) the distinct levels of the problem; and (3) the contribution of a consistent ethic to the Church and society generally.

I. The Seamless Garment: The Logic of the Case

The invitation extended to me for both the Gannon Lecture at Fordham and the Wade Lecture today asked that I address some aspect of the bishops’ pastoral, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.” While I would gladly have spent each lecture on the question of war and peace, I decided that it was equally necessary to show how the pastoral is rooted in a wider moral vision. Understanding that vision can enhance the way we address specific questions like the arms race. When I set forth the argument about this wider moral vision—a consistent ethic of life—it evoked favorable comments, often from individuals and groups who had supported the peace pastoral but found themselves at odds with other positions the Catholic Church has taken on issues touching human life. At the same time, the Fordham address also generated letters from people who fear that the case for a consistent ethic will smother the Catholic opposition to abortion or will weaken our stance against the arms race.

Precisely in response to these concerns, I wish to state the essence of the case for a consistent ethic of life, specifying why it is needed and what is actually being advocated in a call for such an ethic. There are, in my view, two reasons why we need to espouse a consistent ethic of life: (1) the dimensions of the threats to life today; and (2) the value of our moral vision.

The threat to human life posed by nuclear war is so tangible that it has captured the attention of the nation. Public opinion polls rank it as one of the leading issues in the 1984 election campaign; popular movements like the “nuclear Freeze” and professional organizations of physicians and scientists have shaped the nuclear question in terms which engage citizens and experts alike.

The Church is part of the process which has raised the nuclear issue to a new standing in our public life. I submit that the Church should be a leader in the dialogue which shows that the nuclear question itself is part of the larger cultural–political–moral drama. Pope John Paul II regularly situates his examination of the nuclear issue in the framework of the broader problem of technology, politics, and ethics.

When this broader canvas is analyzed, the concern for a specific issue does not recede, but the meaning of multiple threats to life today—the full dimension of the problems of politics and technology—becomes vividly clear. The case being made here is not a condemnation of either politics or technology, but a recognition with the Pope that, on a range of key issues, “it is only through a conscious choice and through a deliberate policy that humanity can be saved.” That quote from the Holy Father has unique relevance to nuclear war, but it can be used creatively to address other threats to life.

The range of application is all too evident: nuclear war threatens life on a previously unimaginable scale; abortion takes life daily on a horrendous scale; public executions are fast becoming weekly events in the most advanced technological society in history; and euthanasia is now openly discussed and even advocated. Each of these assaults on life has its own meaning and morality; they cannot be collapsed into one problem, but they must be confronted as pieces of a larger pattern.

The reason I have placed such stress on the idea of a consistent ethic of life from the beginning of my term as chairman of the Pro-Life Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops is twofold: I am persuaded by the interrelatedness of these diverse problems, and I am convinced that the Catholic moral vision has the scope, the strength and the subtlety to address this wide range of issues in an effective fashion. It is precisely the potential of our moral vision that is often not recognized even within the community of the Church. The case for a consistent ethic of life—one which stands for the protection of the right to life and the promotion of the rights which enhance life from womb to tomb—manifests the positive potential of the Catholic moral and social tradition.

It is both a complex and a demanding tradition; it joins the humanity of the unborn infant and the humanity of the hungry; it calls for positive legal action to prevent the killing of the unborn or the aged and positive societal action to provide shelter for the homeless and education for the illiterate. The potential of the moral and social vision is appreciated in a new way when the systemic vision of Catholic ethics is seen as the background for the specific positions we take on a range of issues.

In response to those who fear otherwise, I contend that the systemic vision of a consistent ethic of life will not erode our crucial public opposition to the direction of the arms race; neither will it smother our persistent and necessary public opposition to abortion. The systemic vision is rooted in the conviction that our opposition to these distinct problems has a common foundation and that both Church and society are served by making it evident.

A consistent ethic of life does not equate the problem of taking life (e.g., through abortion and in war) with the problem of promoting human dignity (through humane programs of nutrition, health care, and housing). But a consistent ethic identifies both the protection of life and its promotion as moral questions. It argues for a continuum of life which must be sustained in the face of diverse and distinct threats.

A consistent ethic does not say everyone in the Church must do all things, but it does say that as individuals and groups pursue one issue, whether it is opposing abortion or capital punishment, the way we oppose one threat should be related to support for a systemic vision of life. It is not necessary or possible for every person to engage in each issue, but it is both possible and necessary for the Church as a whole to cultivate a conscious explicit connection among the several issues. And it is very necessary for preserving a systemic vision that individuals and groups who seek to witness to life at one point of the spectrum of life not be seen as insensitive to or even opposed to other moral claims on the overall spectrum of life. Consistency does rule out contradictory moral positions about the unique value of human life. No one is called to do everything, but each of us can do something. And we can strive not to stand against each other when the protection and the promotion of life are at stake.

 II. The Seamless Garment: The Levels of the Question

A consistent ethic of life should honor the complexity of the multiple issues it must address. It is necessary to distinguish several levels of the question. Without attempting to be comprehensive, allow me to explore four distinct dimensions of a consistent ethic.

First, at the level of general moral principles, it is possible to identify a single principle with diverse applications. In the Fordham address I used the prohibition against direct attacks on innocent life. This principle is both central to the Catholic moral vision and systematically related to a range of specific moral issues. It prohibits direct attacks on unborn life in the womb, direct attacks on civilians in warfare, and the direct killing of patients in nursing homes.

Each of these topics has a constituency in society concerned with the morality of abortion, war, and care of the aged and dying. A consistent ethic of life encourages the specific concerns of each constituency, but also calls them to see the interrelatedness of their efforts. The need to defend the integrity of the moral principle in the full range of its application is a responsibility of each distinct constituency. If the principle is eroded in the public mind, all lose.

A second level of a consistent ethic stresses the distinction among cases rather than their similarities. We need different moral principles to apply to diverse cases. The classical distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means has applicability in the care of the dying but no relevance in the case of warfare. Not all moral principles have relevance across the whole range of life issues. Moreover, sometimes a systemic vision of the life issues requires a combination of moral insights to provide direction on one issue. At Fordham, I cited the classical teaching on capital punishment which gives the State the right to take life in defense of key social values. But I also pointed out how a concern for promoting a public attitude of respect for life has led the bishops of the United States to oppose the exercise of that right.

Some of the responses I have received on the Fordham address correctly say that abortion and capital punishment are not identical issues. The principle which protects innocent life distinguishes the unborn child from the convicted murderer.

Other letters stress that while nuclear war is a threat to life, abortion involves the actual taking of life, here and now. I accept both of these distinctions, of course, but I also find compelling the need to relate the cases while keeping them in distinct categories.

Abortion is taking of life in ever growing numbers in our society. Those concerned about it, I believe, will find their case enhanced by taking note of the rapidly expanding use of public execution. In a similar way, those who are particularly concerned about these executions, even if the accused has taken another life, should recognize the elementary truth that a society which can be indifferent to the innocent life of an unborn child will not be easily stirred to concern for a convicted criminal. There is, I maintain, a political and psychological linkage among the life issues—from war to welfare concerns—which we ignore at our own peril: a systemic vision of life seeks to expand the moral imagination of a society, not partition it into airtight categories.

A third level of the question before us involves how we relate a commitment to principles to our public witness of life. As I have said, no one can do everything. There are limits to both competency and energy; both point to the wisdom of setting priorities and defining distinct functions. The Church, however, must be credible across a wide range of issues; the very scope of our moral vision requires a commitment to a multiplicity of questions. In this way the teaching of the Church will sustain a variety of individual commitments.

Neither the Fordham address nor this one is intended to constrain wise and vigorous efforts to protect and promote life through specific, precise forms of action. Both addresses do seek to cultivate a dialogue within the Church and in the wider society among individuals and groups which draw on common principles (e.g., the prohibition against killing the innocent) but seem convinced that they do not share common ground. The appeal here is not for anyone to do everything, but to recognize points of interdependence which should be stressed, not denied.

A fourth level, one where dialogue is sorely needed, is the relationship between moral principles and concrete political choices. The moral questions of abortion, the arms race, the fate of social programs for the poor, and the role of human rights in foreign policy are public moral issues. The arena in which they are ultimately decided is not the academy or the Church but the political process. A consistent ethic of life seeks to present a coherent linkage among a diverse set of issues. It can and should be used to test party platforms, public policies, and political candidates. The Church legitimately fulfills a public role by articulating a framework for political choices by relating that framework to specific issues and by calling for systematic moral analysis of all areas of public policy.

This is the role our Bishops’ Conference has sought to fulfill by publishing a “Statement on Political Responsibility” during each of the presidential and congressional election years in the past decade. The purpose is surely not to tell citizens how to vote, but to help shape the public debate and form personal conscience so that every citizen will vote thoughtfully and responsibly. Our “Statement on Political Responsibility” has always been, like our “Respect Life Program,” a multi-issue approach to public morality. The fact that this Statement sets forth a spectrum of issues of current concern to the Church and society should not be understood as implying that all issues are qualitatively equal from a moral perspective.

As I indicated earlier, each of the life issues—while related to all the others—is distinct and calls for its own specific moral analysis. Both the Statement and the Respect Life program have direct relevance to the political order, but they are applied concretely by the choice of citizens. This is as it should be. In the political order the Church is primarily a teacher; it possesses a carefully cultivated tradition of moral analysis of personal and public issues. It makes that tradition available in a special manner for the community of the Church, but it offers it also to all who find meaning and guidance in its moral teaching.

 III. The Seamless Garment: A Pastoral and Public Contribution

The moral teaching of the Church has both pastoral and public significance. Pastorally, a consistent ethic of life is a contribution to the witness of the Church’s defense of the human person. Publicly, a consistent ethic fills a void in our public policy debate today.

Pastorally, I submit that a Church standing forth on the entire range of issues which the logic of our moral vision bids us to confront will be a Church in the style of both Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes and in the style of Pope John Paul II’s consistent witness to life. The pastoral life of the Church should not be guided by a simplistic criterion of relevance. But the capacity of faith to shed light on the concrete questions of personal and public life today is one way in which the value of the Gospel is assessed.

Certainly the serious, sustained interest manifested throughout American society in the bishops’ letter on war and peace provides a unique pastoral opportunity for the Church. Demonstrating how the teaching on war and peace is supported by a wider concern for all of life may bring others to see for the first time what our tradition has affirmed for a very long time: the linkage among the life issues.

The public value of a consistent ethic of life is connected directly to its pastoral role. In the public arena we should always speak and act like a Church. But the unique public possibility for a consistent ethic is provided precisely by the unstructured character of the public debate on the life questions. Each of the issues I have identified today—abortion, war, hunger and human rights, euthanasia and capital punishment—is treated as a separate, self-contained topic in our public life. Each is distinct, but an ad hoc approach to each one fails to illustrate how our choices in one area can affect our decisions in other areas. There must be a public attitude of respect for all of life if public actions are to respect it in concrete cases.

The pastoral on war and peace speaks of a “new moment” in the nuclear age. The pastoral has been widely studied and applauded because it caught the spirit of the “new moment” and spoke with moral substance to the issues of the “new moment.” I am convinced there is an “open moment” before us on the agenda of life issues. It is a significant opportunity for the Church to demonstrate the strength of a sustained moral vision. I submit that a clear witness to a consistent ethic of life will allow us to grasp the opportunity of this “open moment” and serve both the sacredness of every human life and the God of Life who is the origin and support of our common humanity.

The Death Penalty in Our Time
Address to Criminal Law Committee
Criminal Court of Cook County — May 14, 1985

I wish to acknowledge with gratitude your considerable contribution to the quality of life among the people of Cook County as you preserve the value of justice and implement it each day. The court system is an indispensable part of our great American heritage of “justice for all under the law.” I am aware that your dedicated work involves considerable frustration as you constantly encounter the seamier side of human behavior.

I am grateful for your invitation to meet with you this afternoon and to share my reflections on an issue of mutual concern: capital punishment. I come before you as a pastor—not a legal expert. It is my understanding that the constitutional principle of the separation of Church and State ensures religious organizations the right to engage in debate about public policy, expecting neither favoritism nor discrimination. At the same time, I firmly believe that they must earn the right to be heard by the quality of their arguments.

It has also been my longstanding conviction that civil law and social policy must always be subject to ongoing moral analysis. Simply because a civil law is in place does not mean it should be blindly supported. Encouraging reflective, informed assessment of civil law and policy keeps alive the capacity for moral criticism in society.

I also come before you as a citizen who cares deeply about the quality of life in our community.

I will address two dimensions of the topic this afternoon. First, I will situate the issue of capital punishment in the context of a consistent ethic of life and then examine the case for capital punishment in light of this ethic.

I. The Context: A Consistent Ethic of Life

Catholic social teaching is based on two truths about the human person: human life is both sacred and social. Because we esteem human life as sacred, we have a duty to protect and foster it at all stages of development, from conception to death, and in all circumstances. Because we acknowledge that human life is also social, society must protect and foster it.

Precisely because life is sacred, the taking of even one life is a momentous event. Traditional Catholic teaching has allowed the taking of human life in particular situations by way of exception, as, for example, in self defense and capital punishment. In recent decades, however, the presumptions against taking human life have been strengthened and the exceptions made ever more restrictive.

Fundamental to this shift in emphasis is a more acute perception of the multiple ways in which life is threatened today. Obviously such questions as war, aggression and capital punishment have been with us for centuries; they are not new. What is new is the context in which these ancient questions arise, and the way in which a new context shapes the content of our ethic of life.

Within the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council acknowledged that “a sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man” (Declaration on Religious Freedom, #1). This growing awareness of human dignity has been a dominant factor within Western culture. Within the United States, the struggle to appreciate human worth more fully is found in the civil rights movement and in the public debate about our foreign policy toward totalitarian regimes of both the right and the left.

This deepening awareness, as I intimated above, has been precipitated in part by a growing recognition of the frailty of human life today. Faced with the threat of nuclear war and escalating technological developments, the human family encounters a qualitatively new range of moral problems. Today, life is threatened on a scale previously unimaginable.

This is why the U.S. Catholic bishops and others have been so visible and vocal in the public debate this past decade or two, asserting belief in the sacredness of human life and the responsibilities we have, personally and as a society, to protect and preserve the sanctity of life.

Nonetheless, it is not enough merely to assert such an ethical principle. If it is to be acknowledged and implemented, it must impact all areas of human life. It must respond to all the moments, places or conditions which either threaten the sanctity of life or cultivate an attitude of disrespect for it.

A consistent ethic of life is based on the need to ensure that the sacredness of human life, which is the ultimate source of human dignity, will be defended and fostered from womb to tomb, from the genetic laboratory to the cancer ward, from the ghetto to the prison.

II. Capital Punishment in Light of This Ethic

As you undoubtedly know, since the time of St. Augustine, great thinkers in the Roman Catholic tradition—St. Thomas Aquinas, for example—have struggled with such ethical questions as the right of the State to execute criminals. Through the centuries, as I noted above, the Church has acknowledged that the State does have the right to take the life of someone guilty of an extremely serious crime.

However, because such punishment involves the deliberate infliction of evil on another, it always needs justification. Usually this has consisted of indicating some good which would derive from the punishment, a good of such consequence that it justifies the taking of life.

As I understand the current discussion about capital punishment, the question is not whether the State still has the right to inflict capital punishment, but whether it should exercise this right. In present circumstances, are there sufficient reasons to justify the infliction of the evil of death on another human person?

This is the question which the U.S. Catholic Bishops and others have been addressing recently—the United States Catholic Conference in 1980, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference Board of Governors in 1982, the Oklahoma Catholic bishops in 1983, the Tennessee Bishops exactly one year ago today, and Florida church leaders last November. Although there are differences of presentation, basically the reasoning of these positions follows two lines of thought.

First, they review four traditional arguments justifying capital punishment retribution, deterrence, reform and protection of the State. Based on their review, the religious leaders have argued that these reasons no longer apply in our age.

I don’t have time this afternoon to present the reasoning in regard to all four areas, but I would like to use the question of retribution as an example. The 1980 USCC statement states:

We grant that the need of retribution does indeed justify punishment. For the practice of punishment both presupposes a previous transgression against the law and involves the involuntary deprivation of certain goods. But we maintain that this good does not require nor does it justify the taking of the life of the criminal, even in cases of murder…. It is morally unsatisfactory and socially destructive for criminals to go unpunished, but the limits of punishment must be determined by moral objectives which go beyond the mere infliction of injury on the guilty. Thus we would argue it is as barbarous and inhumane for a criminal who had tortured or maimed a victim to be tortured or maimed in return. Such punishment might satisfy certain vindictive desires that we or the victim might feel, but the satisfaction of such desires is not and cannot be an objective of a humane and Christian approach to punishment.

Basing their judgment on this and similar lines of reasoning, many religious leaders conclude that, under our present circumstances, the death penalty as punishment for reasons of deterrence, retribution, reform or protection of society cannot be justified.

Nonetheless, our reflections on this issue do not stop at this level. As religious leaders we argue that there are gospel insights which bespeak the inappropriateness of capital punishment. First, there is the example of Jesus, offering forgiveness at the time of his own unfair death (Lk 23:24).

Another challenging gospel theme is that of “God’s boundless love for every person, regardless of human merit or worthiness. This love was especially visible in Jesus’ ministry to outcasts, in his acceptance of sinners” (Florida church leaders). Consistent with this theme and flowing from it is the biblical imperative of reconciliation. Wherever there is division between persons, Christ calls them to forgiveness and reconciliation.

While these themes are specifically grounded in the New Testament, I do not believe they are unique to the Christian vision. People of good will recognize that these values ennoble human experience and make it more complete. Commitment to these values changes one’s perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of the human family.

This change in perspective seems to have been in mind when the ecumenical leaders of Florida stated that Jesus shifted the locus of judgment in this matter to a higher court: a court where there is absolute knowledge of the evidence, of good deeds and of evil, of faith and of works of faith, of things private and things public—a court in which there is both wrath and tenderness, both law and grace.

It is when we stand in this perspective of a “higher court”—that of God’s judgment seat—and a more noble view of the human person, that we seriously question the appropriateness of capital punishment. We ask ourselves: Is the human family made more complete—is human personhood made more loving—in a society which demands life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth?

Let me acknowledge that your experience is probably quite different from mine. You have had to deal with heinous crimes, with persons so filled with hatred and violence as to chill the heart. You may be wondering whether my colleagues and I are naive or simplistic in our approach.

Perhaps I won’t be able to dispel that perception with my response. Nevertheless, I want to affirm that the State does have the responsibility to protect its citizens. It deserves and merits the full support of all of us in the exercise of that responsibility. Although we don’t have an adequate understanding of the causes of violent crime, society “has the right and the duty to prevent such behavior including, in some cases, the right to impose terms of lifetime imprisonment” (Florida ecumenical leaders).

I am not suggesting that society should be a prisoner of violence or violent crime. On the contrary, the consistent ethic of life requires that society struggle to eradicate poverty, racism and other systemic forces which nurture and encourage violence. Similarly, the perpetrators of violence should be punished and given the opportunity to experience a change of heart and mind.

But, having said this, I also think that capital punishment is not an appropriate response to the problem of crime in our land. To take any human life, even that of someone who is not innocent, is awesome and tragic. It seems to me and to others that, in our culture today, there are not sufficient reasons to justify the State continuing Exercise its right in this matter. There are other, better ways of protecting the interests of society.

Recently the Gallup organization conducted a poll about capital punishment—something they had done on previous occasions. In 1966 42% of those polled favored capital punishment, in 1981 66% favored it, and this year the percentage was 72%.

Why has 24% of the population turned to favoring capital punishment in the last nineteen years? This question is even more urgent because that same poll reported that fully 51% of the respondents said “they would still support capital punishment even if studies showed conclusively it does not deter crime”! This is striking because people often use deterrence as a main argument to justify capital punishment. If it is not to deter crime, why do people support capital punishment? Thirty percent of those who favored capital punishment indicated their reason was simple: revenge!

One might argue that the cycle of violence has become so intense in our society that it is understandable and appropriate for people to support capital punishment. What alternative is there, some ask, in a violent society other than to meet violence with violence?

As a citizen in a democracy whose founding dream is of human dignity and as a disciple of Jesus, I must reject this alternative. In fact, as a citizen of this city which has recently been alarmed, saddened and polarized by the senseless killing of a talented high school basketball star and a ten-year-old standing in front of his home, I assert that violence is not the answer—it is not the way to break the cycle of violence.

Pope John Paul II, speaking to Peruvians who were living in the midst of a rebel stronghold, told them: “The pitiless logic of violence leads to nothing. No good is obtained by helping to increase violence.”

Capital punishment, to my mind, is an example of meeting violence with violence. What does it say about the quality of our life when people celebrate the death of another human being? What does it say about the human spirit when some suggest a return to public executions which only twenty years ago we would have considered barbaric?

We desperately need an attitude or atmosphere in society which will sustain a consistent defense and promotion of life. Where human life is considered “cheap” and easily “wasted,” eventually nothing is held as sacred and all lives are in jeopardy. The purpose of proposing a consistent ethic of life 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 life. Attitude is the place to root an ethic of life.

Change of attitude, in turn, can lead to change of policies and practices in our society. We must find ways to break the cycle of violence which threatens to strangle our land. We must find effective means of protecting and enhancing human life.

“Deciding for Life”
Cardinal Bernardin’s Message
For “Respect Life Sunday” in the USA
1 October 1989

This year as the Church in the United States celebrates Respect Life Sunday, some observations on the notion of freedom are in order.

We Americans cherish freedom. To act on our own judgments and enjoy the responsible use of freedom accords more with human dignity than does being pressured or coerced into action by outside forces. Personal freedom enables us, in harmony with others, to pursue those goods and values which enhance and enable human lives.

It is good to keep in mind, though, that freedom is not an absolute value. At times some, in their exercise of personal freedom diminish the freedom and dignity of others. At other times, vulnerable groups in society need their personal freedoms protected. In both in government has an obligation to limit one group’s use of its freedom so another group may legitimately exercise its freedom.

A common example illustrates this point. Governments at various levels have passed ordinances requiring reserved sections in parking lots for persons with disabilities. Although this restricts the liberty of those who are not disabled and who would like to park in those sections, the vast majority of people accept this type of restrictive legislation. It is easy to see how reserved parking areas enable those with disabilities to have easier access to facilities. Government intervention restricts the personal liberties of some without demeaning them as persons in order to uphold the personal liberty of the disabled and provide them with an opportunity to lead fuller lives.

Laws requiring handicapped parking sections are based on a respect for the dignity of persons with disabilities and a call to others to treat them with fairness and justice. The pursuit of values associated with the human spirit is the purpose of freedom. Protection of these same values is the justification for restricting personal liberty.

Not all values, however, are of equal weight. Some are more fundamental than others. On this Respect Life Sunday, I wish to emphasize that no earthly value is more fundamental than human life itself. Human life is the condition for enjoying freedom and all other values. Consequently, if one must choose between protecting or serving lesser human values that depend upon life for their existence and life itself, human life must take precedence.

Today the recognition of human life as a fundamental value is threatened. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of elective abortion. At present in our country this procedure takes the lives of over 4,000 unborn children every day and over 1.5 million each year.

Some, though admittedly a small minority, even favor abortion for the purpose of eliminating a child that is not the sex desired by the mother or both parents. Such a decision gives more weight to gender preference than to life itself. Yet, this is permitted under our nation’s current legal policy virtually allowing abortion on demand.

Others, though increasingly a minority give, higher priority to the freedom of teenage girls to abort their children without their parents knowledge or consent than they do the value of the human lives these young women carry within them. Overcoming fear, embarrassment and inconvenience, or concern about not interrupting one’s career plans are value often cited in justifying elective abortion. Giving precedence to these values to justify abortion ignores the priority of the more fundamental value, namely life itself.

The primary intention of the consistent ethic of life, as I have articulated it over the past six years, is to raise consciousness about the sanctity and reverence of all human life from conception to natural death. The more one embraces this concept, the more sensitive one becomes to the value of human life itself at all stages. This is why this year’s Respect Life observance, whose program is shaped by the consistent ethic of life, includes, in addition to abortion, such topics as euthanasia, the Church and technology, violence in our culture, the changing American family, and the Church’s concern for the elderly.

This consistent ethic points out the inconsistency of defending life in one area while dismissing it in another. Each specific issue requires its own moral analysis and each may call for varied, specific responses. Moreover different issues may engage the energies of different people or of the same people at different times. But there is a linkage among all the life issues which cannot be ignored.

Because of the Webster decision, the abortion issue is being debated intensely at this moment. and the consistent ethic has much to contribute. For the more one reverences human life at all stages, the more one becomes committed to preserving the life of the unborn, for this is human life at its earliest and most vulnerable stage. And the more one is committed to preserving the life of the unborn, the one more one appreciates their need for constitutional protection.

There are those who support abortion on demand who do not grasp or will not discuss the intrinsic value of human life and the precedence it should take in decision making. The issue – the only issue – they insist, is the question of who decides — the individual or the government.

Who decides is not the issue. We all decide, but we make our free decisions within limits. In exercising our freedom, we must not make ourselves the center of the world. Other individuals born and unborn are as much a part of the human family as we are.

On this Respect Life Sunday I invite reflection on our free choices and the values which really are worth pursuing. I encourage a deeper appreciation for the freedom we have and how it enables us to achieve selfhood in harmony with others, particularly the weak and vulnerable whose dignity as persons may not be as clearly in evidence. In short, I exhort you to decide for life.