Cardinal Bernardin’s ‘Consistent Ethic of Life’ still divides Catholics 40 years later
Editor’s note: Today marks the 40th anniversary of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s historic lecture at Fordham University on the “consistent ethic of life” on Dec. 6, 1983.
Only three years after he first proposed a consistent ethic of life in his 1983 lecture at Fordham University, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin lamented how the notion of the consistent ethic already had become controversial among “persons active in the right-to-life movement.” Indeed, as recently as 2020, John Hirschauer wrote in National Review that the consistent ethic reflected an effort to “equivocate between long-standing progressive priorities and the moral urgency of abortion.” Depressingly, 40 years since Cardinal Bernardin first proposed the consistent ethic of life, the ethic remains mired in the same senseless, polarized partisanship that Bernardin proposed the ethic to overcome. The inconsistency of Catholic moral witness has proven to be more durable than any effort to tame it.
Consistency was and is the challenge of a consistent ethic of life, a call to look past how political choices are usually framed and to see public life always in light of the Gospel.
The consistent ethic emerged from the U.S. bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace.” Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980 had reignited the nuclear arms race, and the nation’s Catholic bishops became alarmed. At their November 1980 meeting, an ad hoc committee was formed to study the moral challenge posed by the nuclear arms buildup. Across the next two and a half years, the bishops engaged in an extraordinary process of public deliberation. Testimony was taken from experts. A meeting between the bishops’ committee and members of the National Security Council was held at the White House. The bishops released two drafts of the pastoral letter for public comment before the final letter was approved by a vote of 238-19.
The leader of this extraordinary (one might say “synodal”) process was Chicago’s Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. The process itself reflected the commitment to peace expressed as a desire for dialogue that was the mark of Bernardin’s ministry. “The Challenge of Peace” named other threats to human life, including “oppression of the poor, deprivation of basic human rights, economic exploitation, sexual exploitation and pornography, neglect or abuse of the aged and the helpless, and innumerable other acts of inhumanity,” adding that “Abortion in particular blunts a sense of the sacredness of human life.” But Cardinal Bernardin felt that more needed to be said.
His Fordham lecture proceeded from “The Challenge of Peace,” reflecting on “the possibilities for development, which are latent in its various themes.” The lecture’s focus was on the “traditional Catholic teaching that there should always be a presumption against taking a human life.” Collaborating with the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, whom Cardinal Bernardin knew through his time as general secretary and president of the bishops’ conference, Cardinal Bernardin struck on a theme that Boston’s then-Archbishop Humberto Medeiros had named in a 1971 homily: “A Consistent Ethic of Life and the Law.”
Noting the inconsistency of how Catholics opposed abortion but supported a war in Vietnam that killed millions of innocent civilians, Archbishop Medeiros challenged his 1971 listeners to overcome their more ordinary, partisan instincts. He called on Catholics to be consistent. In a similar way, “The Challenge of Peace” had confronted a widespread assumption among Catholics that nuclear war could possibly meet the criteria for a just war, raising questions about the loss of innocent life through a nuclear war in unfavorable comparison with Catholic outrage against abortion.
Consistency was and is the challenge of a consistent ethic of life, a call to look past how political choices are usually framed and to see public life always in light of the Gospel. What Cardinal Bernardin proposed with a consistent ethic was not simple. He did not offer a formula. Rather, Cardinal Bernardin said: “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.” A consistent ethic of life is not about achieving policy successes against abortion, nuclear war, the death penalty or any other particular threat. Rather, a consistent ethic takes aim at our own converted attitude.
Cardinal Bernardin: “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,” Cardinal Bernardin said. We must adopt an attitude that reflects the “presumption against taking human life” consistently. Our changed attitude guides our actions, and then can lead to change of policies and practices in society. The consistent ethic of life becomes effective politically only once our attitudes have been converted. Even then, that effectiveness arises from persuasion more than from any pressure Catholics apply. Yet, the problem remains that Catholics fail to persuade not only the world outside the church—but even ourselves. There will be no changing public policy by means of a consistent ethic of life so long as we Catholics remain stubbornly inconsistent, still squabbling about the ethic amid our struggle to embrace it. Empirical data spells the problem. Down a range of important issues like abortion, climate, poverty and others, the Pew Research Center demonstrated in 2019 that there is no substantive difference between Catholic Democrats and all Democrats—or between Catholic Republicans and all Republicans. Just like non-Catholics, the surveys seem to suggest, Catholics think like partisans. Catholicism does not shape our political values.
The consistent ethic was eventually further absorbed into the teaching of the ordinary papal magisterium in Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, “Evangelium Vitae.” Still, we Catholics have not converted our attitudes. In fact, there are those who doubt the consistent ethic really is Catholic. Even among those who accept the consistent ethic, there are those who have misused it to push their own narrow agendas, pointing fingers at the political left or right for being inconsistent.
The call of the consistent ethic of life is something altogether more disruptive and challenging. The consistent ethic is not a political program at all. It is a spiritual call to conversion, to give priority to “the unique dignity of each human person,” no matter how much time and effort it might cost us—even if it is at the expense of cherished social or partisan commitments.
Forty years later, as Pope Francis now calls us to embrace a boundless and consistent solidarity, now more than ever is the time to renew our commitment to Cardinal Bernardin’s consistent ethic of life in all the ways it challenges and summons us to do better.