Our church and society stand in need of renewed and sustained discussion regarding an ethic of life. Serious conversation has largely devolved into sloganeering and sound bites. The prevailing metaphor, culture of life versus culture of death, has galvanized people’s imaginations and inspired outcries on issues ranging from abortion to third world debt. Yet at times the image has been co-opted into polemic, and the conclusions reached have both obscured the long and nuanced tradition of the church and belied the range and complexity of the issues involved. The debate over the circumstances of Terri Schiavo’s death offers a case in point. In the midst of ever-developing health care technology, what constitutes extraordinary means? At what point do such measures compromise a life of dignity? When is the extension of life no longer of value? These and many other such questions have no easy answers.
The example of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin has much to offer as we proceed. In December 1983 Cardinal Bernardin was invited to Fordham University to discuss the implications of the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response. He viewed his talk as an opportunity to imagine a Catholic ethic of life. His lecture meant to offer 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.
Cardinal Bernardin was careful about the language he used and the claims he made. In keeping with the spirit of a university, he said, I have cast my lecture in the style of an inquiry. He understood the idea of a consistent ethic of life that extended from womb to tomb as a proposal made in broad strokes. To generate a particular application to any given issue would require much additional hard work and earnest conversation. The spectrum of life cuts across the issues of genetics, abortion, capital punishment, modern warfare and the care of the terminally ill, he stated. These are all distinct problems, enormously complicated, and deserving individual treatment. No single answer and no single response will solve them. Paradoxically, a consistent ethic of life demands specificity of case and diversity of solution.
The church must do more than simply react to the issues of the day, Cardinal Bernardin argued; it must help shape the discussion with questions, images and principles that illuminate, inspire and challenge. And Catholics can and should be prophetic in their challenge of contemporary mores, never more than when the lives of innocent persons are at stake. Yet in today’s divided, either/or world, our faith calls us to precision in our claims and temperance in our rhetoric. What will make us truly prophetic in this conversation is not edicts but example, the willingness to wrestle with complexity and show love for all. You will know them by their deeds.... Any sound tree bears good fruit (Mt 7:16, 18).
An ethic of life for today also calls for poetry. Church people are like other people, the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes. The deep places in our livesplaces of resistance and embraceare not ultimately reached by instruction. Those places of resistance and embrace are reached only by stories, by images, metaphors and phrases that line out the world differently, apart from our fear and hurt. The language of metaphor and story finds a place for the held tensions and contradictions, loveliness and mystery of human life that are missing from the discourse of argument alone. So a film like Dead Man Walking, about the prison ministry of Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., moves viewers to consider the good by being faithful to the complex fullness of what is beautiful and what is true. As Catholics, we are a sacramental people, our life of faith grounded in and nourished by story and gesture, word, object and image. We have great riches to draw on and to share.
To build a culture of life, we must commit ourselves to what a culture is: a body of mutually sustaining and self-critical symbols and practices, in dialogue with the broader world, that enable us to understand that world and inform our practices within it. No one image or idea can bear the weight of the whole conversation. Culture of life is easily oversimplified. The seamless garment, an image Bernardin coined at Fordham to suggest the indivisibility required of a Catholic ethic of life, has been taken by some to imply that all issues are of equal priority. A broad reservoir of metaphors is required.
Some people, church leaders like Cardinal Joseph Bernardin two decades ago or Sister Helen Prejean today, may lead the way in our endeavor. Yet the development of an ethic and culture of life is the responsibility of all. We call on our poets and theologians, our bishops and our families to explore symbols and stories that might deepen our practice of life and our society’s vision of the same.