A Consistent Ethic of Life as a Moral Vision … drawing on the wisdom of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin

The election of Pope Francis in 2013 heralded a season of surprises for the Catholic church, but perhaps none so unexpected — and unsettling for conservatives — as his endorsement of the writings of Cardinal Bernardin, who died in 1996. The pope’s remarks repeatedly evoke Bernardin’s signature teachings on the “consistent ethic of life” — the view that church doctrine champions the poor and vulnerable from womb to tomb — and on finding “common ground” to heal divisions in the church.

Francis, for example, repeatedly stresses economic justice and care for the poor as priorities for Catholics, and he warns that the church has become “obsessed” with a few issues, such as abortion, contraception and homosexuality, and needs a “new balance.”

Pope Francis also sought to steer the hierarchy away from conservative politics and toward a broad-based view of Catholicism “that is not just top-down but also horizontal” — focused on dialogue in the church and with the wider world.

“The point made by Bernardin’s consistent ethic of life is exactly the same point that Pope Francis is making – “let’s look at the whole picture and not just focus almost exclusively on three or so issues,” said Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M., who had been close friends with Bernardin since the 1970s.

In one of his talks entitled “A Consistent Ethic of Life: Continuing the Dialogue”, Bernardin stated that, although abortion and the death penalty cannot be “collapsed into one problem,” they must nevertheless “be confronted as pieces of a larger pattern.” Although each of the issues was distinct, nevertheless the issues were linked since the valuing and defending of (human) life were, he believed, at the center of both issues. “When human life is considered ‘cheap’ or easily expendable in one area, eventually nothing is held as sacred and all lives are in jeopardy.”

In another talk Bernardin said: “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.” Respect for human life and dignity require a concern for and commitment to both, while recognizing that the issues under each category are different and require separate analysis. Abortion or war are not the same as capital punishment or providing health insurance to the uninsured, or caring for the elderly or the dying, even though each of these has to do with the sacredness of human life and human dignity.

In 1996, as he approached the end of a battle with pancreatic cancer, Bernardin launched the Common Ground Initiative as a final effort to try to end the growing polarization in the church. But in rare public rebukes against one of their own, churchmen such as Cardinal Bernard Law, then of Boston, questioned Bernardin’s project in ways that are strikingly similar to the criticism Francis has faced from conservatives.

“I think the conference has missed the skills of Cardinal Bernardin”, Archbishop Sheehan said. The same could be said for Catholics in general, said Bishop Michael Warfel, current chair of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, which has struggled to remain viable in the years since Bernardin died. “I find it ironic that it’s almost easier for Christians to talk to Jews or Muslims than it is for some Catholics to talk to each other,” Warfel said. He added that, like Bernardin, Francis “is really providing a witness to a way of leading. … He doesn’t just want to have window-dressing dialogue.”

Fr. Thomas Nairn, a leading Catholic ethicist who has edited two books on Bernardin’s consistent ethic of life, also notes that despite attacks on Bernardin himself, the principles he preached remain embedded in Catholic discourse.

Papal encyclicals and documents from the U.S. bishops, such as their election-year guide for Catholic voters, reflect Bernardin’s “seamless garment” ethic that decries the death penalty as well as abortion and poverty. Bernardin’s ideas are central to the DNA of the Catholic health care system, and ethicists and moral theologians invoke his idea. “Cardinal Bernardin always talked about the consistent ethic as both a principle and an attitude,” Nairn said. What is new, he said, is that Pope Francis “has returned not only to the principle of the consistent ethic of life but he has also returned to Cardinal Bernardin’s tone.”

Catholic pacifist Eileen Egan coined the phrase “seamless garment” to describe a holistic reverence for life. The phrase is a Bible reference from John 19:23 to the seamless robe of Jesus, which his executioners did not tear apart. The seamless garment philosophy holds that issues such as abortion, capital punishment, militarism, euthanasia, social injustice, and economic injustice all demand a consistent application of moral principles that value the sacredness of human life. “The protection of life”, said Egan, “is a seamless garment. You can’t protect some life and not others.” Her words were meant to challenge those members of the anti-abortion movement who were in favor of capital punishment.

Bernardin held that a pre-condition for sustaining a consistent ethic of life in society is “attitude,” an attitude of respect for all human life. “Attitude,” he said, “is the place to root an ethic of life.”7 Such an attitude undergirds a concern for and activity on behalf of a host of life issues and must be cultivated in society if there is going to be any hope that public actions will respect human life and dignity in concrete cases.

Finally, Bernardin maintained that a consistent ethic of life has direct implications for public policy. A commitment to the right to life and to quality of life should translate into specific political and economic positions and should influence assessments of policies, party platforms and political candidates.

A Moral Vision for Health Care
Cardinal Bernardin’s consistent ethic of life functioned primarily as a “moral vision” guiding his approach to health care issues, and it is precisely this moral vision that is the legacy of the consistent ethic for health care today. The consistent ethic of life did not, as one might expect, reside primarily in a set of principles or norms to be applied to specific issues or in an array of moral analyses of a host of ethical issues in health care, whether of a clinical or a more social justice-related nature. Rather, the consistent ethic of life for Bernardin was a way of seeing reality. It was characterized by a particular set of beliefs and values and affected what he saw, how he saw it, and how he interpreted what was seen. The consistent ethic of life was essentially an interpretive lens.

As a lens or moral vision, the consistent ethic fosters a broader view of ethical issues in health care, drawing attention both to direct threats to human life itself (e.g., abortion, euthanasia) and threats to human dignity and the enhancement of human life (e.g., lack of health care coverage) as well as the connections between the two. In this way, the consistent ethic fosters breadth and depth in moral analyses. In other words, it is not sufficient to only oppose euthanasia, but one must also be concerned about and address those factors that give rise to euthanasia and find ever better ways to care for the dying and ensure the dying the opportunity to forgo treatment and to live their lives fully while dying.

Fourth, the consistent ethic of life is corrective in that it brings to light problematic personal and social attitudes — individualism, a utilitarian assessment of persons, privatization of moral choices, excess autonomy, the commodification and commercialization of health care, the technological imperative, and the like — often associated with various technologies and aspects of the health care system. These attitudes are threats to human life and dignity and are, therefore, unacceptable. In their place, as an alternative, the consistent ethic offers a view of the individual as possessing inherent dignity and as inherently social with responsibilities to other individuals and to society.

The consistent ethic is not only corrective, it is also transformational. It is inherently oriented toward deep change, change in personal attitudes and behaviors, change in social and institutional attitudes, policies, and practices as well as change of and within the health care system itself and the use of particular procedures and technologies. As such, it serves as both a foundation and an incentive for advocacy efforts.

In sum, Bernardin’s consistent ethic of life as a moral vision underscores the fundamental importance of human dignity and human life, sensitizes to threats to human life and well-being, brings these threats to the foreground, inspires alternative attitudes, approaches and practices, and motivates for profound change.

National Catholic Reporter – Oct 26, 2013
Ron Hamel, Ph.D. – senior director, ethics, Catholic Health Assoc. St. Louis.

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