Remarks at St. Elizabeth Seton Parish--Orland Hills, IL (July 15, 2022)
Last Sunday’s readings offer us a good place to begin a conversation about the consistent ethic of life. In fact, they offer perhaps the best place to begin. Remember the first reading from Deuteronomy. The reading takes us to the end of the Israelites’ forty years of wandering through the desert, when Moses just has finished giving them the Law. The Law is called the Deuteronomic Code because it comes from the Book of Deuteronomy, and it contains all sorts of very detailed instructions about how God’s People, the People of Israel, are meant to maintain their relationship with God. The Deuteronomic Code tells the Jewish people how to offer sacrifices, it gives rules about leprosy and about those who are ritually unclean, rules about diet, and other moral instructions about the duty to seek always after justice. But the selection we heard on Sunday came after all of that, and in our Sunday reading we heard Moses offer one final thought about the Law. He said—"this command that I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you….No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out." The Law Moses just had given them is filled with complex details and those details are important. But there is something more important than any of those complex details, and it is something simple. If we love God, and if we honor our relationship to God, then we already have the most important thing because before we can keep the Law in all its complexity and detail, we first must want to keep the Law. And, if we want to keep the Law then the Law already is in our mouths and in our hearts, and we only have to carry it out. The Law is an expression of our relationship to God, and, more important, keeping the law is an expression of our desire to be in relationship to God and honor that relationship. That really is what God wants.
This is the way to hear the familiar Gospel story, the parable about the beaten man and the stranger who helps him. A scholar of the Law has asked Jesus what must be done to gain eternal life and Jesus answers in the words of the Jewish shema, an ancient prayer that is part of the daily prayer of observant Jews anywhere—"You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” The prayer amounts to the same simple affirmation we got from Moses in the first reading—keep your relationship with God—and, it adds an additional detail that we also find in the Law: love “your neighbor as yourself.” Loving our neighbor this way is so closely related to keeping our relationship with God that it is in the same sentence: love God, love your neighbor. These are effectively the same thing because we don’t encounter God every day face-to-face here in the world except for the way we encounter God every day in one another—the people God has created in God’s image. And so, we honor our relationship to God by honoring our relationships with one another. The message of the parable tells us that. The priest and the Levite who walk past the beaten man have an obvious relationship to him: all three are Jews. The Samaritan has no obvious relationship to the beaten man, but he is the one who stops and cares for him. Jesus tells the story this way because the Samaritan reminds us of what we too often forget too easily: we all have a relationship with one another, whether we see it or not, because we all are created by the same God who loves each person God created in just the same way. When we honor our relationship with one another in this way, we honor our relationship to God. The scholar of the Law asked Jesus in the Gospel, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus’s answer is simple. My neighbor is anyone I meet along the road whom God has put there with me. And, we may go further to say that our response to the people we meet along the road who need our care is not meant to be comfortable for us. The Samaritan caused himself a lot of discomfort when he responded to the beaten man God put before him. We don’t choose the circumstances in which we’re asked to honor our relationship to God by caring for one another. If we did, we’d choose things that didn’t inconvenience us at all I’m sure. God wants something else from us. God wants us to show what is already in our mouths and in our hearts, and whether we will carry it out. We are asked constantly, do we want to honor our relationship with God not the way we like but the way God asks? Are we willing to do uncomfortable things that show what is in our mouth and in our heart when we carry them out?
This homily on Sunday’s readings that comes five days too late could seem like a strange way to introduce Cardinal Bernardin’s consistent ethic of life. But it’s not. Last Sunday’s readings take us directly to the heart of what the consistent ethic of life is, what it’s all about, and why we have it at all. The message of the consistent ethic is a core principle of Catholic social teaching—solidarity. Pope John Paul II spoke of a “duty of solidarity” in his 1987 encyclical letter, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, where he affirmed what Pope Paul VI taught about solidarity and—we who are Polish might imagine—John Paul also thought of his native Poland and the Solidarity Movement that united Poles (who largely were Catholics) against Soviet domination. Pope Paul told us to think about solidarity this way—
Each person…belongs to the whole human family. It is not just certain individuals but all people who are called to further the development of human society as a whole….We are the heirs of earlier generations, and we reap benefits from the efforts of those now living with us; so we are all under obligation to each other.
That is the meaning of solidarity. That is what the consistent ethic of life does. It calls us always to be ready to respond—consistently, without consideration for ourselves or about whom we find ourselves helping—whenever a circumstance arises that threatens human life and human dignity. And, in this way, solidarity also was a theme of Pope Francis’s most recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, in which he used that parable of the beaten man to explain the topic of that encyclical, social friendship. That is the most important thing to be thinking about when we think about the consistent ethic—not about abortion, or poverty, or the death penalty, or any of those other issues. That’s not what the consistent ethic of life is about. The consistent ethic of life is not about a social issue, a moral problem, or some way to help us choose a political party. The consistent ethic is about me, it is about you, it is about our constant attitude of wanting to honor our relationship with God by being ready always to meet our obligations to each other, under whatever circumstances where we find ourselves in an encounter with someone who needs us. The consistent ethic, in other words, really is about consistency. But to make all of that clear, let me tell you a little bit about the consistent ethic and the arguments about particular social questions, moral problems, and political choices in which the consistent ethic was born.
More than likely, the name you associate with the consistent ethic of life (especially, if you’re from the Archdiocese of Chicago and you’re a Catholic of a certain age) is Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. That’s not really wrong, but it’s not really quite right, either. I want to make sure you leave tonight knowing the name of Father Bryan Hehir. Father Hehir is a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston. There, he’s been an advisor to archbishops of Boston for more than forty years; he is a theologian, a political scientist, and a professor in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and he also works as a parish priest. He’s a remarkable person, one of the most important Catholics in the United States in the twentieth century that very few people know about. As a student in the late 1960’s, Father Hehir wrote a thesis about the morality of the U.S. intervention in the Vietnam War: what does the Catholic teaching about just wars say about a nation that joins a war as a third party the way the U.S. joined the war between North and South Vietnam? Hehir was concerned because the teaching on just wars did not really address a question like that directly. There were reasons, he said, for Catholics to be hesitant about the ethics of the Vietnam War.
Just a few short years later in 1971, Father Hehir was an assistant to Humberto Medeiros, who then was the archbishop of Boston. The Vietnam War is important for the birth of the consistent ethic. Those days in the early 1970’s still were difficult ones for the U.S. in Vietnam as much as Americans at home were divided about the war. The United States had been in Vietnam since the 1950’s and so the seventies brought the third decade of U.S. involvement. The Tet Offensive in 1968 had begun erroding American confidence about a victory in Vietnam. The peace protests of 1968 had failed to stop the war. In 1971, Americans had begun to read the Pentagon Papers, a secret, internal Defense Department history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam that had been leaked to the public and offered many previously hidden details about U.S. actions including several times American presidents had lied to the public about the war.
Catholics, generally, had been supportive of the war. There were Catholic peace activists, but Catholics in the pews were among the least likely Americans to retreat from their support for the war. They were the Americans to whom Medeiros addressed a July 4, 1971 homily that had been written by Father Hehir. The homily told listeners that if Catholics “are vocal about the rights of innocent life in the womb yet indifferent to the equally innocent life in warfare, we destroy the consistency of our ethical posture: either all life is always sacred, or no segment of life is ever secure from indiscriminate attack.” With those words the consistent ethic of life was born: consistency is the mark of how we are called to defend life, wherever we meet the call.
This was a year and a half before the Supreme Court would rule in the recently-overturned Roe v. Wade decision that state laws against abortion were unconstitutional, but the abortion issue already was very much in the public consciousness. Before the Supreme Court acted, states were loosening abortion restrictions and Catholics already were engaged in opposition to abortion. Archbishop Medeiros had asked Father Hehir to help him craft one simple, challenging message: to oppose abortion and to support the war was incoherent. It made no sense. It failed to take our obligations to each other seriously in a consistent way.
Later in the 1970’s, Father Hehir went to work for the U.S. bishops in Washington, DC for a time. There he met the then-archbishop of Cincinnati, a promising young man named Joseph Bernardin who was president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops during the presidential election of 1976—the first election after the Roe decision, and the one where our abortion politics took the shape we would grow to recognize almost fifty years later. We can detect the influence of Father Hehir in a homily that Bernardin gave around that time, on the third anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January, 1976. Bernardin said—
Life before birth and after birth, from the moment of conception until death, is like a seamless garment. It all hangs together; one part cannot exist without the other. You cannot pick and choose. If we become insensitive to the beginning of life and condone abortion or if we become careless about the end of life and justify euthanasia, we have no reason to believe that there will be much respect for life in between.
Bernardin, especially when we read him in the 1970’s, was as shocked and unnerved by Roe v. Wade as anyone else in the Catholic world. We get a taste of that here. And, there is one other thing we should notice too.
Here, we hear that familiar phrase—the “seamless garment.” As time went on, Bernardin came to recognize the limitations of that phrase and he rarely used it after the mid-1980’s. When critics of the consistent ethic attacked it, they said that a “seamless garment” makes abortion sound like it is the same as other issues—as though all of the threats to human life are ‘seamlessly’ the same. Bernardin knew they weren’t. It is not the threats to human life that are the same. We are supposed to be the same, consistently, no matter what threat we encounter.
That confusion surfaced in 1983, when Bernardin first proposed the consistent ethic of life to all American Catholics in a speech he made at Fordham University. The U.S. bishops (under Bernardin’s leadership) had just published a pastoral letter against the nuclear arms race. (Remember, this was 1983: the year The Day After was on our televisions.) Just like Archbishop Medeiros, Bernardin wanted to drive home the point that opposing abortion and supporting the arms race was incoherent, that it was an inconsistent way to meet our mutual obligations to one another. The New York Times carried a front page story referring to the “seamless garment” in the headline, and suddenly the consistent ethic became controversial.
And, of course the consistent ethic became controversial. Think about what Medeiros was saying—to support the position of Republicans (to support the war) and to oppose the position of Democrats (by opposing abortion) is inconsistent. Listen to what Cardinal Bernardin was saying—to oppose the position of Republicans (who wanted a nuclear buildup) and to support the position of Democrats (who supported access to abortion) is inconsistent. They were telling Catholics that the simple way that we sort ourselves into liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans was not adequate. It was not enough. There is no political party in the United States (or, as far as I know, anywhere) that offers us an easy way to meet our obligations to one another and to honor our relationship to God. God wants more from us. And, this blew people’s minds even in 1983.
Probably most blunt was the pro-life activist, Phyllis Schlafley, who told the Washington Post days after Bernardin’s speech at Fordham that trying to unite people across the whole range of issues affecting human life was tantamount to “sabotage[ing] the prolife movement,” and she called the consistent ethic “very divisive to the prolife movement.” But others voiced their agreement with her. Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law called abortion a “key political issue,” and dismissed nuclear war as only “a future possibility.” New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor said, “If the unborn in a mother’s womb is unsafe it becomes ludicrous for the bishops to address the threat of nuclear war,” as though it were not possible to do both. Like Phyllis Schlafley, they saw the matter in a way exactly opposite of how Bernardin and Medeiros saw it—like other threats to life need to wait and we can tolerate them while we focus on abortion. For years since, that way of seeing the consistent ethic has prevailed and the charge has appeared and re-appeared across the decades that the consistent ethic is only a way to “give cover” to Catholic Democrats and help them avoid accountability for abortion. In this way of seeing things, the prolife movement created an impression that Catholic voters must support only Republican candidates. Our Catholic consciences became captive to our partisan divisions exactly in the way Cardinal Bernardin and the consistent ethic had hoped to avoid.
And so, this is the way of looking at things that seems more familiar to us now: abortion is an issue that is different from all of the others, and all of the other threats to human life are less important or they must wait until the abortion question has been resolved. It is true that moral issues have different weights, and there are greater and lesser threats to human life and human dignity. But Bernardin went on insisting that we don’t need to lose sight of that when we keep our gaze fixed on the person immediately in front of us who is suffering. He gave more than ten more public lectures throughout the rest of his life and welcomed the input of scholars as he continued to present the consistent ethic of life to Catholics. Cardinal Bernardin kept insisting that an answer that feels easy and comfortable probably is wrong because it asks too little of us. Simply to single out one very important issue and to let that guide our voting and our citizenship permits us to look past a lot of the suffering that is all around us. We should, instead he told us, work to cultivate “a broader attitude in society about respect for human life.” He said, “we intend our opposition to abortion and our opposition to nuclear war to be seen as specific applications of this broader attitude. We also have opposed the death penalty because we do not think its use cultivates an attitude of respect for life in society.” Those specific applications—abortion, nuclear war, the death penalty—they’re not the point. It’s about our being consistent…and in a way even that is not the point. Our consistency pleases God, yes, and that means we are earning our salvation, I suppose. But really, Bernardin’s goal here—the goal of the consistent ethic—is a particular sort of public witness of Catholic faith. The point is that our consistency should seem like it is something different and attractive about Catholics. Our perspective is bigger than both political parties. On the other hand, our inconsistency makes us seem just like everybody else, like Catholicism has made no difference in our lives. If we can succeed to be consistent, and to offer that public witness, Cardinal Bernardin suggests that is the way we can address abortion and all the other issues. A society in which an attitude of respect for life prevails, one that begins with us, is not one that will take life so easily. That’s the point.
And we would want to notice that the consistent ethic in the way that Cardinal Bernardin has developed it has been actually quite successful, even if the prevailing conversation around the consistent ethic has made that hard to believe. The consistent ethic is the principle that guides the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops today when it produces its Faithful Citizenship voting guides for Catholics every four years. And, the consistent ethic has been incorporated also into the papal magisterium. That is the technical, theological way to say that the pope has accepted the consistent ethic at the highest levels of authoritative church teaching. In his 1995 encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II wrote that,
Where life is involved, the service of charity must be profoundly consistent….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.
That’s about as clear as the Catholic Church can be: the consistent ethic of life is, 100% and full stop, what Catholic faith demands from Catholics in our citizenship and in our lives.
Yet, as I’ve said, there still are critics today who don’t accept the consistent ethic and you’ll find that even the U.S. bishops short-circuit their own teaching of the consistent ethic when they go on after affirming the consistent ethic in Faithful Citizenship to say, “The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority”: as if to say, ‘we must bear witness to life consistently wherever it is threatened, of course, but this preeminent priority will tell you which threat you really must pay attention to.’ The truth, I think, boils down to this: our abortion politics are such a deeply-ingrained habit born from the familiar division between Democrats and Republicans that sorts our world into easy-to-understand teams to be for-and-against, that we can’t break the habit. We cannot see the question differently, the way that our faith means for us to see it. That’s true for all of us. Sometimes, it’s even true of our bishops. We are too worldly—more worldly than Scripture tells us to be, more worldly than Cardinal Bernardin told us to be, more worldly than Pope John Paul II told us to be, more worldly than God wants us to be. We do not see and cannot grasp the value of cultivating an attitude of respect for life when we could tell someone else they are wrong, or when we might win an argument or an election. The consistent ethic calls us to see past our divisions and instead to see and act when others are suffering around us. But we like our divisions. We prefer them, I think. And so, the consistent ethic fails to get traction because we don’t allow it to.
Now, I’m a political scientist. And quite often as a Catholic political scientist, people ask me a question that maybe has formed in your minds too at this point: All that stuff about the consistent ethic and an attitude of respect for human life sounds great, but how should I vote? And, wouldn’t it be great if I could give you that answer? Wouldn’t that be easy?
But I can’t. God wants something more from you than that. We are not meant for easy answers in a challenging world, and the last thing that the remarks I just have spent thirty minutes giving you should do is end with an easy formula that excuses you from moral struggle, struggling with arriving at the best choice you can make about how to exercise your citizenship in this free republic. But the truth is, as I’ve said, there is no political party that is a home for us. And, there shouldn’t be. There only is what the church teaches—your own conscience, and your own judgment (the technical term is your “prudential judgment”—your most responsible and conscientious weighing of all the factors together). If you in your conscience, after informing yourself and weighing the matter carefully, conclude you must vote for a candidate or party because of your opposition to abortion, then that is the right choice. It is. But also, if you in your conscience, after informing yourself and weighing the matter carefully, conclude you must vote for a candidate or party because of your care for the poor or for some other reason or combination of reasons, then that also is the right choice. It is. And, that is how you should vote. You should bring an attitude of respect for life at every stage and in every situation to the ballot box. You should ask yourself, ‘who is the beaten person lying by the side of the road that my vote today can help most effectively and directly?’ And then, whatever choice prayer, reflection, and your conscience arrives at is the correct one so long as, whenever you explain your vote, you explain it as the best you could do when you tried to apply your attitude of respect for life consistently to the issues that are in front of us all. That is the only right answer there can be.
But maybe it’s worth making just one more point because, in some times, things are simpler. And here, I think perhaps I don’t tell you something that you don’t already know when I say that the world seems to have changed from November 9, 2016 to January 6, 2021 to June 24, 2022. Those dates—the day Donald Trump was elected president, the day of the seditious insurrection at the Capitol, and the day the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade—have unsettled the politics of the last fifty years in the United States, including the landscape of abortion politics in which Catholics have struggled to vote our consciences. While abortion goes on in some states like Illinois, the question of abortion has returned to where it was before Roe, before there ever was a prolife movement or abortion politics. Abortion no longer has the urgency it had 22 days ago. And at the same time, a new and different political urgency has presented itself to us. We have entered a time when truth in politics depends on which side is doing the talking, and we know from the January 6th committee hearings that there are those in our nation who are willing to use violence to get what they want and who have the sometimes active but more often silent but consenting assistance of leaders placed highly in our government and in one political party. And when I speak of those highly-placed leaders, I mean those who never spoke out against lies and against violence, those who did and then retreated, those who would not vote to convict in the impeachment trial that followed January 6th, and those who still in 2022 and 2024 hope their political campaigns will benefit from being silent and assenting to people and ideas that are antithetical to our free system of government, antithetical to the dignity of the human person, antithetical to truth, and antithetical to life, itself.
I am not one to speak in terms of preeminent priorities and you know that I am not here to tell you how to vote. Again, really, I am not. But I am here to present this challenge to our system of government and the peace it makes possible in which human life is protected, a system under which we are free to practice our faith and pursue the defense of human life, I am here to present the challenge that truthlessness and political violence confront us with as one of those specific applications of our attitude of respect for human life that we have to weigh seriously when we come to our citizenship consistently as faithful Catholics because—I’ll say again, as one who has studied and taught politics for twenty-five years—the rule of law, the system of free-and-fair elections, the peaceful transfer of power, and all of the norms of constitutional government are vital human goods and, for the first time at least for as long as I have been alive, the viability of those vital human goods is a question.
That is a hard thing to say, and I don’t doubt it is a hard thing to hear. But violence and lies are inimical to life. Violence and lies are the opposite all that is life-giving. It is not possible to take a life or do anything contrary to human dignity without first telling a lie, and the lie is “I don’t owe you anything, we don’t owe each other anything.” That failure of solidarity is where everything contrary to life begins. For that reason, we have to say there is a political party in the United States today that has become something very close to (if it has not become already) something a respect for human life may not permit us to support. I don’t say that lightly. But not to say it, as Father Corcoran told the Tribune last January, is “to give tacit permission that this is how we settle some things.” And, we must not. We can’t. But it also should not be that hard. Our loyalty, in fact, is not to any political party. Our loyalty is to the Gospel of Life that preaches consistently the dignity and the freedom of every human person. Nothing in our life on this earth really matters more.
If you’re looking for any advice about how to vote in these post-Roe days, that is the best that I have. Our free system of government that promotes peace and human dignity is a beaten man now lying on the side of the road, waiting for our help. It has been beaten and robbed at rallies, in the Oval Office, and at the U.S. Capitol. And, it is not alone. The road is littered with the beaten and robbed forms of the unborn, the poor, migrants, victims of gun violence, the sick, hungry children, the elderly who may be lonely or who don’t have security about their housing, their food, or their healthcare. There is no shortage of challenges confronting human life. There are so many ways that we fail to meet our obligations to each other in solidarity with the whole human family.
They all matter. We must be concerned consistently about all of them. And, when you dwell on that—how challenging it is, how impossible it seems, how bewildering it is to think about where to begin—and you begin to feel a profound feeling of unease and discomfort, then you know you are doing what God asks you to do. You are ready to attend to the suffering person in front of you as effectively and as directly as your circumstances permit. Then “it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out."
 Paul VI, Populorum Progressio (1971), 17. Lightly re-phrased to be gender inclusive and more easily understood when read aloud.
 Archbishop Humberto Medeiros, “A Call to a Consistent Ethic of Life and the Law,” Pilot (10 July 1971), 7.
 Archbishop Joseph Bernardin, “Homily for Mass Commemorating Third Anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Abortion Decision,” St. Peter in Chains Cathedral, Cincinnati, OH (22 January 1976), in: Archdiocese of Chicago Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Archive and Records Center, Chicago, IL, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Speeches and Talks Collection.
 Quoted at: Steven P. Millies, Good Intentions: A History of Catholic Voters’ Road from Roe to Trump (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press Academic, 2018), 75.
 Quoted at: Steven P. Millies, Joseph Bernardin: Seeking Common Ground (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016), 82.
 Ibid., 81-82.
 See representatively: George Weigel, “The End of the Bernardin Era,” First Things (February, 2011), published online at: https://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/02/the-end-of-the-bernardin-era; Anthony Esolen, “Odium Naturae: The Thread of Madness,” Crisis (1 July 2013), published online at: https://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/odium-naturae-the-thread-of-madness, or; John Hirschauer, “Bill Barr Tears the ‘Seamless Garment,’” National Review (20 June 2020), published online at: https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/06/bill-barr-death-penalty-catholic-critics-attack-attorney-generals-faith/.
 Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, “A Consistent Ethic of Life: An American-Catholic Dialogue,” Gannon Lecture, Fordham University, New York, NY (6 December 1983), in: Alphonse P. Spilly, C.PP.S. (ed.), Selected Works of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Volume 2, Church and Society (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2000), 86.
 Ibid., 86.
 “…Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, sought to help Catholics form their consciences, apply a consistent moral framework to issues facing the nation and world, and shape their choices in elections in the light of Catholic Social Teaching,” in: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2019), 6.
 John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 87.
 USCCB, Faithful Citizenship, 6.