Consistent life ethic

Consistent life ethic

The consistent life ethic, or the consistent ethic of life, was a term coined in 1983 by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin to express an ethical, religious, and political ideology based on the premise that all human life was sacred and should be protected by law.[1] The ideology opposes legal abortion, capital punishment, assisted suicide, economic injustice, and euthanasia. Adherents are opposed, at the very least, to unjust war, while some adherents also profess pacifism, or opposition to all war.



Joseph Cardinal Bernardin

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin (April 2, 1928–November 14, 1996) of Chicago developed the CLE idea in 1983.[2] Initially, Bernardin spoke out against nuclear war and abortion. However, he quickly expanded the scope of his view to include all aspects of human life (according to the church's definition). In one of the first speeches given on the topic at Fordham University, Bernardin said: "The spectrum of life cuts across the issues of genetics, abortion, capital punishment, modern warfare and the care of the terminally ill." [3] Bernardin said that although each of the issues was distinct (euthanasia, for example, was not the same as abortion), nevertheless the issues were linked since the valuing and defending of (human) life (according to the Catholic definition) were, he believed, at the center of both issues. Cardinal Bernardin told an audience in Portland, Oregon: "When human life is considered 'cheap' or easily expendable in one area, eventually nothing is held as sacred and all lives are in jeopardy." [3]

Bernardin drew his stance from New Testament principles, specifically of forgiveness and reconciliation, yet he argued that neither the themes nor the content generated from those themes were specifically Christian.[4] By doing this, Bernardin attempted to create a dialogue with others who were not necessarily aligned with Christianity.

Consistent Life and the death penalty

Bernardin and other advocates of this ethic sought to form a consistent policy that would link abortion, capital punishment, economic injustice, euthanasia, and unjust war.[1] Bernardin sought to unify conservative Catholics (who opposed abortion) and liberal Catholics (who opposed capital punishment) in the United States. By relying on fundamental principles, Bernardin also sought to coordinate work on several different spheres of Catholic moral theology. In addition, Bernardin argued that since the 1950s the church had moved against its own historical, casuistic exceptions to the protection of life. "To summarize the shift succinctly, the presumption against taking human life has been strengthened and the exceptions made ever more restrictive."[1] Bernardin and other CEL advocates recognize the right of the state to use capital punishment. However, they reject the necessity of this type of punishment for many reasons, arguing that there are more appropriate and effective ways for the state to defend its people.

Traditionally, arguments for the death penalty focus on the idea that it:

  1. deters further violence
  2. enacts just retribution on the criminal (effectively gaining a sense of revenge for society or specifically those affected by the crime)
  3. seeks to reform other criminals with the threat of such severe punishment
  4. and, protects society from those criminals which the government has deemed to be the most heinous

The consistent ethic's opposition to capital punishment is rooted in the conviction that an atmosphere of respect for life must pervade a society, and resorting to the death penalty does not support this attitude.[5] Adherents argue that the result of the death penalty - removing the criminal from society, enacting justice on the criminal, and bringing about feelings of revenge for those affected and the greater society - do not necessarily have to be accomplished by taking a life.

This viewpoint was especially emphasized by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical, 'Evangelicum Vitae' (1995).[6] In English, the title means 'Gospel of Life.' This book-length document outlined the Pope's emphasis on fostering a culture of life based on the New Testament and the life of Jesus. Specifically, he emphasized the value and inviolability of human life.

One of today's most out-spoken and prominent anti-death penalty activists is Helen Prejean. Prejean is a Roman Catholic Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille. Her books Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account to Wrongful Executions are autobiographical accounts of the time she spent ministering to death row inmates.[7] She also has close ties to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and is the founder of the Moratorium Campaign. Today, Prejean tours around the United States and the world giving talks on social justice, the death penalty, and her experiences. She is fiercely pro-life, and at all times echoes Pope John Paul II's sentiments: "The pope says we should be unconditionally pro-life; against abortion, against euthanasia, against suicide and (that means also) against the death penalty."

Other supporters

Notable exponents, according to the Consistent Life organization, include Eileen Egan, Daniel Berrigan, Philip Berrigan, actress Patricia Heaton, novelist Wendell Berry, the current Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, and Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff.[8]

In the United States, several organizations have promoted the "consistent ethic of life" approach, including many Vatican-sanctioned Catholic groups, such as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as independent groups. Two other notable independent Catholic anti-death penalty organizations are Priests for Life and Catholics Against Capital Punishment(CACP). These organizations cite the Catholic catechism, the Bible, and Vatican documents as support for their anti-death penalty and "consistent ethic of life" teachings. There are also broader coalitions, such as Consistent Life, founded in 1987 as the Seamless Garment Network. The ethic and its organizational expressions are difficult to define in terms of the conventional U.S. political spectrum, since those who subscribe to the ethic are often at odds with both the right wing over capital punishment, war, and economic issues and the left wing over abortion, embryo-destructive research, and euthanasia.

In 1971, Roman Catholic pacifist Eileen Egan used St. John the Apostle's phrase the seamless garment, referring to describe a holistic reverence for life. The seamless garment of life is a 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 members of the pro-life movement, as well as those who are in favor of capital punishment, to adopt a consistent life ethic. Egan's view was that there is a unity of Catholic teaching when it comes to human life.

Independent U. S. Presidential candidate Joseph C. Schriner has made the Consistent Life Ethic an important focus of his campaign in his bids in 2000, 2004, 2008, and for 2012.


Right-wing criticisms

According to writer Joseph Sobran, "the seamless garment has turned out to be nothing but a loophole for hypocritical Catholic politicians. If anything", he adds, "it has actually made it easier for them than for non-Catholics to give their effective support to legalized abortion—that is, it has allowed them to be inconsistent and unprincipled about the very issues that Cardinal Bernardin said demand consistency and principle".[9][10]

Regarding the Church's position on the death penalty, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in 2004 that Catholics could have a legitimate diversity of opinions on the matter, but that any similar dissent on abortion or euthanasia would not be legitimized on the same level as debate on capital punishment might be.

If a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.[11]

Left-wing criticisms

Jacob Appel, an American bioethicist, has described the consistent life ethic as an effort "to impose a particular set of theological values upon society-at-large" under the guise of a moral philosophy that is "no less misguided than the Inquisition or the Crusades."[12]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Bernardin, Joseph. Consistent ethics of life 1988, Sheed and Ward
  2. ^ Bernardin, Joseph. Consistent ethics of life 1988, Sheed and Ward, p. v
  3. ^ a b Overberg, Kenneth R. S.J.:"A Consistent Ethic of Life", Catholic Update, St. Anthony's Press, 2009
  4. ^ Walter, James J. and Shannon, Thomas A.: Contemporary Issues in Bioethics: A Catholic perspective, Rowan and Littlefeild Publishers, 2005.
  5. ^ Bernardin, Cardinal Joseph A.: The Seamless Garment: Writings on the Consistent Ethic of Life Orbis Books, 2008.
  6. ^ Paul, John, II. Evangelium vitae. Vatican City : Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1995.
  7. ^ McNair, Rachel M., and Zunes, Stephen: Consistently Opposing Killing: from abortion to assisted suicide, the death penalty and war, pages 58-60. Praeger Publishers, 2008.
  8. ^ Consistent life website ( Accessed May 1, 2007)
  9. ^ Ronald N. Neff, (2005-08-16). "The “Seamless Garment” Revisited". Retrieved 2011-09-28. 
  10. ^ "Obama praised Bernardin - go figure". Retrieved 2011-09-28. 
  11. ^ "Abortion - Pro Life - Cardinal Ratzinger on Voting, Abortion, and Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion". Retrieved 2011-09-28. 
  12. ^ Appel, Jacob M. A Culture of Liberty
  • Byrnes. "The Politics of the American Catholic Hierarchy" Political Science Quarterly, 1993
  • McClintock, Jamie S., and Perl, Paul. "The Catholic "Consistent Life Ethic" and Attitudes Toward Capital Punishment and Welfare Reform." Sociology of Religion 62(2001): 275-299
  • McCormick, Richard A.. "The Quality of Life, the Sanctity of Life." The Hastings Center Report 8, No 1(1978): 30-36.
  • McHugh, J. T.. Building a Culture of Life: A Catholic Perspective Christian Bioethics, 2001 (Taylor & Francis)
  • Jim Wallis God's Politics, 2004

External links

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