Cardinal Bernardin corrects Douglas Kmiec

A week ago, former U.S. ambassador Douglas Kmiec, a strong supporter of Sen. Obama in 2008, was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times. In the course of that interview, Kmiec stated, “The president promotes social justice as if he were a Catholic.” Here is the fuller context:

You are antiabortion; Obama is in favor of abortion rights. But you also see abortion as part of a broader policy position, including issues like the death penalty, poverty and war. You don’t have a single-issue test for a candidate.

There is a tradition we trace back to Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, of the seamless garment — all life issues are interrelated: abortion, capital punishment, war, a family wage, the environment. You can’t take these things apart. More and more Catholics understand that, but some very important Catholics are resistant.

People on all sides tend to run to get the law on their side and then to say, “See? We’re right.” That kind of smugness cuts off dialogue. If you have a message about the sanctity of marriage or human life, deliver it to me. Move my heart. Change my mind as I’m sitting in your congregation. Don’t run to Sacramento or Washington and put it in some statute and then say, “I’m right because the law is on my side.”

Everybody wants to solve [same-sex marriage] with law. I don’t need the state to define marriage for me. I need the state to treat citizens equally, to give everyone the benefit of the rule of law and not shape it to favor one side or the other. At the same time, give individual churches the opportunity to define marriage as they read their religious practices.

The president promotes social justice as if he were a Catholic. I get in trouble when I say that. I was fooled by one of my friends in the White House. He called and said, “I want you to be the first to know Barack Obama has converted to Catholicism.” He let me talk for 10 minutes about how I knew it was going to happen, and all the while, laughter is building on the other side, and he said, “Isn’t it April 1 in Malta as it is in the U.S.?

Setting aside the matter of specific candidates (who come and go) and political parties (who change platforms from year to year), there are a couple of serious problems with Kmiec’s presentation and analysis. First, there is a tradition much older than the one mentioned by Kmiec, a tradition rooted in the Ten Commandments, which comes down to us through Jesus Christ, the apostles, and the Church. There are legitimate points of criticism to be made when it comes to Cardinal Bernardin’s “seamless garment” teaching, but they aren’t of concern here, mostly because Kmiec isn’t even true to the teaching as Cardinal Bernardin expressed it.

It’s true that these issues are interrelated; Catholic moral teaching is very much about the interrelating truths about human dignity and every aspect of human activity, private and public alike. But there is also a hierarchy, along with careful distinctions. For example, taking innocent human life (through abortion, murder, attacking civilians during war, etc.) is always wrong. Period. But the taking of life can be moral and even imperative in certain situations, such as in actions of self-defense, a just war, or even in cases requiring consideration of the death penalty, as the Catechism states: “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” (par 2267).

Kmiec, perhaps because he is a law professor, insists this is all about the law: “People on all sides tend to run to get the law on their side and then to say, ‘See? We’re right.’ That kind of smugness cuts off dialogue.” It could be that he is, in fact, referring to pro-abortion advocates, who simply point to Roe v Wade and say, smugly, “Its the law. Get over it. Stop attacking a woman’s right to choose.” Yet he immediately refers to “same-sex marriage”, which he publicly supports, and says he simply wants the state to simply treat citizens equally and not favor “one side or the other.” One side, obviously, is the Church. So, to be clear: Kmiec supports a presidential candidate who has the most obviously pro-abortion record in history, he thinks the Church’s stance on marriage is just that of “one side” (rather than being correct), and he makes it sound (purposefully or not) as if the Church’s positions on “abortion, capital punishment, war, a family wage, the environment” are essentially equal. And then he goes further and says his preferred candidate “promotes social justice as if he were a Catholic.”

On October 1, 1989, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s released this statement for Respect Life Sunday, a statement titled, “Deciding for Life”. I quote here at length so as to avoid being accused of cherrypicking, with a couple notes interspersed:

Not all values, however, are of equal weight. Some are more fundamental than others. On this Respect Life Sunday, I wish to emphasize that no earthly value is more fundamental than human life itself. Human life is the condition for enjoying freedom and all other values. Consequently, if one must choose between protecting or serving lesser human values that depend upon life for their existence and life itself, human life must take precedence.

Any need to clarify? Cardinal Bernardin simply draws upon perennial Catholic moral teaching.

Today the recognition of human life as a fundamental value is threatened. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of elective abortion. At present in our country this procedure takes the lives of over 4,000 unborn children every day and over 1.5 million each year.

Some, though admittedly a small minority, even favor abortion for the purpose of eliminating a child that is not the sex desired by the mother or both parents. Such a decision gives more weight to gender preference than to life itself. Yet, this is permitted under our nation’s current legal policy virtually allowing abortion on demand.

I would bet good money Cardinal Bernardin never said (or would say, if still with us today) that a staunchly pro-abortion candidate “promotes social justice as if he were a Catholic.”

Others, though increasingly a minority give, higher priority to the freedom of teenage girls to abort their children without their parents knowledge or consent than they do the value of the human lives these young women carry within them. Overcoming fear, embarrassment and inconvenience, or concern about not interrupting one’s career plans are value often cited in justifying elective abortion. Giving precedence to these values to justify abortion ignores the priority of the more fundamental value, namely life itself.

Real freedom, in other words, can never go contrary to truth and authentic morality. Never.

The primary intention of the consistent ethic of life, as I have articulated it over the past six years, is to raise consciousness about the sanctity and reverence of all human life from conception to natural death. The more one embraces this concept, the more sensitive one becomes to the value of human life itself at all stages. This is why this year’s Respect Life observance, whose program is shaped by the consistent ethic of life, includes, in addition to abortion, such topics as euthanasia, the Church and technology, violence in our culture, the changing American family, and the Church’s concern for the elderly.

The key word here is “consistent”. Consistency, by definition, refers to cohesiveness, harmony, and uniformity.

This consistent ethic points out the inconsistency of defending life in one area while dismissing it in another. Each specific issue requires its own moral analysis and each may call for varied, specific responses. Moreover different issues may engage the energies of different people or of the same people at different times. But there is a linkage among all the life issues which cannot be ignored.

How does Kmiec’s version of social justice square with this?

Because of the Webster decision, the abortion issue is being debated intensely at this moment. and the consistent ethic has much to contribute. For the more one reverences human life at all stages, the more one becomes committed to preserving the life of the unborn, for this is human life at its earliest and most vulnerable stage. And the more one is committed to preserving the life of the unborn, the one more one appreciates their need for constitutional protection.

There are those who support abortion on demand who do not grasp or will not discuss the intrinsic value of human life and the precedence it should take in decision making. The issue – the only issue – they insist, is the question of who decides — the individual or the government.

Likewise, when it comes to “same-sex marriage”, there are those who say the only issue is the question of who decides: the individual or the government. The Church, however, says otherwise, pointing out that marriage was instituted by God and is a primordial sacrament that is pre-political in nature.

Who decides is not the issue. We all decide, but we make our free decisions within limits. In exercising our freedom, we must not make ourselves the center of the world. Other individuals born and unborn are as much a part of the human family as we are.

On this Respect Life Sunday I invite reflection on our free choices and the values which really are worth pursuing. I encourage a deeper appreciation for the freedom we have and how it enables us to achieve selfhood in harmony with others, particularly the weak and vulnerable whose dignity as persons may not be as clearly in evidence. In short, I exhort you to decide for life.

Douglas Kmiec would do well to acquaint himself with both Church moral teaching and this statement by Cardinal Bernardin. It would spare him the trouble of embarrassing himself and misleading others. And, finally, perhaps he could show the world where, exactly, Cardinal Bernardin came out in support of “same-sex marriage”. 

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About Carl E. Olson 1201 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.

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