The Consistent—and Not So Seamless—Ethic of Life

Archbishop Blaise Cupich’s appeal to Cardinal Bernardin’s “seamless garment” approach to ethics is flawed on several counts, including a failure to acknowledge the primacy of the laity in pursuing good public policy

In an August 3rd Chicago Tribune article, Archbishop Blaise Cupich of Chicago suggested that the widespread outrage ignited by the revelations that Planned Parenthood was selling body-parts extracted from aborted children represented an opportunity for Americans

to reaffirm our commitment as a nation to a consistent ethic of life. While commerce in the remains of defenseless children is particularly repulsive, we should be no less appalled by the indifference toward the thousands of people who die daily for lack of decent medical care; who are denied rights by a broken immigration system and by racism; who suffer in hunger, joblessness and want; who pay the price of violence in gun-saturated neighborhoods; or who are executed by the state in the name of justice.

Archbishop Cupich was quite right to underscore the classical Christian insight that good can be drawn out from evil, just as the Fall leads to Redemption. Much attention, however, was directed to the Archbishop’s use of the expression “a consistent ethic of life”: a phrase which has been used by members of the American Catholic episcopate as far back as a 1971 speech delivered by then-Archbishop Humberto Medeiros of Boston.

The term itself was brought to prominence by another Chicago archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. In approximately 15 addresses delivered between 1983 and 1986, Bernardin called for the development of such an ethic and outlined how it might inform the way in which Catholics—lay and clerical—approached public policy issues.

Right from the beginning, forceful criticisms were made of the consistent ethic position (often described as the “seamless garment”). One was that it would inadvertently help provide “cover” for Catholic politicians who supported legalized abortion. Cardinal Bernardin himself lamented in a 1988 National Catholic Register interview that

I know that some people on the left, if I may use that term, have used the consistent ethic to give the impression that the abortion issue is not all that important any more, that you should be against abortion in a general way but that there are more important issues, so don’t hold anyone’s feet to the fire just on abortion. That is a misuse of the consistent ethic, and I deplore it.

Ten years later, the United States Catholic Conference’s document Living the Gospel of Life also criticized those who had used the consistent ethic to relativize the killing of unborn human beings by making it just one of a laundry list of concerns.

In a way, however, the political fallout from the consistent ethic distracted attention from significant ambiguities that characterized important aspects of the seamless garment’s theological and philosophical apparatus. In light of what seem to be efforts to revive this approach as a way for Catholics and, more particularly, Catholic bishops to engage in public policy debates, it’s worth revisiting these problems.

Consistency, Exceptionless Norms, and Affirmative Responsibilities

It goes without saying that there has always been an inner consistency to Catholic moral teaching. This emanates from the truth that Divine Revelation (and the God from whom it proceeds) cannot contradict itself. On another level, the stability also proceeds from the Church’s long-standing teaching that there are certain acts which may never be done.

Saint John Paul II summarized this position in a 1986 address to Catholic moral theologians. “The whole tradition of the Church,” the pope wrote, “has lived and lives on this conviction” that “there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object.” These, he added, result in “moral norms that have a precise content which is immutable and unconditioned . . . for example, the norm . . . which forbids the direct killing of an innocent person.” These exceptionless norms are central to understanding why there is no circumstance in which, for example, the free choice to commit adultery might be sometimes considered acceptable or even a lesser evil—a point upon which October’s forthcoming Synod will surely reflect.

As the killing and adultery cases illustrate, and John Paul’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor affirmed, these exceptionless norms correlate with the “thou-shalt-nots” summarized in the Decalogue’s second tablet. Without the anchor of these exceptionless norms, Catholic moral teaching would inevitably gravitate towards the type of proportionalist, consequentialist, and fundamental option arguments identified by Veritatis Splendor as being at odds with the Gospel. But what about the other side of the Christian moral life which is the doing of good as we seek to live out the supreme commandment of love of neighbor?

A crucial element of Cardinal Bernardin’s consistent ethic of life was the claim that fulfilling what might be called our affirmative responsibilities to our neighbor translated into quite particular positions. During the 1983 Fordham University address in which he outlined his first comprehensive treatment of the consistent ethic, Bernardin stated:

The issue of consistency [of applying moral principle] is tested . . . when we examine the relationship between the “right to life” and the “quality of life” issues . . . 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 . . . Such a quality of life posture translates into specific political and economic positions on tax policy, employment generation, welfare policy, nutrition and feeding programs, and health care.

This reasoning (reiterated in at least three subsequent lectures) generated the most intense criticism of the seamless garment’s inner logic. In the first place, it is not obvious that those involved in, for instance, seeking to prevent euthanasia’s legalization must be equally involved in promoting, say, more just tax policies. As Bernardin later acknowledged in a 1985 Seattle University lecture, “There are limits of time, energy and competency. There is a shape to every individual vocation. People must specialize; groups must focus their energies.” Put another way, no Catholic can or should try to do everything. There is a natural division of labor.

Second, the Fordham lecture was insufficiently attentive to the point that most public policy issues involve choice not only between good and bad options but also between many good options. Some of these good possibilities, to cite the moral theologian Germain Grisez, may be “incompatible with one another but compatible with the Church’s teaching.” In many cases, when a good quality of life posture is identified—such as universal health cover—the discernment of how a community attains that end may depend upon empirical and prudential judgements reasonably in dispute among people equally well-informed by principles of Catholic teaching.

Having considered the vast amount of data and other obtainable evidence about the nature, costs, and benefits of various proposals and informed themselves of the principles of Catholic teaching, some Catholics may determine that universal healthcare is best realized by a predominantly state-funded system. Other Catholics, having examined the same mass of evidence and informed themselves of the same principles, may conclude that private health-insurance, underpinned by a government safety net, is the most prudential approach. But whatever conclusions are reached, one would expect Catholics reflecting upon this subject to recognize that there are many policies that people can support to realize such a goal while remaining in good standing with the Church.

Reference to Aquinas’s conception of the relationship between natural law and positive law is helpful here. In the case of some moral principles, lawmakers can translate the principles of natural law more-or-less directly into positive law. Hence, legislators will prohibit grave injustices such as murder by deductively reasoning from (1) the moral principle that killing innocent human beings is always wrong, and (2) the certain knowledge that the common good is severely impaired unless this act is always legally prohibited, to conclude (3) that the positive law must always proscribe and punish such killing.

In many cases, however, moving from natural to positive law is not so straightforward. The legal philosopher Robert P. George notes that legislators know that their obligation derived from the natural law to protect and promote human life requires them, for instance, to implement traffic laws to protect peoples’ lives. But uniquely-correct traffic laws cannot be derived from the natural law. Many arrangements, all with incommensurable risks, benefits, costs, and disadvantages, may be consistent with the responsibility to protect human life.

Here governments must proceed by a process of creative reasoning which Aquinas called determinatio (perhaps best translated as “concretization”). To elaborate upon the example provided by Aquinas: the builder of a house must follow specific principles if a house is to be a house (it must have, for instance, a door, walls, and a roof). But these binding parameters still leave enormous room for legitimate disagreement about the house’s precise details (color, number of rooms, material composition, etc.) in light of factors ranging from geographical setting to the needs and responsibilities of its inhabitants. The same is true of most public policy issues. Whether the consistent ethic sufficiently recognized this is debatable.

The Primacy of the Laity

Cardinal Bernardin’s consistent ethic lectures, however, also raised another question. This concerned which Catholics should take the primary responsibility for outlining and pursuing good public policy goals. Vatican II’s 1965 Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity Apostolicam Actuositatem specifies in several places that the responsibility to renew the temporal order—“namely, the good things of life and the prosperity of the family, culture, economic matters, the arts and professions, the laws of the political community, international relations, and other matters of this kind, as well as their development and progress” (AA 7)—primarily belongs to the laity (AA 2, 5).

That doesn’t mean that the clergy have no role whatsoever in the area. Catholic bishops, priests, and religious are not required to remain silent about prudential policy-issues. They don’t cease to be citizens by virtue of ordination. But the Council’s underscoring of the laity’s primacy in shaping the temporal order casts doubt upon Cardinal Bernardin’s claim in a 1985 Catholic University of America lecture that Catholic bishops, as part of promoting the consistent ethic, should offer “policy conclusions” “to stimulate the public argument” and “give a sense of how the moral principles take shape in the concrete situations our society faces.”

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, statements issued by the then-National Conference of Catholic Bishops underscored how this logic effectively gave many bishops a license to stray onto turf that is primarily the laity’s province. Take, for instance, their 1986 Pastoral Letter Economic Justice for All.

Though some Catholics at the time disputed the precise policy-character of some of the bishops’ many economic prescriptions—detailed at length in Chapters III and IV of the pastoral letter and which ranged widely across the policy-gamut from an insistence upon reducing defense-spending to the need to discourage part-time work (alongside commentaries on subjects as detailed as the successes and failures of particular social security programs and the effects of changes in real estate taxes, to name just a few)—this arguably was not the main issue. Rather, it was that while the bishops insisted that “we do not claim to make these prudential judgments with the same kind of authority that marks our declarations of principle,” they also stated that they felt “obliged to teach by example how Christians can undertake concrete analysis and make specific judgments on moral issues.” Eleven years later, Robert George posed the vital question: “why . . . if their prudential judgments are no more binding on the faithful than yours or mine, do the bishops ‘feel obliged’ to offer them?”

This consideration, however, did not stop various American bishops committees in the 1980s and 1990s from offering prudential judgements on numerous topics about which, collectively speaking, they generally had no more expertise or authority to speak than most lay Catholics, other Christians, and those of all faiths and none. Since the 2000s—as a few minutes glancing through the USCCB’s website illustrates—bishops committees have continued to express positions on very specific matters such as the funding levels for domestic and international food aid, proposed reductions in mercury levels, the merits of different proposals for social security reform, and proposed revisions to carbon pollution standards. No doubt, there are all important issues. It remains, however, very unclear why Catholic bishops should be speaking as bishops about the specifics of such legislation.

What’s more, it’s arguable that by giving so much attention to the policy-conclusions aspect of the consistent ethic of life, some bishops neglected one of their main duties in this realm. Their primary responsibility is not to write op-eds about proposed legislation that addresses prudential questions, to offer congressional testimonies and lobby legislatures, or to discuss the finer points of carbon-credit schemes. Rather, it is to ensure that the faithful are well-formed in the principles of Catholic moral and social teaching. This is essential if the laity are to understand (1) how adherence to exceptionless norms plays out for Catholics in the public square; (2) the nature of Catholics’ affirmative responsibilities in this area; and (3) how the commandment to love one’s neighbor is often realized in a plurality of good options that lay Catholics are free to argue about among themselves, with no expectation that they are somehow obliged as Catholics to coalesce around just one of many good possible options.

In short, contra the consistent ethic, at least as formulated by Cardinal Bernardin, it’s not the responsibility of Catholic bishops—including, one might add, the bishop of Rome—to engage in the process of evaluating the multifaceted contingent details, competing sets of empirical data, and information yielded by the social and natural sciences that is required to make a determinatio concerning the most optimal ways of addressing genuine problems such as homelessness, environmental degradation, unemployment, or gun-violence: problems to which there are many possible right answers.

Moreover, there are considerable negative side-effects of bishops offering policy-conclusions. Apart from intruding upon what is normally the laity’s responsibility (which, some might contend, constitutes a form of clericalism), such side-effects include (1) enabling others to suggest that those Catholics who respectfully disagree with a bishop’s determinatio about a particular prudential issue are somehow unfaithful Catholics; (2) bishops succumbing to the temptation of wanting to be a “player” in places like Washington, D.C.; or (3) bishops opening themselves to the likelihood of being manipulated by those on the political right and left who view them and the Church more generally as just another lobby group to be managed as part of the messy business of law-making.

If, then, it is not their charge to outline policy conclusions, what should bishops focus most of their attention upon when it comes to helping Catholics to fulfill our affirmative responsibilities vis-à-vis public policy? More precisely, how should bishops assist the laity as the latter seek to fulfil their charge to renew the temporal order?

I would suggest that another legal philosopher, John Finnis, summarized very well a bishop’s primary obligations in this area in a 1997 article. “It is,” he wrote, “the Church’s, a bishop’s responsibility, to teach in season and out of season all the moral principles that [a policy] should meet if it is to be morally acceptable to Catholics or anyone of good will.”

Undertaking this task is certainly less-glamorous than being treated by political insiders as a fellow wheeler-dealer in the halls of power or behaving like a Tammany Hall-like éminence grise. But formation in the truths of Catholic faith—including all its moral truths—of that portion of the people of God entrusted to their care is, most assuredly, a central obligation of Catholic bishops as the Apostles’ successors. To the extent that aspects of the consistent ethic—as least as articulated by some Catholics in the 1980s—distracted some bishops from that task, it remains in need of considerable correction today.

About Dr. Samuel Gregg 27 Articles
Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory. He is the author of many books, including Becoming Europe (2013) and For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (2016).

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