Bernardin: Put Life First

In 1988, the Register asked Cardinal Bernardin if Catholic voters should disqualify candidates who don’t support a human life amendment.

“Well, certainly,” he said. “That’s what the consistent life ethic is all about.”

The interview’s full text follows:

BERNARDIN: Chicago’s Pastor on Consistency and the ’88 Vote

June 12, 1988

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago, is chairman of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities. He’s also head of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Moral Status of Deterrence, a follow-up review of the bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace,” another project Bernardin spearheaded.

To illuminate the connections between such diverse issues, Bernardin has argued for a “consistent ethic of life,” a principle the U.S. bishops have adopted as the foundation of their Respect Life program and of their voters’ guide to political responsibility. Cardinal Bernardin spoke with Register contributing editor Charles Isenhart at his office in late May about the consistent ethic and the ’88 elections.

Bernardin: I want to make a couple of points before we get started. I will scrupulously avoid speaking about specific candidates. I don’t think that’s my responsibility as a representative of the Church. In an election year, there are people who try, directly or indirectly, to get you to favor one person over another. I’ve had difficulty with that in the past, so I have to make sure that I’m not put in a position of seeming to endorse or oppose a particular candidate.

I also hope I have a chance to volunteer some information concerning the latest controversy I’ve been involved in — namely, the JustLife Education Fund.

Isenhart: OK, what about the JustLife controversy? You were featured in their publication which reported congressional voting records. A lot of people were upset by the rating system JustLife used. They said it had the effect of downplaying abortion relative to social justice and nuclear arms issues.

Bernardin: Yes, and for that reason I’ve been severely criticized. I want to make it clear that in no way did I endorse what JustLife did. The only thing I was asked, through an intermediary, was whether they could use a talk I had given, which was part of the public record. I did not write an article, and I’m not officially connected with JustLife.

Isenhart: Do you think their ratings were inadequate?

Bernardin: When the controversy arose, I was concerned that people were connecting me with these ratings, so I got in touch with JustLife. I have a letter from them [Register, Letters, May 29] saying that in no way did they intend to endorse candidates. They also make it very, very clear [in a newsletter] that in no way was I connected with what they did.

I think they understand now that the way it was handled was perceived by many people as endorsements. They say they would not endorse anyone who is for abortion. Any impression that a candidate could merit JustLife’s endorsement by qualifying on one or two issues but not abortion was absolutely incorrect. They stated that in this letter — that they would not endorse anyone who was for abortion or anyone who was not pro-life.

Now, I’m not a spokesman for JustLife. I’m just trying to clarify my relationship with them.

Isenhart: But as a spokesman for the consistent ethic of life, is the rating system they used an adequate or appropriate expression of that ethic?

Bernardin: I have some reservations about ratings of that kind. Frequently these issues are very complex and a simple rating system is inadequate.

But the main point is you’re inconsistent if you think you can defend a person who takes a pro-life position on certain life issues but refuses to acknowledge other life issues. The beauty of the consistent ethic is that it provides an overall vision and it shows how issues are related to each other, even though they remain distinct. You can’t collapse them into one. Each requires its own moral analysis. No one solution is going to be adequate for all of the issues.

Furthermore, I’ve made it very clear that at any given time one issue may have to be given much higher priority than others. I’ve never said they were all equal or that they all required the same attention.

In a homily I gave at a Respect Life pilgrimage in St. Augustine, Fla., I explained the consistent ethic and then stated that one of the most serious life issues or evils we’re witnessing today is abortion. As a nation we have to address that problem. And I think we’re beginning to address it. There are many more people now than before who see abortion as an evil. Even though they may not accept the moral code of the Church in its totality, nonetheless they see abortion as an evil and they see that some kind of protection has to be given to the unborn. I submit that the consistent ethic has played a role in that sensitization.

Isenhart: But a practical question must be dealt with. People see candidates running who think that a woman’s right to abortion should never be repealed; who do not support a human life amendment. Can Catholics disqualify such candidates because they violate the consistent ethic of life?

Bernardin: Well, certainly. That’s what the consistent ethic is all about. I feel very, very strongly about the right to life of the unborn, the weakest and most vulnerable of human beings. I don’t see how you can subscribe to the consistent ethic and then vote for someone who feels that abortion is a “basic right” of the individual. The consequence of that position would be an absence of legal protection for the unborn.

Isenhart: In view of that, how do Catholics defend themselves from being called “single-issue voters”? How’s that different from a “litmus test”?

Bernardin: Depends on how you approach it. In one sense I think there is a single issue, and that single issue is life. What’s our obligation to protect and promote life? What’s our obligation to try to do away with everything that undermines life or destroys it? That’s the issue. We have to keep pursuing that.

In terms of specific candidates, we have to hold their feet to the fire to make sure they establish policies that will respect life from the moment of conception until natural death. If they can’t do that, then I would have great difficulty supporting them.

Isenhart: Then a lot of Catholics will have great difficulty voting for anybody. There aren’t a lot of candidates like that out there.

Bernardin: That’s a serious problem. We have to do a better job challenging some of these candidates. Ultimately, it’s a matter of public opinion. We have a great educational job to do. If the majority of people in our society become sensitized to the interconnectedness of life issues and the implications of those issues, then public opinion will demand that candidates assume a more consistent overall life stance.

Isenhart: You say the consistent ethic of life links issues in a way no political party or ideology currently does. Must a consistent ethic constituency precede consistent ethic candidates?

Bernardin: That’s preciously the point I’ve been making for four-and-a-half years. When I talk many people will say, “Well, I never thought of it in that way.” I remember going to a medical school in the Chicago area. There were about 500 or 600 people present and I spoke candidly about abortion, showing how it was related to other life issues I knew many of them to be interested in.

I was overwhelmed by the number of people who came up to me afterward — mostly non-Catholic people — who told me that they had never really been against abortion, but added, “In light of the argument that you have presented, I’m going to have to rethink this because I see now the inconsistency in my position.” This is what I mean by sensitizing people to the broad spectrum of life issues. This is what I mean when I say we need to build a constituency.

Isenhart: Some pro-lifers think the Catholic bishops have been less “visible” on the specific question of abortion, especially since the National Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted the consistent ethic of life as the basis for their Respect Life program.

Bernardin: I deny that. I’m chairman of the Pro-Life Activities Committee, but beyond that I’ve been a bishop for 22 years. I’ve been up front on the abortion issue. Most bishops have.

If you’re going to make that accusation against me or against the bishops, you also have to make it against the Holy Father, who addresses a broad spectrum of what I would call life issues. There’s no one who is more pro-life or anti-abortion than John Paul II. Take a look at all of the things he has written and you’ll see that he speaks about all of these issues. Look at the last encyclical on the social concerns of the Church and you’ll see that. I reject categorically that kind of allegation or criticism.

Isenhart: Pro-life activists feel that their political cause has lost some momentum over the last few years. Are they making you and the consistent ethic a scapegoat?

Bernardin: Sometimes it’s their own strategy that causes that [loss of momentum]. Some people who don’t like the consistent ethic of life come down on me every chance they get. That’s what they were doing when they latched onto [the JustLife ratings]. Frankly, at times they appear to forget the issues and resort to personal attacks.

Isenhart: Another argument holds that Catholics are less visible on right-to-life issues because, through political alliances some pro-lifers have made, the fight against abortion has been tied up with other conservative causes — which some Catholics find distasteful.

Bernardin: That’s one reason there’s criticism of the consistent ethic. If you adopt it you’re forced to face up to other life issues. Some people in the right-to-life movement don’t really agree with the Church and its position on some of these other issues, so they feel very uncomfortable bringing them into the overall vision or picture. I’m convinced of that.

Some people will misuse the consistent ethic or misinterpret it — whether deliberately or not I don’t know. But the fact that it’s misused or misinterpreted does not invalidate it. We live in a world where we can’t control everything that happens.

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

Isenhart: As chairman of the bishops’ Pro-Life Activities Committee, have you been able to spend as much time on specifically right-to-life issues as you would if you weren’t dedicated to developing the broader consistent ethic of life?

Bernardin: The time I’ve spent on the development of the consistent ethic is directly related to enhancing and strengthening traditional pro-life issues. I don’t see any dichotomy between those two. I’ve strengthened our position in regard to abortion precisely because of the consistent ethic of life.

Isenhart: When pro-lifers speak of visibility, they speak in particular about public demonstrations. Last month, for example, Auxiliary Bishop Austin Vaughan of New York was arrested at a sit-in. Why don’t you participate in marches and sit-ins?

Bernardin: I’m a teacher. While I see the value of sit-ins and marches on occasion, and I respect those who use those particular means in order to express their positions, that’s not normally my way.

I try to sensitize people to the issues and particularly to the moral and ethical dimensions of the issues. I try to do it through my teaching efforts and through the talks that I give and the articles that I write, by engaging people in conversation, engaging them in dialogue.

In the final analysis, everybody has to decide on his or her own strategy. You can’t say there is only one effective strategy to accomplish your goal. As a matter of fact, it’s good that different strategies are used. The strategy I use is a very effective one because it’s my responsibility as a teacher, as a representative of the Catholic tradition, to provide people with a framework in which they can make their own moral analysis and on the basis of that moral analysis, decide how they are going to vote.

Isenhart: A Chicago writer recently alleged in another Catholic newsweekly that the bishops of the United States have been less forthcoming than they could be in supporting the consistent ethic and getting behind you personally as you promote it. Is that true?

Bernardin: All I can say is that the bishops almost unanimously adopted the consistent ethic of life as the theological basis for the pro-life program of the country. That’s enough for me.

Isenhart: So you don’t expect other bishops to have press conferences every time you or the consistent ethic is criticized?

Bernardin: I don’t expect that. I might add that I’ve shared most of my thoughts with officials in Rome and have found them supportive.

Isenhart: How do you see the issues shaping up in the ’88 elections?

Bernardin: I think there will be great concern about issues that pertain to human needs, the well-being of people — employment, quality education, adequate health care and so on. Those issues will be uppermost in the minds of many people.

There are also international issues — the arms race, world trade, East-West competition, the economic and political situations in other countries, trouble spots like the Middle East, South Africa, Central America. But I sense there will be more interest in domestic issues than in foreign problems.

Another series of issues relates directly to the sanctity of life — the evil of abortion that is so prevalent; the talk now about euthanasia or assisted suicide. These will play a very prominent role in the coming elections.

Isenhart: How exactly can Catholics use the consistent ethic of life to evaluate such varied issues?

Bernardin: We must acknowledge the sacredness of life and do everything we can to protect and enhance it. Anything that does this is good. Whatever diminishes life or destroys it is evil. That vision is the yardstick.