Consistent Ethic of Life Gets Misused

Cardinal Bernardin’s concept didn’t downplay abortion.

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin told the Register in 1988, “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.”
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin told the Register in 1988, “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.” (photo: 1993 photo, Eugene Garcia/AFP via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — As the 2020 U.S. presidential election draws near, a portion of Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s outreach to religious voters is drawing from the “seamless garment” or the “consistent ethic of life” argument.

The argument asserts that the pro-life view extends beyond abortion to a range of issues such as poverty alleviation and immigration that are all interconnected as threats to human life and therefore must be addressed as pro-life issues, too.

But according to analysts who spoke with the Register, the Biden campaign — like many prominent politicians who identify as Catholic and support abortion rights — is comprehensively misinterpreting what the consistent ethic of life actually has to say about applying the Church’s pro-life teachings in the public square.

The concept was first articulated in the 1970s and embraced by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in 1983. Subsequently, it was seized upon by pro-abortion-rights Catholic politicians, including the late New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who said in 1984 that “abortion will always be a central concern of Catholics. But so will nuclear weapons. And hunger and homelessness and joblessness, all the forces diminishing human life and threatening to destroy it.”

Cuomo’s comments from decades ago are very similar to the case that those campaigning for Biden are making today. 

The group “Catholics for Biden” recently cited Pope Francis’ words that while the “defense of the innocent unborn” must be “clear, firm and passionate … equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia.” 

The Biden faith-outreach campaign is promoting material that refers to the “Pope Francis Voter” as a person who looks at racism, poverty, immigration and health care as “sacred issues” of equal importance to abortion. And it ranks Trump and Biden on a scorecard tallying Biden as the winner despite his overt support for abortion rights, in direct contradiction to Church teaching on a matter that, according to the U.S. bishops, remains “the preeminent priority” for Catholic voters.


Cardinal Bernardin’s Actual Views

However, using issues like poverty and immigration to downplay the preeminence of opposing abortion is a misunderstanding and misuse of the consistent life ethic, as Cardinal Bernardin himself told the Register in a 1988 interview.

“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,” he said. “That’s a misuse of the consistent ethic, and I deplore it. But the misuse does not invalidate the argument.” 

When it came to voting for pro-abortion candidates, Cardinal Bernardin said, “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.”

He said 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.” And, he said, “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,” the cardinal told the Register in the 1988 interview, “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.” 


Biden ‘Knows Better’

Mary FioRito, an attorney and Catholic speaker who directed the Respect Life Office for the Archdiocese of Chicago under Cardinal Bernardin, told the Register that from her personal experience with the cardinal, “it quite pained him that people were saying ‘this is the guy who gives everybody a pass on abortion if they’re okay with the minimum wage.’”

“Politicians did misuse it,” FioRito acknowledged of the consistent life ethic, a term she said that Cardinal Bernardin preferred over “seamless garment.” 

“We’re seeing that tendency to misuse times 10 right now,” she said, “because there are different moral and ethical issues on which the two candidates and the two parties have pretty starkly opposing views.” 

FioRito, who is currently the Cardinal Francis George Fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Institute, believes that “if we as Catholics had been firmer about holding people’s feet to the fire on abortion, the Democratic Party would not have gone as far left as it did.” She highlighted the recent primary loss of prominent pro-life Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, who “voted with Nancy Pelosi 90% of the time, was for immigration reform and workers’ rights and every other Democratic principle except for what: abortion.” 

“There are issues — and this is right from the Catechism — there are issues that are non-negotiables and intrinsic evils; and then there are things that are matters of prudential judgment, and so there are good Catholic economists on both sides of the minimum wage,” she said. “That’s one issue where that is a prudential judgment, and people of goodwill can disagree on those things. People of goodwill cannot, however, disagree on the morality of killing an unborn child.” 

“You can’t even get to those questions unless we’re dealing with people who are alive, so that’s why it is the fundamental preeminent issue,” she said, referencing the USCCB’s labeling of abortion as a “preeminent priority.” 

FioRito added that “the scary thing about Biden” and his position on abortion “is that he knows better. This is not somebody who didn’t have a Catholic education.”


A Foundational Issue

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops presented an understanding of the consistent ethic of life — one that places abortion as “the preeminent issue,” among other important life issues — in their 1998 document, “Living the Gospel of Life.”

“Opposition to abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice,” they wrote. “Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care. … But being ‘right’ in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life.” 

“Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community,” the bishops continued. “If we understand the human person as the ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’ — the living house of God — then these latter issues fall logically into place as the crossbeams and walls of that house. All direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the house’s foundation.”

The bishops also cited Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitaeby stating that “the command never to kill establishes a minimum which we must respect and from which we must start out ‘in order to say “Yes” over and over again, a “Yes” which will gradually embrace the entire horizon of the good.’” And Pope Francis wrote in his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudiumthat the “defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right.”


A Unifying Issue

Despite its misuse, FioRito told the Register that Cardinal Bernardin believed the consistent life ethic “could be a unifying issue.” She pointed out that the diversity of those who ascribe to the consistent life ethic today includes secular pro-life groups like Rehumanize International and New Wave Feminists.

Rachel MacNair, a Quaker and one of the original founders of the Susan B. Anthony List as well as the current director of the Consistent Life Network’s Institute for Integrated Social Analysis, could be viewed as another example of the diversity of the consistent life ethic. The Consistent Life Network’s website states that “the Consistent Life Ethic is the premise or theory that all human life is inherently valuable, and therefore, that all humans deserve to live without violence. Individuals representing all religious and non-religious backgrounds support and identify with the Consistent Life Ethic.” Their member organizations include numerous Catholic dioceses as well as groups like Secular Pro-Life as well as Vegans for Life.

MacNair told the Register that “if you’re watering anybody’s issue down, then you’re doing the exact opposite of what the consistent life ethic is for,” as “the whole point” of the consistent life ethic is that it should strengthen the commitment to every life issue instead of downplaying any of them. “We are bringing loads of people into the pro-life movement that will not come in otherwise,” she pointed out.

She noted that one criticism of pro-life activism is to say that pro-lifers “believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth.” She said that people who level that accusation against pro-lifers are “using the consistent life ethic as a criticism of pro-lifers,” when, in reality, those who ascribe authentically to the consistent life ethic are part of the pro-life movement themselves. 

“Our whole point is that life shouldn’t end at birth,” McNair said, because “that’s what an abortion is, ending life at birth.” 


‘Disgracefully’ Misused

Julianne Wiley is a Catholic who founded the group Prolifers for Survival in 1979, which was the predecessor group of the Consistent Life Network. She told the Register that at the time they were “left-wing feminist pro-lifers and right-wing anti-nuke peaceniks who were surprised to find ourselves allies on behalf of innocent life.”

“Today,” she said, “the nuclear arms race and euthanasia have receded from public view, so abortion is by far the main way that innocent lives are — legally, with social approval and even public subsidy — intentionally targeted for killing. I feel sure WMDs and cost-cutting mercy killing will soon be back with a vengeance: But abortion is today’s salient issue when it comes to shedding innocent blood.”

She agreed with the USCCB’s labeling of abortion as the “preeminent priority,” because “if we get this wrong — the right of a blameless human being to simply go on living and not be fatally assaulted — we get everything wrong. It is the very foundation of what we mean by ‘human’ and what we mean by ‘dignity.’” She added that “the unborn child is not ‘more sacred’ than any of the rest of us. But the attack on that child is so massive, so deliberate and so absolutely targeted that accepting it ultimately undermines any ethic of care for anyone, anywhere. … Everything else radiates from that point.”

When asked if the consistent life ethic was being misused by pro-abortion politicians, she said, “Yes, disgracefully so. It’s like seeing plastic body bags of human remains being dumped into a landfill, noting that we have a human solid waste disposal problem and objecting principally to the plastic.”

Wiley said that “it’s still as hard as it was 40 years ago for a true consistent life ethic — based on natural law — to find a political home. But if anyone can articulate these concerns, it should be the Catholic bishops and Catholic catechesis (like RCIA) and Catholic public-policy groups. We urgently need our Catholic leadership to supply clarity.”


Hierarchy of Truths

Jayd Henricks, the former executive director of government relations at the USCCB and the executive director of strategic partnerships at the Augustine Institute, told the Register that “properly understood the seamless garment approach is analogous to a key principle in theology: the hierarchy of truths. All dogma in Catholic Tradition is true and connected, but that should not eclipse the fact that some are more essential.”

“Yes, all life has sacred dignity, but that does not mean all moral questions are of equal weight,” he continued. “Some truths are more essential than others, and to deny what is essential is to build on sand. This is often how the seamless garment system is used incorrectly. We must hold all the truths of human dignity together, but we must also recognize that some are more foundational than others.”

He said that “when engaging political questions, which is the art of compromise, then it is critical for the well-formed conscience (which comes through prayer, study and a moral life) to prioritize that which is more foundational.”

“Yes, the question of payday loans is important, but it is not as essential as the right to life,” he said “Yes, questions of immigration policy are critical (and Catholic social teaching permits different approaches, including securing a nation’s border) and must be pursued with justice, but they are not as central [preeminent] as the right to life.”

While Henricks cautioned against “the other extreme” of being concerned only about central right-to-life issues to the exclusion of seeking justice with respect to less foundational matters, he said, “I’m afraid that the seamless garment approach as used today is employed to cancel out foundational questions for real and important issues, but issues that are less central to a moral order.”


The Register’s Election 2020 series covers a range of key issues, including abortion, economy, education, environment/energy, marriage/family and religious liberty. Find coverage here: