The Consistent Ethic of Life and Archbishop Blase Cupich

COMMENTARY: Whatever the practical effects of Cardinal Bernardin’s ‘consistent ethic,’ he clearly intended it to awaken consciences to the particular evil of abortion.

Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago
Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago (photo: Wikipedia)

In response to the series of Planned Parenthood videos that clearly reflect the utilitarian ethos of the global abortion organization, Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago advanced an extreme application of the “consistent ethic of life.” Yet his own interventions on social teaching indicate that the principal criticism of the “consistent ethic” approach, namely that it serves to marginalize abortion in the Church’s public witness, is valid in Archbishop Cupich’s case.


‘No Less Appalled’

“The widespread revulsion over the tapes arose because they unmasked the fact that, in our public conversation about abortion, we have so muted the humanity of the unborn child that some consider it quite acceptable to speak freely of crushing a child’s skull to preserve valuable body parts and to have that discussion over lunch,” wrote Archbishop Cupich in an Aug. 3 column for the Chicago Tribune.

“This newest evidence about the disregard for the value of human life also offers the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment as a nation to a consistent ethic of life,” Archbishop Cupich continued. “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’s declaration that unemployment should leave us “no less appalled” than the mercenary dismemberment of unborn children struck many as counterintuitive. Surely one would be more appalled by the killing of an innocent baby than by a man losing his job. Archbishop Cupich believes that the former is no less appalling than the latter because of his understanding of the “consistent ethic of life” that he invokes.


Cardinal Bernardin

The “consistent ethic of life” was an approach outlined by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago from 1982 to 1996, in a series of lectures some 30 years ago. Cardinal Bernardin argued that the Church’s pro-life witness had to prominently include economic and social issues alongside life issues in order to be consistent with the entirety of the Gospel.

The gist of Cardinal Bernardin’s argument was expressed more forcefully, if less eloquently, by Pope Francis in August 2013, when he said the Church should not be “obsessed” by abortion. That said, it would be difficult to imagine the late Cardinal Bernardin invoking the “consistent ethic of life” in the face of the Planned Parenthood videos.

“The main feature of the ‘consistent ethic of life’ is its insistence on the interconnectedness of life issues across the span of life, from conception to natural death,” preached Bishop Thomas Paprocki at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago at a memorial Mass for Cardinal Bernardin in 2009. Bishop Paprocki was then an auxiliary bishop in Chicago, who had worked for the cardinal in the 1990s as his chancellor. He is now bishop of Springfield, in Illinois.

“Such issues would obviously include abortion and euthanasia at the beginning and end of the life spectrum, but would also include a myriad of issues in between those two points along the span of life,” Bishop Paprocki explained, regarding his mentor’s teaching. “Examples would be concern for the poor and for immigrants, the death penalty and health care. The denial of respect or even the diminishment of respect for any one aspect of life would lead adversely to a denial or diminishment of respect for life in other aspects of life, due to the fact that they are all related.”



Bishop Paprocki noted that the “consistent ethic” was criticized as relativizing the Church’s pro-life witness, as it allowed people in favor of the abortion license to claim pro-life credentials by being against the death penalty or in favor of immigration amnesty. The more forceful critics insisted that the “consistent ethic” was designed precisely to do that: to reduce abortion to one issue among many others. Cardinal Benardin himself rejected that criticism in an interview with the Register in June 1988:

“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,” Cardinal Bernardin said. “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 that they were all equal or that they all required the same attention. … One of the most serious life issues or evils that 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 evil. … I submit that the consistent ethic has played a role in that sensitization.”

Whatever the practical effects of Cardinal Bernardin’s “consistent ethic,” he clearly intended it to awaken consciences to the particular evil of abortion. In response to the Planned Parenthood videos, it is likely that Cardinal Bernardin’s response would not “collapse” the dismemberment of babies into a list of various issues. He would have given it the “distinct moral analysis” it deserved as an issue of “higher priority” at a time when public attention was being paid to it.


Archbishop Cupich

Archbishop Cupich’s response to the Planned Parenthood videos was to speak about how Americans “crowdfund, sign petitions, dump buckets of ice on ourselves and embrace new ways of relating to our environment. Can we use our shared outrage at all these affronts to human dignity to unite us and begin a national dialogue on the worth of human life?”

A fair question then arises about this application of the “consistent ethic of life”: If, in the face of horrific revelations about the government-funded abortion industry, it is time to speak, as Archbishop Cupich does, about “families, [the] poor, workers and senior citizens,” then when the Church speaks about other matters of the social order, should abortion also be addressed? Is the “consistent ethic of life” consistently applied, or does it mainly serve to downplay the urgency of the abortion question?

Three recent major addresses by Archbishop Cupich suggest that it is the latter. When it comes to Planned Parenthood and abortion, the Chicago archbishop argues that the Church should talk about the economy and the environment, too. But when it comes to the economy and the environment, apparently there is no need to talk about abortion.

At Boston College on May 18, Archbishop Cupich gave the commencement address, urging the graduates to “become the leaders we need today, in the world of business, our politics and the economy.” He listed a half-dozen specific areas of leadership related to the economy, poverty and against maximizing the freedom of markets. He did not mention abortion or the sanctity of life.

In June, the published notes for his press conference on Laudato Si remarked on several points of the Holy Father’s encyclical, including global warming, overconsumption, poverty, technology, using less plastic and the retro-fitting of the archdiocese’s older buildings to make them more energy-efficient. He did not speak about “integral human ecology” — the concept Pope Francis uses to unite care for creation with care for the human person. Archbishop Cupich did not mention the strong statements in Laudato Si about the evil of abortion.

On Aug. 23, during the Mass in Chicago at which the pallium was imposed upon him, Archbishop Cupich preached at Holy Name Cathedral about Laudato Si, Evangelii Gaudium and the need to be “open to new avenues and creativity when it comes to accompanying families … that we not settle for solutions that no longer work, expressions that no longer inspire and ways of working that stifle creativity and collaboration.”

Even in the context of discussing family life, the archbishop did not mention abortion or the sanctity of life.


Inconsistent Ethic of Life

Abortion need not be mentioned every time a pastor speaks about the social order. Perhaps that might reveal the “obsession” against which the Holy Father warns. Yet if abortion is clearly dominating the public debate — as in the case of the Planned Parenthood videos — to insist that other social issues also be discussed while at the same time not mentioning abortion when discussing those other issues invites the charge of inconsistency. Cardinal Bernardin’s “consistent ethic of life” finds echoes in the magisterial teaching of St. John Paul II (Centesimus Annus, 1991, introduced the term “human ecology”); Pope Benedict XVI (Caritas in Veritate, 2009, insisted that the Church’s teaching on life issues could not be separated from her work of justice and peace); and Pope Francis, who inveighs against a “throwaway culture” that treats both the poor and the unborn as disposable.

Archbishop Cupich’s approach these last months has not been faithful to his predecessor’s arguments, nor that of Pope Francis; his is an inconsistent ethic of life.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

He was the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1998 to 2003.