Within the world of Catholic faith and praxis in the United States two watershed moments occurred fifteen years apart in the last Century. In 1968 Pope Pius VI issued his magisterial document Humanae Vitae and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, then the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, proclaimed his theory The Consistent Ethic of Life, also known as the “Seamless Garment of Life” theory.
The publication/proclamation of those two doctrines were truly watershed moments in the life of the Catholic Church in America and in the life of the greater society in which the Church exists. In the Pope’s document his condemnation of artificial contraception proved a firestorm of dissent, dissent which is still very much in evidence in the Church. In the Cardinal’s proclaimed theory those who were in dissent from the magisterial teaching of Humanae Vitae found cover for their rejection of the Church’s teaching regarding the sanctity of the human life of the unborn child and their advocacy of abortion-on-demand.
In the following article by Michael Meaney the failure of those who subscribe to the Cardinal’s theory to subject that theory to the test of metaphysics is described as resulting in a catastrophe
comparable to the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. Metaphysics has been defined simply as the branch of philosophy that examines the nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, substance and attribute, fact and value.
Michael Meaney is well qualified to analyze Cardinal Bernadin’s Consistent Ethic of Life. He is a graduate of Notre Dame University with a degree in Philosophy. He is the retired professor of philosophy at Our Lady of Corpus Christi College, and, just as important, he and his wife, Francette, have been in the forefront of the battle to stop the abortion holocaust ever since Roe v Wade, and their son, Joseph Meaney, has been an active member of Human Life International on the international scene.
The Consistent Ethic of Life, or Called to Love, Life and Wisdom
For generations, most Catholics in America followed their poor but hard-working immigrant parents and grandparents in favoring Democrats, the Party of the poor and vulnerable, over the comparatively rich and powerful Republicans. In the late 1960s, when elements of our sexual revolution/free-love/contraceptive culture began demanding legal freedom to abort, democratic leaders at first naturally and eloquently followed their long tradition so as to prefer the helpless unborn child’s right to life and being loved over a mother’s legal freedom to abort. When in 1973 the Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade reversed all existing pro-life laws by legalizing abortion for anyone demanding it for any reason and at any time, this precipitated the most divisive conflict in our history since slavery. Key democrats, of course, helped fabricate and pass Roe and others celebrated their success. Even though many democrats initially favored a child’s right to life over the mother’s new freedom to kill her unborn child, democrats soon made abortion rights a crucial element of every official Democratic Party Platform from 1980 to the present. Unfortunately, many Catholic Senators (Ted Kennedy) and Congressmen became “Pro-choice Catholic Politicians” – “choice” meaning “freedom to kill preborn babies.” They even became key political elements of a Party perpetuating the holocaust.i They claimed that their favoring legalized abortion was trivial compared to their supporting quality of life issues, and claimed they were “Catholics in good-standing in the Church.” Only popes and bishops could authoritatively and effectively deny those claims. In various ways, many bishops and a generation of popes did, particularly in such great documents as The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s “Declaration on Procured Abortion” (#22) and Pope John Paul II’s Gospel of Life. In its many collective statements, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops quoted many condemnations of abortion, but never contradicted those claims, never condemned the title “Pro-Choice Catholic Politicians” which like “secularistic, materialistic or atheistic Catholics” is a contradiction in terms that violates Canon Law, Catholic doctrine and Catholic Tradition.
Cardinal Bernardin became increasingly influential through becoming the USCCB’s General Secretary in 1968-72, its President in 1974-77, and in 1981 Chairman of its ad hoc committee on the Church’s position on war. Hence his invitation in 1983 to give the Gannon Lecture at Fordham. After summarizing the Church/committee position on war, he introduced his “Consistent Ethic of Life” as a way of attaining peace despite a wide range of problems including “genetics, abortion, capital-punishment, modern warfare and the care of the terminally ill.” His proposed ethic would be a pastoral message linked to professional theories:
“Such an ethic will have to be finely honed and carefully structured on the basis of values, principles, rules and applications to specific cases. It is not my task today, nor within my competence as a bishop, to spell out all the details of such an ethic. It is to that task that philosophers and poets, theologians and technicians, scientists and strategists, political leaders and plain citizens are called. I would, however, highlight a basic issue: the need for an attitude or atmosphere in society which is the pre-condition for sustaining a consistent ethic of life…(and) the primary concern of the “Respect Life” program of the American bishops.”ii
This was presented as “a Seamless Garment” of consistency, moral moderation, mutual respect and courtesy working towards harmony in life issues in which “As Catholics, We Are Not Single-Issue Voters.”iii That was accepted by the committee, often repeated by the USCCB and still remains current doctrine. The Cardinal’s call to scholars and sundry others to help formulate and analyze his theory was initially answered and eventually published as Joseph Cardinal Bernardin et al, Consistent Ethic of Life (ed. T. G. Fuechtmann, Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1988). Most subsequent, similar contributions were replaced by the work of committees: 7 helped formulate the 11/2007 USCCB document. At any rate, what follows is one brief answer to that call.
The “Consistent Ethic of Life” was proposed as a theory in which logical consistency vv provides the main guide to understanding life issues. Aristotle, the founder of logic, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas, Etienne Gilson and many others have all shown that logic is not a general method of understanding realities, but only an introductory pursuit of validity in mental processes or an instrument of correct thought. It is philosophy and the sciences that directly, systematically, consistently and naturally pursue truth, which is often defined as the “correspondence of judgment with extra-mental reality”. To know realities well requires extensive experience, systematic observation and expertise in the different methods and subject matters of the various sciences and forms of wisdom. As Etienne Gilson demonstrated in his definitive treatise, trying to replace all that with anything less than metaphysics has often been attempted in the history of the sciences, philosophy and theology – with invariably catastrophic results.v
The ultimate limitations of consistency are evident in the tragic success of Friedrich Nietzsche. He never tried to prove any of his theories, but simply stated them with profound inspiration, great genius, beautiful style, spectacular faith and conviction, great prophetic fire and exemplary consistency with his own principles consistent with the most powerfully influential thinkers of his century. In a pluralistic society, what more could one possibly hope for than that?
One could hope for the fullness of truth and goodness serving life and love rather than falsity and evil in astoundingly bloody conflict with life and love. For inspiration is as good or as evil, as divine, as human or as satanic as the spirits that generate it. Genius may be true or false, sane or insane, balanced or unbalanced. Faith, confidence and convictions may be true or false, justified or unjustified, human, divine or satanic. Consistency is no more than the coherent application of the relevant implications of one’s principles, however true or false they may be: its value depends entirely on the truth or falsity of those principles.
Nietzsche was not only self-consistent but consistent with 19th and 20th century thought and ideologies, especially the biology and meta-biology of Darwin and Social Darwinism, the economics and meta-economics of Marx, the mechanistic and materialistic determinism of 19th and early 20th Century science, Freudian psychology/philosophy and the nazi view of reality. The savage enforcement and satanic propaganda of modern ideologies turned the 20th Century into the bloodiest of all centuries. Hence we obviously need much more than ethics if we are to effectively answer the extreme range of unprecedented errors and atrocities of contemporary ideologies.
Since moral virtues are means between two extremes – authentic courage, for example, is midway between foolhardiness and cowardice – ethics naturally praises moderation. While that is a good beginning, it is totally inadequate as an ultimate guide in the most important issues of our time: genocides, holocausts, world wars and ideologies. All these cry out to heaven for the incomparably more profound conversions of love, life and wisdom that understand and incarnate the natural law and metaphysical sources of philosophical wisdom, as well as the biblical, spiritual and mystical sources of theological wisdom..
The universally self-evident first principle of natural law – “Do good and avoid evil” – informs the consciences of everyone that besides “being pleased with the good” we naturally incarnate or actually do good and reject evil. Goodness is “being as desirable”, co-extensive with all reality, or universal, and desirable in proportion to the profundity of its goodness. Since goodness and being range from the minimal to the supreme, we naturally tend to desire the good, prefer the better and hunger for the best. Our greatest experience in life, by far, is being loved by God! And, the Supreme Good, source of nature and grace, commands us to love him in return as he should naturally be loved: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this, you must love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”ii
In order to respond proportionately to contemporary life issues, we must first clearly understand current reality. The abortion holocaust’s uniquely vast hordes of incontestably innocent victims, its pervasive perversions of propa- ganda, relativism, materialism, secularism, individualism, hedonism and seductive corruption of judges, politicians, lawyers and even mothers killing their own offspring, all of it “legal”, all of it aggressively promoted by most media leaders and journalists is almost incredible! Yet Guttmacher Institute estimates of worldwide surgical abortions range from 55 million/yr in the 1970/80s to 44 million/yr from 1996 through 2003, and somewhat lesser but more deceptive numbers since then – or between 1&1/2 and 2 billion in less than 40 years, including 50 million in the US since Roe v Wade! Even those horrendous numbers radically underestimate the true total, for they don’t mention, for example, the vastly greater numbers due to abortifacient “contra- ception”. These countless victims cry out to heaven for a proportionate response, yet the Consistent Ethic of Life rarely mentions them. If a theory fails to explain the facts, one abandons the theory, not the facts.
The second most important way of reaching a proportionate response to life issues is to understand that they are divided into two very different kinds: 1) the right to life of all innocent persons, and 2) quality of life ways of seeking well-being by obtaining food, clothing, shelter, welcome, learning and so on. Since the right to life of all innocent persons is the first and most basic of all human rights, the one inalienable source of all other rights, the one right without which all other rights become meaningless, it must always and everywhere be affirmed and lived by all so that it creatively resonates into a Culture of Life – just as its violation endlessly degenerates into a Culture of Death. Here everyone must be single-issue voters who also greatly value quality of life goods. But since there are many legitimate ways of achieving all quality of life goods, absolute insistence on any one way is not rightly possible: here nobody can rightly be single-issue voters. In a natural law view of life issues, the pre-fix “As Catholics” is at the very least superfluous and misleading.
In his Gannon lecture at Fordham, Bernardin suggested that in sharing a consistent ethic in a pluralistic society,
“We should maintain and clearly articulate our religious convictions but also maintain our civil courtesy. We should be vigorous in stating a case and attentive in hearing another’s case; we should test everyone’s logic but not question his or her motives.”iii
A far better way of replying to common objections of sectarianism is by introducing our multi-faceted natural law perspective through its factual scientific corollaries. When in a debate between candidates for Mayor of Corpus Christi, I was identified as “pro-life” and asked why I felt I could impose my “narrow sectarian beliefs on the entire population of our pluralistic society”, after a brief, smiling tribute to the cleverness of the question, I answered that the fact that a fetus is alive is not a narrow sectarian belief, but a scientific fact arrived at by observing movement and growth; the fact that a fetus is a new individual is not a Baptist or Presbyterian belief, but a scientific fact arrived at by observing a new heartbeat, new brainwave, new physical and genetic fingerprints or DNA; the fact that a fetus is a member of the human species is not a Catholic dogma, but a scientific fact embryologists affirm after observing the 46 chromosomes uniquely distinctive of the human species and of each human individual. Hence defining the fetus as a “living, individual member of the human species” is a scientific rather than a sectarian definition of the unborn child. Recognizing the humanity of the fetus is required by science itself: fetal right to life necessarily follows scientific facts and natural law. Hence all of us should affirm innocent human life.
St. Thomas, one of the most eminent of all philosophers, theologians and mystics, showed that there are three very different forms of wisdom or fullness of truth: philosophy, theology and mystical experience. They are distinct but related and complementary; they are speculative and practical in very different ways. They lead to three very different ways of being good: 1) through acquired moral and social virtues lived in a prudential and just way, 2) through grace, faith, hope and charity as well as infused moral virtues and an evangelical spirit, lived prudentially, and 3) through all these graces, virtues and spirit, lived on the level of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.iiii
In order to follow our universal call to be living, natural witnesses and heralds of the dignity of human life, we must treasure God’s love for us all and accept his call to share in incarnating divine love, life and wisdom. The best answer to life issues is adoring, humble, enthusiastic response to God’s love for us through sharing in all three forms of wisdom and all three forms of goodness.
by Michael Meaney, Ph.D.