Joseph Cardinal Bernardin
The thought of Joseph Bernardin inaugurated the Consistent Life Ethic movement.
Joseph Cardinal Bernardin (April 2, 1928 – November 14, 1996) of Chicago developed the CLE idea in 1983. Initially, Bernardin spoke out against nuclear war and abortion. However, he quickly expanded the scope of his view to include all aspects of human life (according to the church’s definition). In one of the first speeches given on the topic at Fordham University, Bernardin said: “The spectrum of life cuts across the issues of genetics, abortion, capital punishment, modern warfare and the care of the terminally ill.” Bernardin said that although each of the issues was distinct (euthanasia, for example, was not the same as abortion), nevertheless the issues were linked since the valuing and defending of (human) life (according to the Catholic definition) were, he believed, at the center of both issues. Cardinal Bernardin told an audience in Portland, Oregon: “When human life is considered ‘cheap’ or easily expendable in one area, eventually nothing is held as sacred and all lives are in jeopardy.”
Bernardin drew his stance from New Testament principles, specifically of forgiveness and reconciliation, yet he argued that neither the themes nor the content generated from those themes were specifically Christian. By doing this, Bernardin attempted to create a dialogue with others who were not necessarily aligned with Christianity.
Bernardin and other advocates of this ethic sought to form a consistent policy that would link abortion, capital punishment, economic injustice, euthanasia, and unjust war. Bernardin sought to unify conservative Catholics (who opposed abortion) and liberal Catholics (who opposed capital punishment) in the United States. By relying on fundamental principles, Bernardin also sought to coordinate work on several different spheres of Catholic moral theology. In addition, Bernardin argued that since the 1950s the church had moved against its own historical, casuistic exceptions to the protection of life. “To summarize the shift succinctly, the presumption against taking human life has been strengthened and the exceptions made ever more restrictive.” Bernardin and other CLE advocates recognize the right of the state to use capital punishment. However, they reject the necessity of this type of punishment for many reasons, arguing that there are more appropriate and effective ways for the state to defend its people.
Traditionally, arguments for the death penalty focus on the idea that it: 1) deters further violence; 2) enacts just retribution on the criminal, effectively gaining a sense of revenge for society and those affected by the crime; 3) seeks to reform other criminals with the threat of such severe punishment and; 4) protects society from those criminals which the government has deemed to be the most heinous.
The consistent ethic’s opposition to capital punishment is rooted in the conviction that an atmosphere of respect for life must pervade a society, and resorting to the death penalty does not support this attitude. Adherents argue that the result of the death penalty – removing the criminal from society, enacting justice on the criminal, and bringing about feelings of revenge for those affected and the greater society – do not necessarily have to be accomplished by taking a life.
This viewpoint was emphasized by Pope John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life). This book-length document outlined the Pope’s emphasis on fostering a culture of life based on the New Testament and the life of Jesus. Specifically, he emphasized the value and inviolability of human life, from conception until natural death.
One of today’s most out-spoken and prominent anti-death penalty activists is Sister Helen Prejean. Her books Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account to Wrongful Executions are autobiographical accounts of the time she spent ministering to death row inmates. She also has close ties to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Individual endorsers belonging to the Consistent Life organization include [“the usual suspects”] Father Daniel Berrigan, Sister Joan Chittister, theologian Harvey Cox, Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, Father Theodore Hesburgh, actress Patricia Heaton, L’Arche founder Jean Vanier, activist Jim Wallis, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Nobel Peace Prize laureates Mairead Corrigan Maguire and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel. Rachel MacNair is the director of the Institute for Integrated Social Analysis, the research arm of Consistent Life.
In the US, several organizations have promoted the “consistent ethic of life” approach, including many Vatican-sanctioned Catholic groups, such as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as independent groups. Another notable independent Catholic anti-death penalty organization is Priests for Life.
In 1971, Roman Catholic pacifist Eileen Egan used the phrase “seamless garment” to describe a holistic reverence for life. The phrase is a Bible reference from John 19:23 to the seamless robe of Jesus, which his executioners did not tear apart. The seamless garment philosophy holds that issues such as abortion, capital punishment, militarism, euthanasia, social injustice, and economic injustice all demand a consistent application of moral principles that value the sacredness of human life. “The protection of life”, said Egan, “is a seamless garment. You can’t protect some life and not others.” Her words were meant to challenge those members of the pro-life movement who were in favor of capital punishment.
According to writer Joseph Sobran, “the seamless garment has turned out to be nothing but a loophole for hypocritical Catholic politicians. If anything”, he adds, “it has actually made it easier for them than for non-Catholics to give their effective support to legalized abortion—that is, it has allowed them to be inconsistent and unprincipled about the very issues that Cardinal Bernardin said demand consistency and principle”.
Regarding the Church’s position on the death penalty, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) wrote in 2004 that Catholics could have a legitimate diversity of opinions on the matter, but not on abortion or euthanasia.
Jacob Appel, an American bioethicist, has described the consistent life ethic as an effort “to impose a particular set of theological values upon society-at-large” under the guise of a moral philosophy that is “no less misguided than the Inquisition or the Crusades.”