The Catholic Church professes a consistent ethic of life, and this is an important concept for all people of faith to understand, especially as it pertains to voting.
In The Gospel of Life, written by St. Pope John Paul in 1995, it says: “Where life is involved, the service of charity must be profoundly consistent. It cannot tolerate bias and discrimination, for human life is sacred and inviolable at every stage and in every situation; it is an indivisible good. We need then to show care for all life and for the life of everyone” (EV, 87).
Catholics, and all people by their common humanity, are called to be concerned about abortion and euthanasia, education and health care, capital punishment and crime, war and hunger, and a much lengthier list of issues impacting the dignity of human life. In fact, we are called to see the person before we see the “issue.”
As our obligation to be consistent has been expressed by the United States bishops, both individually and as a body, it has been summarized by the phrase “the consistent ethic of life.”
One of the original proponents of this teaching was Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who saw a new kind of interconnection between the forces of destruction made possible by modern technologies. In order to effectively articulate the Christian response to a wide range of threats to human life, he realized it was necessary to highlight the interconnection of the many and varied efforts to defend human life. He noted that progress in the protection of life in one arena meant progress for the defense of life in all arenas.
This makes sense from many angles. If, for example, one sees killing as a solution to the problems of society, that view encourages capital punishment as well as abortion. If one holds that a person’s value depends on his or her productivity, that can spell trouble for a terminally ill patient as well as for an uneducated immigrant.
Some interpret “consistency” to mean “of equal importance or urgency.” That is a common misunderstanding of the teaching. The heart of the consistent ethic is precisely the linkage of the issues; but they are specifically different issues that are linked.
Cardinal Bernardin spoke to this point when discussing the bishops’ statements on political responsibility by saying, “The fact that this Statement sets forth a spectrum of issues of current concern to the Church and society should not be understood as implying that all issues are qualitatively equal from a moral perspective… [E]ach of the life issues—while related to all the others—is distinct and calls for its own specific moral analysis.” (This quote comes from his speech at St. Louis University on March 11, 1984, in the William Wade Lecture Series, “A Consistent Ethic of Life: Continuing the Dialogue.”}
Moreover, the Cardinal pointed out that there is a hierarchy among the issues. “The fundamental human right is to life – from the moment of conception until death. It is the source of all other rights, including the right to health care.” (This quote come from a May 8, 1985 speech at the Foster McCaw Triennial Conference at Loyola University of Chicago on “The Consistent Ethic of Life and Health Care Systems.”)
Some people see life issues as linked arithmetically; they are lined up and counted. Actually, they are lined geometrically. In their 1998 document Living the Gospel of Life, the U.S. bishops used the image of a house to depict the many interrelated rights and issues impacting human dignity. The foundation of the house is the right to life itself.
One of the most difficult areas of application for the consistent ethic is the realm of politics. The first consideration here, of course, is that Christians are not a sect fleeing the world, but rather a community of faith called to renew the earth. In his April 2003 Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, John Paul II reminded us: “Certainly the Christian vision leads to the expectation of “new heavens” and “a new earth” (Rev 21:1), but this increases, rather than lessens, our sense of responsibility for the world today. I wish to reaffirm this forcefully at the beginning of the new millennium, so that Christians will feel more obliged than ever not to neglect their duties as citizens in this world.”
This task brings us into the voting booth, and with the responsibility of voting comes the responsibility to know where the candidates, and their respective parties, stand on the issues. Relying on a few news reports here and there is not enough to appreciate where a candidate really stands on issues that matter. A serious effort should be made to gather and analyze pertinent information. Nor does simple loyalty to a party suffice.
The linkage and hierarchy of issues should shape our evaluation of candidates. Positions on key issues give us a glimpse of the candidate’s character and likely response to similar issues. Pope John Paul II pointed out in his 1988 apostolic exhortation, The Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World (Christifideles Laici): “The common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights — for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture — is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition of all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination” To put it another way, it does not make sense to guarantee someone a share in the good things of life if you cannot guarantee them a share in life itself.
We will hardly find a candidate with whom we agree on everything. The key question, however, is the relative importance of the issues on which we disagree.
Some disagreements pertain to how best to secure a basic right. Candidates may have different approaches on how to reduce poverty, without disagreeing that the poor have rights. Other disagreements, however, pertain to whether certain groups have rights at all, such as the disagreement as to whether the unborn are persons. This latter type of disagreement is much more decisive. If a candidate supports policies that deprive human beings of fundamental rights, he or she also supports the view that government dominates — rather than serves — the human person.
There is no justification for a gap between “social justice” and “right to life.” The heart of justice is the defense of life and of all the rights that flow from it. Consistency is not optional. If our positions flow primarily from political commitments, strange gaps of inconsistency begin to appear. But if our positions flow from our commitment to the Gospel, we will be consistent. And the day of victory for life, justice, and peace will be hastened.