There has been some controversy among Catholics and other Christians, particularly pro-life activists, over the Consistent Life Ethic, especially in election years. There shouldn’t be any dispute among Catholics since it is an essential belief of our Church.
Full disclosure: this writer is a member of the Board of Directors for the Consistent Life Network (CLN) founded in 1987 as an international organization for peace, justice, and life.
The Consistent Life Ethic
First, let me share the mission statement of CLN and the description of the ethic as found on its website: https://www.consistentlifenetwork.org/
“We are a network of organizations and individuals committed to the protection of life, which is threatened in today’s world by war, abortion, poverty, racism, the death penalty and euthanasia. We believe that these issues are linked under a ‘consistent ethic of life.’”
The Consistent Life Ethic is the principal “that all human life is inherently valuable, and therefore, that all humans deserve to live without violence.”
In other words:
No violence to our earth.
No violence to our unborn.
No violence to our partners.
No violence to our enemies.
No violence to our children.
No violence to our prisoners.
No violence to our dying.
No violence. Period.
Origins and Applications
The Consistent Life Ethic was first articulated by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in 1983 in a lecture at Fordham University. He believed that preserving life is entwined with enhancing life. For example, poverty is a life issue because poverty results in poor health and living conditions and thus premature death.
Cardinal Bernardin advocated for the weakest and most powerless. Obviously, the unborn fits that description but so do the hungry, the homeless, the unemployed, the undocumented, and the elderly.
Mother Teresa demonstrated that she understood this concept when she carried dying people off the street so they could die with dignity – clean, comfortable and surrounded by love.
Followers of the Consistent Life Ethic are aware that each life issue requires separate analysis; for example, capital punishment involves different complexities than euthanasia but each involves consideration of the sanctity of human life.
Not a Distraction but a Tool for Understanding
Those who criticize the Consistent Life Ethic claim that its adherents try to make abortion of equal concern to issues like global warming. Not true. As Pope Francis has said, although environmental abuse and other issues threaten human life, abortion is of paramount concern. Nothing else kills in the millions like abortion.
So, abortion is not watered down as a life issue by the consistent life ethic. It is not just one item among a long list of life issues from which we can pick our favorite (or least boat-rocking) concern.
On the contrary, the point is that other life issues can be used to attract people to an understanding of abortion using the consistent life ethic. Reminding those who advocate for other life issues of the values that led them to that position should lead them to an understanding that abortion is also a life issue because of the same criteria of human dignity.
Careful guidance can lead them from the reasoning by which they oppose capital punishment, [nuclear] war and so on – “Why do you oppose Issue X? Because it is violent? Because it kills people? Because it violates the sanctity and dignity of human life? Doesn’t that apply to abortion as well?”
It is called consistent life for a reason! Logically, it is a philosophy that is consistent in its application to life issues.
Thus, rather than take away from the attention on abortion, the CLE draws attention to abortion as consistent with the values people use to advocate for other life issues!
The Consistent Life Ethic is a perfect fit with Catholic social teaching. It is incorporated into St. John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitai, in the Faithful Citizenship documents issued by all the bishops internationally and, specifically, in the 1998 “Living the Gospel of Life” written by the U.S. bishops.
So, there can be no doubt that Catholics are expected to follow the Consistent Life Ethic. It is part and parcel with Christ’s command to love our neighbors, all of them, all the time, with respect for their dignity as humans and a commitment to the preservation of all life.