A Double-Edged Defense of the Consistent Life Ethic

A Double-Edged Defense of the Consistent Life Ethic July 19, 2012

Kudos to Nick Neal, a board member for the Consistent Life network, for combating the nonsensical and utterly counterproductive notion that to defend life in one arena requires opposing it in another.  He previously did so in response to David Pakman’s hasty claims of correlation between maternal death rates and the outlawing of abortion, as well as his general skepticism of the political cohesiveness of the consistent life movement.  (He has since noted that his description of the America First Committee more closely “defines the anti-imperialist league of the late 19th century,” but the point served by such examples stands.)  And now in an essay titled, “Comparing Evils and Condemning them Both,” which appears in the latest issue of Life Matters Journal (p. 21-23), Neal responds to Scott Klusendorf’s claims that the consistent life ethic “has damaged the pro-life cause” and has even somehow “justified the killing of millions of unborn children.”  Uh … what?

Neal’s response to this absurdity is, thankfully, more articulate than my own.  Of particular concern to me, and also in my opinion the strongest part of Neal’s argument, is the point at which he deals with Klusendorf’s appeal to Catholic theology in support of his skewed vision of what defending life can and cannot mean.

Scott brings up the Catholic doctrine about contingent evils vs. intrinsic evils. This is supposed to be a death blow to consistent lifers since the consistent life ethic originated out of Catholicism and many consistent lifers are Catholic. However, what Scott never addresses is what are the evils of war and the death penalty contingent on? Under what circumstances has the Church stated such practices are evil? Well, an inconvenient fact that Scott often overlooks is that Pope John Paul II condemned the Iraq War, as well as the very concept of preventative war, in no uncertain terms. He did so not because he was a pacifist, but because he recognized that attacking countries based on suspicion and taking more lives than were lost in 9/11 violates just war tenets that state that wars have to be defensive and that the casualties have to be proportional to the crime. Pope John Paul II also condemned the death penalty in Evangelium Vitae, a document beloved by pro-life Catholics, stating:

“It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
When the Pope says that the one condition justifying the death penalty is practically non-existent in the developed world, that’s a pretty good indicator that the death penalty in a developed nation such as America goes beyond the moral limits of punishment. So the consistent life ethic is not merely some opinion held by liberal dissenters. Pope John Paul II may not have held all these acts of homicide to be morally equal, but he still held all of them to be immoral. (By the way, I would like to see Scott argue that Pope John Paul II “set us back decades” in the struggle for unborn rights [as he said of Cardinal Bernardin].)

I echo Neal’s conclusion that Klusendorf “is making an idiotic move in expelling consistent lifers from the pro-life movement. By arguing that in order to be pro-life you must not oppose other forms of legalized homicide, he narrows the movement–especially by making support for an unpopular war a requirement for being in the movement.”  Such a move is idiotic because it draws a battle line that makes enemies of allies.  Even if one does not fully agree with the consistent life ethic, to make support of certain forms of violence a requirement for opposing certain others is doubly self-defeating, both by discussing issues in a vacuum and ignoring their interrelations (an approach thoroughly contrary to that of any of the social encyclicals), and by alienating those of common cause.

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  • Excellent post. It’s just one more example of how the Klusendorf type of conservative Catholic is as much a “cafeteria Catholic” as the supposed liberals they deride; the only difference being that they pick and choose among teachings on war, peace, capital punishment, etc., rather than on sexual or abortion issues.

  • kurt

    Expelling from the prolife movement was an idiotic move. Nevertheless, it has been effectively done. There is no room in the actually existing prolife movement for the consistent ethic crowd.

    • Julia Smucker

      Do I detect a hint of wry satisfaction? Insofar as there is truth to this statement, it’s all the more reason the movement needs consistent lifers like Nick who refuse to be expelled.

      • kurt

        No. You might detect a sadness that something I was active in for several decades of my life has failed. I have now a better understanding of persons who were Communists believing in its ideals and blind to the actual deeds of Communism.

  • Chris Sullivan

    The New Zealand Catholic Bishops issued a wonderful pastoral letter on the Consistent Ethic of Life.


    God Bless

  • Jordan

    The expulsion of “consistent life ethic” pro-lifers from the “prenatal-only” pro-life movement might result from a basic political division between Catholic social teaching and the social teaching of many evangelical Christian groups. Catholicism teaches that opposition to the death penalty is not only acceptable but even commendable. Indeed, as Julia has noted, a consistent life ethic Catholic such as Pope John Paul II had stated that opposition to the death penalty is a moral imperative. Many evangelicals, on the other hand, interpret lex talonis as moral permission for capital punishment and even a moral duty to execute perpetrators of certain crimes. Ironically, modern Jewish rabbinical decisions most often reject a literal interpretation of the capital punishments contained in the Torah legal codes.

    Given the Catholic/evangelical Christian divide over capital punishment, its not surprising that broadly Christian pro-life groups have focused energy on prenatal life preservation. Otherwise, the pro-life movement might disintegrate into factions. I find it very unfortunate that American neoconservative/theoconserative Catholics have relegated death penalty opposition to “prudential judgment”. The political necessity of cooperation with Christian evangelicalism trumps what I consider to be the modern cultural and theological consensus against capital punishment in the Universal Church.

  • dominic1955

    That is nice, but he shows an obvious misunderstanding of the term “condemnation”. What did Cardinal Ratzinger say in the letter he sent to Cardinal McCarrick? Not all moral issues have the same weight, one can legitimately disagree even with the Holy Father on matters like the death penalty and the decision to wage war. In this way, the “consistent life ethic” does not work, if we try to make opposition to the death penalty (which is principle is not objectively evil) as important as opposition to abortion (which is in principle objectively evil).

    That said, and following from this position, it does not make sense to try to “force” anyone out of the pro-life movement because they adopt a “consistent life ethic”. Catholics of good will may hold that the death penalty should be done away with in this country because we have other ways to mete out punishment and protect society effectively and vise versa. No one may hold, however, that capital punishment is objectively evil-a position the Church has never countenanced as one acceptable for Catholics to hold.

    It would seem to me that it shouldn’t be hard for a Catholic who adopts this “consistent life ethic” to assent to the principle that capital punishment and the decision to wage war are, at the very least, admissible in principle. They are not matters that can be grouped with something like abortion in exactly the same way.

    • brettsalkeld

      The thing is, I’ve never met a consistent lifer who says that they are exactly the same. And Bernardin himself was very clear on this. This is a red herring.

      • dominic1955

        Well, I have. Admittedly, maybe they just weren’t parsing everything out precisely though.

  • It isn’t true that there is no room for consistent ethic people in the pro-life movement. Support for a consistent ethic is a tenet of Catholic teaching supported by our bishops. Last summer I had the opportunity to address a gathering of Catholic pro-life leaders from across the country (including the USCCB pro-life staff) about how we reinforce a consistent ethic at the parish level. I would say that talk was very favorably received.

  • smclarty

    Excellent post! In Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the US Bishops deal with this tempation and its twin (Part 1, par 27-30). The so-called “left” falls into the tempation of making no distinctions between the gravity of sins and socio-moral evils (eg. abortion, worker’s rights, environmental justice, racism, and embryonic stem cell research are seen as equally grave). This is often an attempt to justify “my social justice issue” over and against “your life issue.” The other temptation of the “right” entails a misuse of these necesarry distinctions of gravity (eg. abortion is the most grave social ill and so we need to start at the top of the list and work our way down.) Translation: abortion is the only issue worthy of our efforts and attention to other “lesser evils” becomes a threat. This is the tempation (the lie, really) that people like Klusendorf fall into. These are very powerful tempations because they are partly true. They are right that abortion is more grave than other sins, but wrong in limiting their moral concern to one issue. Both temptations are dangerous because they do the same thing but in different ways: divide morality and thus divide Christ and the Church.

  • Julia Smucker

    Since a couple of people have brought up the matter of categorical distinctions of evil, in relation to abortion in particular, I have a question to throw out, which I hope can help us avoid losing sight of the forest for the trees: why is abortion a grave evil?

    Note that I am not suggesting it isn’t, nor am I asking why anything else may be considered less grave. I do have somewhere I’m going with this, but I want to let people answer the question first. Note also that mere appeals to authority (i.e. “because the Church says so”) do not answer the question, since what I’m really asking is why does the Church say so?

    • Thales

      The Catechism says “The deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule, and to the holiness of the Creator.”

      So I’d answer, “Because it is the deliberate murder of an innocent person.”

    • I note, Julia, that both Thales (who quoted the Catechism) and David (who quoted Evangelium Vitae) made the exact appeals to authority you said don’t answer your question!

      I’d agree that killing innocents is intrinsically wrong, but I don’t think you have to quote any Church documents or even Scripture to get there. I’m leery of natural law theories since they are regularly abused; but I think killing innocents is one thing for which one could make an ironclad natural law argument. No human society, religious or secular, and no religion, condone murder.

      Of course, the problem is that it hangs on how you define “innocent human life” and “murder”. I’m full-bore against abortion, but I do notice the concept of what, in a conversation on Rod Dreher’s blog, was called “Schrödinger’s Fetus”. This is a riff on the famous quantum mechanics thought experiment “Schrödinger’s Cat“, where the status of the cat (alive or dead) depends on the observer.

      The idea was that what the entity within the womb of the pregnant woman actually is depends on the observer. A pro-choicer refers to it by the more neutral and clinical term “fetus”, unless she is pregnant with a wanted child, in which case it’s her “baby”.

      The problem is that this cuts both ways. The pro-life camp never hesitates to call abortion “murder”. But consider: If a woman deliberately killed her ten-year old or two-year old or six-month old or six-hour old child, we’d call her a murderer and either have her sent to jail or to a psychiatric hospital. But no one in the pro-life movement (except maybe a few on the lunatic fringe) suggests that a woman who has had an abortion should be so treated. This indicates to me that, presciding from the rhetoric, pro-lifers don’t actually believe that abortion and murder are exactly equivalent. Either that, or their moral reasoning is muddled.

      Personally, I would say that if the child is viable–the old Roe boundary–that you do have murder on your hands; and yet even then I can’t see that as quite the same as killing a newborn, at least if it were a case of a fetus/child at the very boundary of viability. As to, say, a fertilized ovum or a two-week zygote, while I think such a termination would still be immoral, it seems absurd to characterize that as “murder”.

      I deduce, therefore, that there are some complexities here which are difficult to untangle even for those of us who have given the matter much thought. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, I think the philosophical issues around abortion are nearly insoluble; in any case, I’m not sure if it’s possible to come up with a completely, 100% consistent solution that doesn’t result in some intolerable situations.

      • Julia Smucker

        Well, I wasn’t saying not to appeal to authoritative sources at all, just to keep the focus on moral reasoning, including that of the magisterial Church, rather than invoking authority in and by itself. In other words, “because the Church says so” is not an answer, but “the Church says so because…” is. In that regard, I think David and Thales are both making sound points.

        Your suggestion that “pro-lifers don’t actually believe that abortion and murder are exactly equivalent” because we wouldn’t send a post-abortive woman for psychiatric treatment is, I think, more than anything an indictment of the politicized debates in which the psychological trauma of abortion, for both women and doctors, has been largely ignored. Dr. Rachel MacNair, a prominent consistent-life scholar who is far from being on any lunatic fringe, has done a fair bit of work on this. Here is one example.

        Anyway, let’s go with Thales’ answer, which I find sensible and helpfully concise: the deliberate killing of an innocent person is what makes abortion gravely wrong. My next question is, where else can we apply the same criteria? I’d say willful negligence resulting in the death of an innocent person comes pretty close. For example, many innocent people have been executed by the state, sometimes in the face of serious doubts about their guilt. A witness who gives false testimony against such a person or knowingly withholds evidence that would prove their innocence, or a governor or another person with the authority to stay or approve the execution who knows or has reasonable suspicion that the person is innocent but still goes through with the execution for political reasons, might find some technical ambiguity on which to base a claim to a lesser degree of moral culpability, but in the end they have willfully caused an innocent person to die.

        Besides which, as has been noted, although innocence does increase the gravity of the situation, according to John Paul II even the execution of a guilty person is unjustifiable except under the very narrow and practically nonexistent criterion of there being no other way to protect society from that person.

        My point here, which I think was also Nick Neal’s point, is that contingency is grossly misapplied if used as a carte blanche to justify all other forms of violence simply because they are not abortion. This is what I mean by keeping sight of the big picture instead of getting lost in technicalities: if the good sought is the protection of life, we should be asking what serves this aim and what impedes it, rather than asking how this or that act is technically categorized.

      • Thales

        Um, tumarion, I didn’t make a mere appeal from authority. I gave the “why” the Church says what it does, like Julia asked.

        tumarion brings up the argument that since we don’t treat women who murder and women who have an abortion equally, then the two must not be morally equivalent murders or “intentional killing of an innocent human being.” The response to tumarion’s argument is the fact that the action (which we can morally analyze and classify, objectively) is different from (1) the culpability of the actor and (2) the punishment that is appropriate in the society. (1), the culpability of the actor, affects how we treat the actor (we punish cold-blooded murderers more severely than murderers who are insane, or acting for some understandable yet improper reason, or who did not have full knowledge, etc.) (2) goes to the fact that in different societies, different punishments are proper as a matter of prudence, because sometimes severe punishments bring the law into disrepute and don’t actually deter the crimes depending on the society’s values. I always like to use the crimes of attempted suicide and assisted suicide as examples. I think attempted suicide and assisted suicide are objectively grave offenses because they involve the attempted or actual intentional killing of an innocent human being, and yet I think the primary actor shouldn’t be punished severely as a prudential matter. The eventual prudential punishment that gets imposed on the subject and the subject’s relative culpability are different factors from the objective moral nature of the act.

        I think I pretty much agree with everything you said, and I especially like the last line about the fact that “the good sought is the protection of life” and we should asking what serves and what impedes that.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    From Evangelium Vitae, following a discussion of the death penalty:

    “If such great care must be taken to respect every life, even that of criminals and unjust aggressors, the commandment “You shall not kill” has absolute value when it refers to the innocent person. And all the more so in the case of weak and defenceless human beings, who find their ultimate defence against the arrogance and caprice of others only in the absolute binding force of God’s commandment.

    “In effect, the absolute inviolability of innocent human life is a moral truth clearly taught by Sacred Scripture, constantly upheld in the Church’s Tradition and consistently proposed by her Magisterium. This consistent teaching is the evident result of that “supernatural sense of the faith” which, inspired and sustained by the Holy Spirit, safeguards the People of God from error when “it shows universal agreement in matters of faith and morals””

    There is more, but this I think makes the point: killing “innocent persons” is a categorical violation of the fifth commandment and brooks no exceptions.

    For what it is worth, I have often wondered about the definition of “innocent person”: how is this defined, and how is a person determined to be innocent?

  • Kurt

    That said, and following from this position, it does not make sense to try to “force” anyone out of the pro-life movement because they adopt a “consistent life ethic”.

    So why has it been done?

    • dominic1955

      To be honest, I’ve never seen it done personally. I could see where they maybe wouldn’t be as welcome in that some political pro-lifers see any serious discussion of other issues as birdwalks or diversions that take away time and resources from the central issue. Or, even worse, could be seen as ways in which to justify voting for candidates that may be for social justice issues but for abortion.

      I’m not saying that would be very fair minded, but I could see that happening.

      • Kurt

        To be honest, I’ve never seen it done personally.

        I have.

  • It has happened to me personally. I’m in Canada, where all our political parties are pro-choice, so politics had nothing to do with it. Rather, I was told that my pacifism was what made me completely unwelcome.