Editorial: Making Connections - The Consistent Ethic of Life

Michael McCabe
Issue 5, November 2001

How does one begin to think coherently about the many assorted issues that threaten and diminish the gift of life? How can we enhance our reflection and examination of the complexities in issues affecting the gift of life?

Together with several prominent American theologians, the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, [1928-1996] Archbishop of Chicago, developed a framework, or moral theory, which he called, "The Consistent Ethic of Life", often referred to as the "seamless garment". In order to both understand the many challenges or threats to life such as abortion, euthanasia, war, violence and racial discrimination, and in order to respond to them in a manner that is consistent and comprehensive, we are encouraged to cultivate an attitude of heart that views the gift of life as being on a continuum, or forming a seamless garment, "from the womb to the tomb."

The central argument of the consistent ethic is that we will expand our moral and ethical understanding of various 'life-issues' by carefully linking them in a framework which allows consideration of an individual issue on its own merits, in a way that highlights the connections among distinct issues.

Two fundamental questions represent the starting point for Cardinal Bernardin's teaching: "In an age when we can do almost anything, how do we decide what we ought to do? ...In a time when we can do anything technologically, how do we decide morally what we should never do?" Given that life is a sacred gift, he argued that a consistent and comprehensive framework, or ethic, was required if we are to fulfil the personal, social and moral responsibility we have to protect and enhance life at every stage of its development.

The theology of the "consistent ethic" is based on the principle that human life is both sacred and social. Human life is sacred because it originates in God and has an innate dignity. Consequently it is to be protected and nurtured at every stage of its development from conception to natural death. The view that life is sacred is enhanced when viewed from within a faith dimension, but such a view can be held independently of a faith dimension. Given that life is also social, society has a duty to foster and protect life. As it applies to Catholic moral theology, the word "ethic" relates to the actions we ought or ought not do, as well as to the type of person, or community, we ought or ought not become.

The need for a consistent ethic is further highlighted by the impact of technology on human life. Innovation in technology and its myriad uses provides a new context for ethical issues and reshapes the content for a consistent ethic. Technology can be used for benefit or for harm. Even beneficial technology can be used for an evil purpose, as the terrorist events of September 11, 2001, sadly revealed. The sad irony of the events in New York and Washington is that when sophisticated technology is used for an evil end, such an action underscores the fragility of life. As with nuclear weapons, technology used for the purposes of terrorism threatens the gift of life, in ways that were previously unknown. The tragedy in the United States of America not only threatened and destroyed life, but also diminished the ongoing quality of life for many, through fear, job loss, and bereavement.

Many writers reflecting on the life-threatening events of September 11, 2001 have spoken of life-diminishing events that have become an ingrained feature of modern life. The terrorist events surely represent a watershed and challenge us to discover and rediscover ethical and moral linkages between the many ways life is threatened and/or diminished. While the raw emotions and grief we feel from these events can make the issues appear even more completely unrelated and more like a patchwork , they, in turn, further highlight the need for a seamless garment and consistent ethic of life.

As we mature we also grow in our appreciation of the fact that moral and ethical decisions are intertwined, not only for ourselves, but also for others. To discover links between the personal and communal, the private and the social, the events of daily life and the history changing events inevitably will mean that we begin to see life as a seamless garment that has no "ethics-free zones."

Central in this heightened awareness is an acceptance of the role that conscience has in our moral and ethical growth. Listening to our conscience, and informing it adequately through education and dialogue, enables us to grow in our ability to discover connections and to view the gift of life as a seamless garment. Obviously, there are limits to the number of issues and various ways in which an individual can be involved even though every person and each society can cultivate the ethic of life in a manner that is consistent and comprehensive.

Such an attitude of heart calls us to go beyond the letter of the moral law, or blind acceptance of a particular moral principle, to the spirit beneath it. For example, the commandment "thou shall not kill" clearly means that human life is not ours to destroy or injure. To discover connections or linkages provides a concrete and considerable challenge in living the moral life. It implies that the commandment "thou shall not kill" will also lead us to see that any form of violence or physical abuse or manipulation can also crush and diminish the gift of life in another. The consistent ethic of life is broad and inclusive. It links the humanity of the unborn with the humanity of the homeless. It links the humanity of the isolated elderly in our communities with the needs of those who lack access to adequate health care. We cannot pronounce on issues of technology and global issues while ignoring the other personal and social justice dimensions of morality.

A consistent ethic of life helps us to locate a particular issue within a broader moral framework while at the same time helping us appreciate the distinctiveness of a particular issue. It also leads us to realise that it is not possible to work for the sanctity of life in one area and erode it in another. To do that is to provide an inconsistent ethic of life. The consistent ethic of life challenges us to establish in our personal, social and political lives a consistent approach that bears fruit in integrity, peace and justice for all.

Rev Michael McCabe, PhD
The Nathaniel Centre