In 2016, just before Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, Fr. Frank Pavone, the founder of Priests for Life, published an article entitled, “Cardinal Bernardin’s Consistent Ethic of Life – The Myth and the Reality.” It turns out that this article was prophetic, because after enduring four years of MAGA Catholicism, the myths about the Church’s Gospel of Life are raging like never before. And, ironically, Fr. Pavone himself seems to have forgotten some of his own words.
Looking back from the perspective of today, it is interesting to note that in the article, he confirms that the Church does indeed promote a consistent ethic of life, and that this phrase accurately summarizes the approach to the sacredness of human life taken by the United States bishops and the universal Church. The consistent ethic of life was summarized by Pope St. John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae:
“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).
This may seem an obvious point, but in recent years social media has become inundated with the opinion that a consistent ethic of life, and the seamless garment metaphor that refers to it, are not Catholic or are even downright evil.
In his essay, Fr. Pavone acknowledges that Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was an original proponent of this teaching. He quotes Bernardin from a speech in 1985, when the cardinal said, “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.”
Does that sound familiar? Ten years later Pope John Paul II would say this in 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” (CL 38).
I wonder if the Catholics who make tweets like the ones above—Catholics who love to repeat this quote from Christifideles Laici—realize that Cardinal Bernardin said pretty much the same thing a decade earlier? I can’t think of a more powerful affirmation of orthodoxy than having one’s ideas incorporated into the Magisterium of the Church. That said, it is true that Catholics who oppose Bernardin and the seamless garment often quote these words of John Paul in a reductive way. But the truth is that when Cardinal Bernardin or Pope John Paul II spoke about the value of human life, neither intended to reduce that exclusively to mean the life of the unborn.
When the Church speaks about the “right to life,” it isn’t speaking merely about abortion because threats to life are not limited to abortion. The right to life is not limited to the unborn. And it’s precisely because human rights are so important, that we must defend the right to life of all people. It’s a package deal. That’s what is meant by the “seamless garment.” And while opponents of the seamless garment realize this in regard to Bernardin and mock him for it, they are in denial that John Paul II believed the same thing. They seem oblivious of the fact that Evangelium Vitae, if taken in its entirety, vindicates Bernardin’s ideas. When they mock Bernardin, they are also mocking Pope John Paul II.
Back in 2016, Fr. Pavone also addresses the common charge against the seamless garment— that it creates a moral equivalency between all the life issues.
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.”
All life issues, related to each other by a common value, rise and fall together. A threat to one life is ultimately a threat to all. Pavone goes on to say, “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.”
Again, many pro-lifers like to appeal to variations of the “Argument from Large Numbers.” To this Pavone says:
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.
Finally, and probably the most poignant point of the article, Pavone concludes by saying, “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.” Fr. Pavone sounds like he’s channeling Evangelium Vitae here. The great encyclical on life says:
It is thus the Law as a whole which fully protects human life. This explains why it is so hard to remain faithful to the commandment “You shall not kill” when the other “words of life” (cf. Acts 7:38) with which this commandment is bound up are not observed. Detached from this wider framework, the commandment is destined to become nothing more than an obligation imposed from without, and very soon we begin to look for its limits and try to find mitigating factors and exceptions (EV 48).
Today it is very clear that those “strange gaps” of inconsistency are ubiquitous. If Pavone’s essay is correct, this means that the pro-life positions put forth in the last four years have indeed relied too much on political commitments and not enough on the Gospel. When we allow our commitment to promoting the sanctity of human life to be put into an ideological straitjacket, we are only allowed to be as pro-life as that ideology is pro-life. And no political ideology embraces the entirety of the Gospel of Life.
There are good reasons to believe that Fr. Pavone was thinking of the Democrats when writing this essay. However, the last four years have made clear that the Republicans and the so-called “Catholic right” are just as vulnerable to these mistakes as the left. Indeed, it has been a spectacle watching those who warned us of cafeteria Catholicism line up at the buffet, or to see those who told us to beware the dictatorship of relativism become the dictators. It is as if they went from saying we must shun the secular world to embracing and baptizing a secular political ideology in a few short years. It’s important to recall that before the madness of “MAGA Catholicism,” Fr. Pavone once recognized and promoted the absolute necessity of consistency in witnessing to the dignity of human life.
As presidents come and go, hopefully Catholics can learn to discuss the issue in a more comprehensive and consistent way. Let us pray that in the future, our positions will always flow from the Gospel of Life, in its entirety.
Husband, father of six, idea-tinkerer. Having briefly lived amongst the cacti and coyotes of Arizona, Brian now resides in the Canadian prairies. Brian is a co-conspirator of Where Peter Is.