Not the model it’s been applied to for a long time, anyway. And
since President Obama held it up again at Notre Dame as the most
authentic model of universal rights as taught, he said, by the Catholic
Church…..time to clarify what it means.
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin originated the term and the teaching of
the consistent ethic of life known as ‘the seamless garment’ while
Archbishop of Chicago. Obama encountered Bernardin and that teaching,
he said, while on the south side working as a community organizer. And
he praised Bernardin in that Notre Dame address for the big-mindedness
of an ethic that claims all issues of justice and human rights are
equally of a piece.
Not so, said Cardinal Bernardin in his later tenure. The fact
that he lamented the mis-application of his teaching and publicly said
so is far less known. In many of my talks during the 2008 election
year, I raised this point and quoted Bernardin’s October 1989 statement
for Respect Life Sunday, called ‘Deciding for Life’. And
almost without exception the crowds were surprised to hear it. Liberal
supporters of ‘abortion rights’ have successfully commandeered
the ’seamless garment’ message and driven it to what they thought was the high ground. Obama did it again at Notre Dame.
Let’s correct the record…
The Register was one among others to take this opportunity.
Said Obama of Bernardin:
“He stood as both a lighthouse and a crossroads — unafraid to
speak his mind on moral issues ranging from poverty, AIDS and abortion
to the death penalty and nuclear war. And yet, he was congenial and
gentle in his persuasion, always trying to bring people together;
always trying to find common ground.”
But Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in a front-page interview in the June 12, 1988, National Catholic Register, said:
“I don’t see how you can subscribe to the consistent ethic and
then vote for someone who feels that abortion is a ‘basic right’ of the
individual.” He went on to say, “I know that some people on the left,
if I may use that label, have used the consistent ethic to give the
impression that the abortion issue is not all that important anymore,
that you should be against abortion in a general way but that there are
more important issues, so don’t hold anybody’s feet to the fire just on
abortion. That’s a misuse of the consistent ethic, and I deplore it.”
The following year, in that talk titled Deciding for Life, Bernardin said this:
We Americans cherish freedom. To act on our own
judgements and enjoy the responsible use of freedom accords more with
human dignity than does being pressured or coerced into action by
outside forces. Personal freedom enables us, in harmony with others, to
pursue those goods and values which enhance and enable human lives.
It is good to keep in mind, though, that freedom is not an absolute
value. At times some, in their exercise of personal freedom diminish
the freedom and dignity of others. At other times, vulnerable groups in
society need their personal freedoms protected. In both in government
has an obligation to limit one group’s use of its freedom so another
group may legitimately exercise its freedom.
The pursuit of the values of the human spirit, he said, is the purpose of freedom.
Not all values, however, are of equal weight. Some are
more fundamental than others. On this Respect Life Sunday, I wish to
emphasize that no earthly value is more fundamental than human life
itself. Human life is the condition for enjoying freedom and all other
values. Consequently, if one must choose between protecting or serving
lesser human values that depend upon life for their existence and life
itself, human life must take precedence.
Today the recognition of human life as a fundamental value is
threatened. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of elective
It’s justified, he said, in the name of freedom. And giving
precedence to that ‘value’ to justify abortion “ignores the priority of
the more fundamental value, namely life itself.”
Then Bernardin turned to the clarification of his own teaching.
The primary intention of the consistent ethic of life,
as I have articulated it over the past six years, is to raise
consciousness about the sanctity and reverence of all human life from
conception to natural death. The more one embraces this concept, the
more sensitive one becomes to the value of human life itself at all
This consistent ethic points out the inconsistency of defending life in one area while dismissing it in another.
Exactly the point that must be raised again now, and discussed by
those who claim they’re looking for ‘common ground’ when they’re really
looking for those who disagree to come over to their ground. If Obama
and all others want to cite Cardinal Bernardin and his teaching on a
consistent ethic, they must understand it as he taught it. He was
addressing them as much as anyone.
There are those who support abortion on demand who
do not grasp or will not discuss the intrinsic value of human life and
the precedence it should take in decision making. The issue – the only
issue – they insist, is the question of who decides — the individual or
Who decides is not the issue. We all decide, but we make our
free decisions within limits. In exercising our freedom, we must not
make ourselves the center of the world. Other individuals born and
unborn are as much a part of the human family as we are…
I encourage a deeper appreciation for the freedom we have and
how it enables us to achieve selfhood in harmony with others,
particularly the weak and vulnerable whose dignity as persons may not
be as clearly in evidence. In short, I exhort you to decide for life.