In his now-famous address at Fordham University, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, the late archbishop of Chicago argued that “the pro-life position of the Church must be developed in terms of a comprehensive and consistent ethic of life.” Consequently, the Church should not just focus on fighting abortion, but also the nuclear arms race, capital punishment and poverty; and promote health care, immigration reform, and benefits for the unemployed.
Fair minded critics of the Cardinal did not dispute this. What they objected to was the Cardinals’ failure to emphasize the overwhelming horror of abortion, which was taking over a million lives per year, and prioritize it as the defining moral issue of our time. Placing it on the same plane as the other issues undercut the pro-life movement’s justifiable emphasis on abortion. Worse, it gave cover to pro-abortion Catholics who could say they agreed with “most of” the Cardinal’s concerns, while still sacrificing the unborn by the millions.
Stung by the criticism, Cardinal Bernardin later denied he ever meant to dilute the right-to-life imperative, and wrote: “Not all values, however, are of equal weight. Some are more fundamental than others. . . . I wish to emphasize that no earthly value is more fundamental than human life itself.” Further, when President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Cardinal Bernardin, to his credit, made it a point to publicly condemn “the killing of the unborn”—something many of his admirers would be loath to do in front of similar “pro-choice” politicians.
Yet both supporters and critics of the “consistent-ethic-of-life” have made the same mistake Cardinal Bernardin did in his original lecture: limiting the debate to abortion and social justice issues. This ignores the entire dimension of human sexuality, which is so critical to God’s plan for humanity. The same Gospel that calls us to seek peace and help the poor, the sick and the persecuted, also enjoins us to live morally pure lives, and not sin sexually. The consequences of sexual immorality, like neglect of the poor or militarism, are devastating, and profoundly damage our culture and souls.
Nowhere in Cardinal Bernardin’s address, however, is there any mention of this: he forgot to link sex and the seamless garment. His silence on the issue was all the more striking when we consider that at the very time he spoke (1983), John Paul II was in the midst of delivering his own profound series of addresses on human love, now popularly known as the “Theology of the Body.” (1979-1984)
John Paul II did not simply call for a consistent-ethic-of life during his pontificate, but a consistent Catholicism, including the Church’s teachings on sexuality. During his 1987 visit to America, he told the U.S. bishops:
It is sometimes reported that a large number of Catholics today do not adhere to the teaching of the Church on a number of questions, notably sexual and conjugal morality . . . there is a tendency on the part of some Catholics to be selective in their adherence to the Church’s moral teachings. It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the Magisterium is totally compatible with being a ‘good Catholic’ and poses no obstacle to the reception of the sacraments. This is a grave error that challenges the teaching office of the bishops of the United States and elsewhere. I wish to encourage you in the love of Christ to address this situation courageously.
Courage, however, is precisely what has been lacking when it comes to defending Catholic sexual morality in the public square, or even in the Church itself. The same year Blessed John Paul made that statement, Cardinal Bernardin promoted a deeply flawed statement, “The Many Faces of AIDS,” which sanctioned instructions about condoms, and he was never a strong champion of Humanae Vitae—although he was hardly alone among the bishops on that.
J. Francis Stafford, the former archbishop of Denver and Vatican official, has spoken eloquently about the failure of so many clergy to uphold the teaching of Humanae Vitae after it was issued. More recently, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, addressing the episcopacy’s response to the sexual revolution, told the Wall Street Journal: “We forfeited the chance to be a coherent moral voice.” Pope Benedict, for his part, has drawn an inextricable link between the Church’s teachings on sex, abortion, and social justice in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate.
To call for a government policy which assists the poor or promotes peace is laudable, but it does not take much personal sacrifice or effort. Controlling our sexual impulses and desires, however, affects us deeply and in the most personal way. It asks us to resist our temptations—through prayer, confession, modesty, custody of the eyes, and prudence—every single day. Many find this simply too much, an intolerable burden on their earthly desires, and react by protesting the Church’s “obsession” with “pelvic issues.” And so they turn away, like the young rich man unable to follow Christ.
Living up to Catholic teaching on sexual morality is clearly a challenge: the pressure to conform to the world’s ways these days is intense, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the realm of sexual morality. A married couple wanting children, but financially strapped, is easily inclined toward contraception; a single person unable to immediately marry, but wanting to date, is constantly tempted by illicit sex; someone with homosexual attractions is equally tempted, and encouraged by our culture to affirm the gay lifestyle. And yet, there are people in all these situations who, with the grace of God, are able to abide by Catholic teaching, and bear witness to the Catechism’s truths about chastity, both within and without traditional marriage.
Though admirable in many respects, Cardinal Bernardin’s Fordham lecture missed a golden opportunity to challenge his audience on this subject. Had he done so, and entitled his address, “A Call to Chastity, Humanae Vitae and the Consistent Ethic of Life,” he would have received a far different reception—but borne witness to Christ in a more powerful and all-encompassing way.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII.
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, The Seamless Garment: Writings on the Consistent Ethic of Life
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s Message for “Respect Life” Sunday in the U.S.A
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Reception of the Medal of Freedom
Pope John Paul II, General Audiences: the Theology of the Body (1979-1984)
Pope John Paul II, Address to the Bishops of the Unites States of America, September 16, 1987
Ari Goldman, “Cardinal [O’Connor] Won’t Allow Instruction on Condoms in Program on AIDS,” New York Times, December 14, 1987
Bishop Jean Laffitte, Interview on John Paul II’s Theology of Love
Robert George and William Saunders, The Failure of Catholic Political Leadership
J. Francis Stafford, Humanae Vitae—The Year of the Peirasmos
Time Magazine, Roman Catholics: Soft Line on Contraception, October 4, 1968.
James Taranto, When the Archbishop Met the President, Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2012.
Russell Shaw, Rethinking the Seamless Garment
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