The Seamless Garment: Writings on the Consistent Ethic of Life is a collection of thirty-five previously unpublished lectures by Cardinal Joseph Bernadin on the “consistent ethic of life.” These lectures were compiled and published in honor of the 25th anniversary of Cardinal Bernadin’s 1983 Gannon Lecture at Fordham University—where he first articulated his consistent ethic of life—for the purpose of making the consistent ethic of life “more easily available to the public.” In this brief review of an anthology of important writings from a seminal Catholic moralist I will summarize the two basic components of the consistent ethic of life and address its relevance for today.
For over thirteen years Cardinal Joseph Bernadin consistently promoted a framework for addressing moral issues which he termed the consistent ethic of life: “The purpose of the consistent ethic of life is to provide a moral framework for analysis and motivation for action on a wide range of human life issues with important ethical dimensions” (238). According to Bernadin the consistent ethic of life is composed of two basic components: human life is both sacred and social. First, in each of his lectures Cardinal Joseph Bernadin constantly promotes his belief that life is inherently sacred: “A consistent ethic of life is based on the need to ensure that the sacredness of human life, which is the ultimate source of human dignity, is defended and fostered, from the genetic laboratory to the cancer ward, from the ghetto to the prison” (257). Operating within the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, Bernadin argues for the “transcending value” of human life because “the person is the clearest reflection of God among us” (27). In other words, life is sacred because of “the theological assertion that the person is the imago Dei”(105). Second, the other principle component that Bernadin develops in his lectures is the belief that human life is also social in nature: “We are not born to live alone, but, rather, to move from the dependency of prenatal life and infancy to the interrelatedness of adulthood. To be human, then, is to be social, and those relationships, structures, and institutions which support us, as individuals and as a community, are an essential aspect of human life” (256). From these two principles Bernadin argues for two “precepts” or “obligations” that necessarily flow from them: “First, as individuals and as a society, we have the positive obligation to protect and nurture life. Second, we have a negative obligation not to destroy or injure human life directly, especially the life of the innocent and the vulnerable” (257).
One of the strengths of Bernadin’s consistent ethic of life is its ability to function as a “seamless garment” which recognizes the link between multiple “life issues”: “The linkage of life issues, issues which, I am convinced, constitute a ‘seamless garment’…There is, I maintain, a political and psychological linkage among life issues—from war to welfare concerns—which we ignore at our own peril” (18-19). This linkage of issues is perhaps the most important contribution of the consistent ethic of life. It is important because it recognizes the need for a consistent ethical approach which connects diverse moral issues (e. g., abortion, euthanasia, war, capital punishment, health care reform) under a framework drawn from Catholic moral tradition. On this point lies the relevance of the consistent ethic of life for the present. Refusing to promote “single-issue politics within the church,” the consistent ethic of life approaches diverse issues in an “interrelated way.” This encourages connecting abortion with poverty, capital punishment with healthcare reform, euthanasia with foreign policy. In a climate marked by “technological innovation,” pluralism, and moral ignorance the consistent ethic of life is a framework for approaching these varied issues.
Useful in both the academy and the parish, this collection of Bernadin’s writings will stir up heated debate and dialogue on important issues facing the church today. That, after all, is exactly the point as Bernadin himself notes, “the consistent ethic of life gives us guidance…but the conversation and the work always continues” (116).