Thomas A. NAIRN, editor, The Consistent Ethic of Life: Assessing Its Reception and Relevance. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2008. pp. 208. $25.00. ISBN: 13: 978-1-57075-792-1 (pbk.).
Reviewed by Dolores L. CHRISTIE, CTSA/John Carroll University, University Heights, OH 44118

Beginning in 1983 the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin delivered a series of lectures which developed what is now known as “the consistent ethic of life.” A collection of these lectures was published in 2000. This book offers more: a contextual history of the lectures and ten essays which build on Bernardin’s legacy. The essays come from an ongoing seminar of theologians established at the cardinal’s request to examine and extend his work. They begin to fulfill his dream that his insights continue to bear fruit.

Part 1, “Exploring the Perspectives,” situates Bernardin’s stance. Using Bernard Lonergan’s categories, James Walter explores the corpus of lectures from the point of view of its vision or framework. Walter examines Lonergan’s notion of horizon, the place we stand, with its limits and possibilities. A shift in horizon changes “what we care to know and love.” Bernardin’s work offers a new place to stand. Ron Hamel borrows a phrase from the late moral theologian, Richard McCormick. Hamel calls Bernardin’s work a “corrective vision,” which challenges cultural and social assumptions to change. Hamel notes that, specifically in health care, human dignity—the basis of the consistent ethic of life—is the starting place for action. Through a new lens of human dignity health care must embrace new attitudes, practices, and policies.

Part 2 moves to “Engaging Moral Reasoning.” It includes essays by Thomas Nairn, James Keenan, and Patricia Beattie Jung. Each author writes from his or her strength: Nairn believes that Bernardin’s use of analogy—“a dangerous but useful” tool [he quotes David Burrell]—will ultimately contribute to the advance of moral theology. Keenan provides one of the richest and most readable contributions to the volume. He asserts that virtue must precede principle—a departure from Bernardin—and proposes a modest litany of virtues that ultimately might contribute to a richer understanding of the consistent ethic of life. Jung considers feminist contributions to the foundations of the consistent ethic, noting affinities and—not surprisingly—tensions between the two. She names the methodological inconsistency in the Catholic Church’s approach to most issues (proportionalist thinking) and its unyielding (my term) deontological approach to sexual issues, including abortion.

Part 3 is concerned with “Forming the Ecclesial Voice.” Elizabeth Brinkman argues that Bernardin’s thesis can be used beyond a self-limiting pro-life ethic. It can serve as a rhetorical device to promote efficacious public policy through civil dialogue. Regina Wolfe offers practical suggestions for moving the Bernardin documents into the real world of church, a source for faith development as well as a strong ingredient in academic and pastoral training programs.

Part 4 moves to “Expanding Contexts.” M. Therese Lysaught suggests that the insights of the consistent ethic are joined easily to elements of the National Council of Catholic Bishops’ “Challenge of Peace.” Lysaught argues that Bernardin’s vision goes beyond life issues to an ethic of peacemaking.” She envisions a “gathered, reconciled community . . . of peace and love.” [131}. Dawn Nothwehr employs a feminist lens, perhaps another version of “corrective vision,” to propose a connection between Bernardin’s insights and the feminist notion of mutuality. Who we are (ontology of human dignity) ultimately works itself out in values that cultivate stewardship and peace and a deeply rooted connectedness of persons to each other, to the earth, and to human flourishing—the norm of mutuality. Thomas Shannon applies Bernardin’s insights to contemporary advances in genetics. Can a consistent ethic of life have an impact on this advancing area of moral dilemmas? While Shannon (appropriately) offers no answers, he wants to move the question beyond Bernardin’s ethic, which is sometimes “held hostage by the pro-life movement.” [157] Shannon suggests a engagement on these critical issues, which “cannot be tied up neatly with deontological ribbons” [168], to a broader ethic of justice.

Bernardin’s work is the even tapestry on which the papers are constructed, but the threads of the essays represent a variety of styles and perspectives. Walters and Nairn may impress the reader as more theoretical in their take. Keenan is more inclined to use anecdotes and homey examples. Some of the authors are concerned with specific practical or methodological issues.

Many of the essays advance moral thinking and application to considerations beyond what Bernardin himself actually wrote or likely intended. None are not merely obsequious commentary, but rather offer fresh approaches to push the envelope containing the consistent ethic of life. Jung’s article, for example, challenges the reader to think more proportionately about issues that disproportionately affect women. While a short review cannot deal adequately with the rich content of this book of fine essays, hopefully it will whet the appetite of the reader to go directly to the book itself. Clearly the tidy volume fulfills the promise of its title. It provides theologians a lovely treat for those long waits at airports.

TO ORDER BOOKS: - Continuum - Crossroad - Eerdmans Publishing - Liturgical Press - Orbis Books