Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Let's Tailor the Seamless Garment: We Have Stretched out the Consistent Ethic of Life on Both Sides of the Political Debate, an Activist Argues. Trimming out All but the Key Issues Would Set Our Priorities Straight

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Let's Tailor the Seamless Garment: We Have Stretched out the Consistent Ethic of Life on Both Sides of the Political Debate, an Activist Argues. Trimming out All but the Key Issues Would Set Our Priorities Straight

Article excerpt

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WE WERE A HOPEFUL BAND OF PROLIFE PEACENIKS, venturing out one summer day in 1979 to dialogue with other folks on the left. They were demonstrating in Cincinnati against a National Right to Life Convention. We passed leaflets out to them and carried picket signs with messages such as "Anti-War=Prolife/Be Consistent!"

Juli Loesch, a brilliant young writer, soon organized us, mostly veterans of 1960s activist causes, into Prolifers for Survival (ES.), a prolife and pro-peace group. It lasted until 1987, when it was replaced by a group now called Consistent Life. Congenial groups include Feminists for Life and Democrats for Life.

When I first heard about "the consistency thing" in the early days, I understood it to mean consistent opposition to direct homicide: abortion, war, euthanasia, and the death penalty. But when the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago explained his vision of the consistent ethic of life in 1983, it was far broader than that. He said that those "who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us." That stance, he said, "translates into specific political and economic positions" on taxes, welfare policy, health care, and more.

That was a huge jump to make. Cardinal Bernardin apparently had in mind specific positions of the U.S. Catholic bishops. Yet those positions do not bind the consciences of Catholics; they are not mandatory. They are lobbying goals--certainly well-intentioned, but just as certainly subject to debate on philosophical and practical grounds. Yet the ban on killing other human beings--except in self-defense--binds all of us.

WHILE I ADMIRED CARDINAL Bernardin, I believe he and others took the consistency ethic a bridge too far. This is one reason why it never achieved the popular support it deserves and why it has little influence on national politics. Something Loesch wrote nearly 30 years ago is still true today: Most congressional candidates "look like a cross between Francis of Assisi and Attila the Hun."

Meanwhile, the list of life issues has grown so long that it's almost meaningless. Some suggest that consistency even covers better schools or environmental issues. It's not just that abortion gets lost in the shuffle--as conservatives have complained for years--so do other forms of direct killing.

Yet homicide causes the worst misery in the world. If we could stop people from killing one another, that would be the greatest advance for peace and justice in world history, and it would unleash vast energy and resources to deal with quality of life.

To get there, we need a keener sense of priorities. Dr. William Colliton, a veteran prolife activist in Maryland, once said, "If you ask an individual, 'Do you prefer to be dead or poor?' I'm gonna take poor." So would most of us. People whose right to life is respected have the chance to agitate for change on other issues. The dead, though, have no free speech or right to organize.

Placing first priority on life can be a preferential option for the poor and for minority communities. For decades, statistics have shown that they are more likely to have abortions. They are vastly overrepresented on death row, and euthanasia is a greater long-term threat to the poor than to others.

Poor people, lacking money and passports, find it hard to escape the horrors of war. If we help save the lives of those threatened by lethal discrimination, they have a chance to win their place in the sun. If we don't, they won't.

The consistent ethic of life is like a sturdy pony, willing to do real work out on the range. But some have burdened it with such heavy loads that the pony can scarcely walk.

What would it take to unburden the consistent ethic of life so it could round up stray liberals here, unhappy conservatives over there, and clusters of moderates in a coalition that will challenge killing across the board? …

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