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Samuel Gregg on the ‘Seamless’ Ethic of Life

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Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (1928-1996)
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (1928-1996)
At The Catholic World Report, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg examines the use of the expression “a consistent ethic of life” — a phrase which has been used by Roman Catholic bishops as far back as a 1971 speech delivered by then-Archbishop Humberto Medeiros of Boston. More recently, Chicago Archbishop Blaise Cupich used the phrase in a Chicago Tribune article about the scandal of Planned Parenthood selling body-parts from aborted children. Elaborating, Cupich said “we should be no less appalled by the indifference toward the thousands of people who die daily for lack of decent medical care; who are denied rights by a broken immigration system and by racism; who suffer in hunger, joblessness and want; who pay the price of violence in gun-saturated neighborhoods; or who are executed by the state in the name of justice.”

The phrase “a consistent ethic of life” — also known as the “seamless garment” approach to ethics — won widespread currency during the episcopate of another Chicago archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. Gregg observes that in approximately 15 addresses delivered between 1983 and 1986, Bernardin “called for the development of such an ethic and outlined how it might inform the way in which Catholics—lay and clerical—approached public policy issues.” Gregg goes on to outline the theological framework for this approach and how it has been applied, or misapplied, in recent decades:

In short, contra the consistent ethic, at least as formulated by Cardinal Bernardin, it’s not the responsibility of Catholic bishops—including, one might add, the bishop of Rome—to engage in the process of evaluating the multifaceted contingent details, competing sets of empirical data, and information yielded by the social and natural sciences that is required to make a determinatio concerning the most optimal ways of addressing genuine problems such as homelessness, environmental degradation, unemployment, or gun-violence: problems to which there are many possible right answers.

Moreover, there are considerable negative side-effects of bishops offering policy-conclusions. Apart from intruding upon what is normally the laity’s responsibility (which, some might contend, constitutes a form of clericalism), such side-effects include (1) enabling others to suggest that those Catholics who respectfully disagree with a bishop’s determinatio about a particular prudential issue are somehow unfaithful Catholics; (2) bishops succumbing to the temptation of wanting to be a “player” in places like Washington, D.C.; or (3) bishops opening themselves to the likelihood of being manipulated by those on the political right and left who view them and the Church more generally as just another lobby group to be managed as part of the messy business of law-making.

Read “The Consistent — and Not So Seamless — Ethic of Life” by Samuel Gregg in The Catholic World Report.

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John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.

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