In December of 1983 Cardinal Joseph Bernardin delivered a lecture at Fordham University in which he outlined what we now know as the "consistent ethic of life." And while I was nowhere near old enough to have known about this lecture at the time it was given, the legacy of his words — and the writings that followed — were mainstays in my Catholic schools and in my parish. The "seamless garment" was the foundation for my high school theology classes, the lens through which many of my other teachers taught their classes and that which influenced my youth ministers. It was the air that I breathed it seemed. This was so much a part of my life that I could not imagine a church that would not only embrace this ideology but defend and teach it.
Fast forward to today. It's been nearly 33 years since Bernardin delivered his pivotal lecture. However, I find his message is needed just as much now as then — if not more so — especially in today's political climate.
I was in Europe in July working on a program for newly perpetually professed Marianist Sisters and Brothers from around the world. While I was gone, I was largely out of touch with the daily goings on back at home. Of course, I heard much about the big headlines and discussed certain events with my sisters and brothers from Spain, Mexico, India and Togo. It was not until I returned home, though, that I was made aware of a few particular realities — the staggering number of murders in many cities and metropolitan areas this year (512 in Chicago alone since January 1, the majority through gun violence); the hunger strikes of migrant women in U.S. detention centers; the light sentences for some perpetrators of sexual assault; the lack of conversation in our current political climate about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the alarming rise of heroin use and overdoses — to name but a few. And apart from a day of prayer, a few links on the USCCB website, and various commissions to study different issues, little of significant weight has come from the American church as a response.
Why are we, as a church, not talking about and promoting a more consistent vision of life for our society? A vision steeped in the Gospel and centered respect, care and concern for all people — the unborn, the young, the elderly, the stranger, the drug addicted, the migrant, the marginalized and the oppressed?
In his lecture at Fordham, Bernardin stated, "I believe the Catholic moral tradition has something valuable to say in the face of the multiple threats to the sacredness of life today, and I am convinced that the Church is in a position to make a significant defense of life in a comprehensive and consistent manner."
Today we still face many complex, multifaceted threats to the sacredness of life and respect for the dignity of all people. The question is, do we still hold that unique position of which Cardinal Bernardin spoke? Have the challenges that have faced our church in recent decades completely eroded our ability to call our society to something better than we are? Or, perhaps the divisions of our society are mirrored in the church such that we can no longer agree on the call of the Gospel?
While our societal ills are complicated and there are no easy answers, I think it's time for us to revisit Cardinal Bernardin's words:
Such an ethic will have to be finely honed and carefully structured on the basis of values, principles, rules and applications to specific cases. It is not my task today, nor within my competence as a bishop, to spell out all the details of such an ethic. It is to that task that philosophers and poets, theologians and technicians, scientists and strategists, political leaders and plain citizens are called. I would, however, highlight a basic issue: the need for an attitude or atmosphere in society which is the pre-condition for sustaining a consistent ethic of life.
However, it is not enough to simply republish Bernardin's words or his other works. We need new voices to rise and speak to the same truths from today's context to today's unique challenges. Might one of those voices be yours?
[Nicole Trahan is a member of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate (Marianist Sisters) who teaches sophomore religion at Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School, serves as the National Director of Vocations for the Marianist Sisters, and is director of the pre-Novitiate program for her province.]
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