For years pro-life Roman Catholics in the United States and Canada have been accused of caring only about abortion.  Beginning in the mid to late sixties, some people began to argue that housing, taxes, immigration, Guatemala, El Salvador and South Africa, and other economic-political issues were as important, if not more so, than contraception, divorce, abortion, homosexuality or extra-marital sex.

In the United States these accusations against the pro-life movement intensified after R.C. Archbishop Joseph Bernardin, today Cardinal-Archbishop of Chicago, launched the so-called “seamless garment” policy in December 1983, after he had just been appointed head of the American Bishops’ Pro-Life Committee.

The Archbishop’s “consistent ethic of life” statement was intended to recall that Christians, as a group or church, must be concerned with a wide range of issues affecting the quality of life.  For anyone who has even a little knowledge of the Catholic Church’s social teaching over the last 150 years, this statement confirmed what they already knew.

Attacks on pro-life

The need for such consistent efforts for life in all its social manifestations was never questioned by “pro-lifers,” even though they themselves concentrated on abortion as the single most important issue.  On the other hand, those who, after the close of the second Vatican Council in 1965, newly devoted themselves to economic political issues, not only tended to ignore the abortion issue but frequently belittled it.  The moral permissiveness of the post-1965 period encouraged such a point of view.  At the same time dissenting theologians within the Church, such as Gregory Baum in Canada, attacked the traditional teaching on family and sexual oral issues.

They and others spread the idea that the Church should devote herself to facing economic political issues.  Social sin was in, in fact, it was declared to be the only real sin.  Personal sin was out, and with it, sexual-moral transgressions.  This attitude was adopted by many people, despite the fact that the assault on what was now declared to be merely “private religious hang-ups” were ripping the fabric of society to shreds for anyone who care to see.

Even the activities of the staffs of the National Conferences of Bishops in the U.S.A. and in Canada came to reflect this unequal emphasis.  As pointed out before in The Interim, between 1968 and the end of 1982, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) pronounced upon economic-political issues-political issues – directly or indirectly through associate agencies – close to some 250 times.  During these same 15 years the CCCB addressed family-sexual-moral issues only ten times, and of these statements, only five were addressed to governments or the public at large.

Single issue fanatics

Following the 1983 presentation of the “seamless garment” ethic, the attacks in the United States upon pro-life people and organizations as “single issue fanatics” increased.  However, today, five years after his initial statement, Cardinal Bernardin who is still head of the U.S. Bishops’ Pro-Life Committee, finally recognized that this falsification must not continue.

On August 8, 1988, in Denver, Colorado, the Cardinal addressed an exclusively Catholic group of Church officials, namely the annual meeting of diocesan pro-life directors.  He spoke on the subject of “Voters and the Consistent Ethic.”  (Text in Origins, September 1, 1988). First he explains why the (Catholic) Church must speak out on many moral issues with political implications and on political issues with moral implications.”

Then he sets out what the consistent ethic is not.  After stating that it is not “a fully articulated platform” with which to measure candidates or political parties, he goes on to say:

“Moreover, the consistent ethic of life is emphatically not a strategy for down-playing the issue of abortion in the church or in society.  As the U.S. bishops said in their 1985 reaffirmation of the Pastoral Plan for Pro-life Activities:

“Precisely because all issues involving human life are interdependent, a society which destroys human life by abortion under the mantle of law unavoidably undermines respect for life in all other contexts.  Likewise, protection in law and practice of unborn human life will benefit all life, not only the lives of the unborn.”


The Cardinal goes on to state (again the emphasis is mine):

“It follows from this that the consistent ethic should not discourage an emphasis on abortion in individual Catholic’s political activity.  This seems widely misunderstood.  For example, some have suggested that Catholics for whom abortion is an issue of overriding political importance are somehow out of line with the policy of the church’s hierarchy.  Such an opinion seems to be based on the USCC Administrative Board statements of 1984 and 1987 titled ‘Political Responsibility: Choices for the ‘80s,’ which spoke against single-issue voting.  Moreover, in the 1987 version, the conference’s board explicitly adopted the concept of a ‘consistent ethic of life’ as the moral framework within which issues in the political arena should be addressed.

“However, the phrase ‘single issue’ voting requires clarification.  The most recent versions of the USCC statement on political responsibility say this” ‘We urge citizens to avoid choosing candidates simply on the basis of narrow self-interest.  We hope that voters will examine the positions of candidates on the full range of issues as well as on their personal integrity, philosophy and performance.  We are convinced that a consistent ethic of life should be the moral framework from which we address all issues in the political arena.  In this consistent ethic we address a spectrum of issues, seeking to protect human life and promote human dignity from the inception of life to its final moment.”

Abortion disqualifies

The Cardinal then explained the above:  “Clearly the statement’s caution against voting on the basis of ‘narrow self-interest’ does not refer to voting on the basis of fundamental human rights issues such as the right to life.  This statement urges voters to examine the candidates on a full range of issues, but does not seek to answer this complex question: Having examined positions on a range of issues as well as a candidate’s integrity, philosophy and performance, may a voter decide that the candidate should not receive support because he or she favors continued violation of the unborn child’s right to life?”

“As I said recently in an interview with the National Catholic Register, my own answer to that question is year.  Indeed, a commitment to a consistent ethic would support a conscientious decision of this kind.  As the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities says, “It is imperative that we, as Christians called to serve the least among us, give urgent attention and priority to this issue of justice, for a policy and practice allowing over 1.5 million abortions annually cannot but diminish respect for life in other areas.”

The Cardinal concluded his address by pointing to euthanasia as an issue which is closely related to abortion and which, in time, may even come to overshadow it.


Canadian Catholics may note that one of their own Bishops, namely the Bishop of Saskatoon, James Mahoney, put the latest Cardinal Bernardin positions most forcefully eleven years ago, namely in March 1977, when he wrote:

“I must remind you of your duty to uphold what is necessary for the common good of the country.  Those who defend abortions whether legalized or not, or who refuse to make a clear commitment to defend the right’s of the unborn or the aged and the ill, or who in other ways promote the corruption of family life, disqualify themselves from public office, no matter what their other qualifications may be.  By being anti-life and anti-child, they strike at the heart of human society.