The National Catholic Review
The Editors
Our church and society stand in need of renewed and sustained discussion regarding an ethic of life. Serious conversation has largely devolved into sloganeering and sound bites. The prevailing metaphor, culture of life versus culture of death, has galvanized people’s imaginations and inspired outcries on issues ranging from abortion to third world debt. Yet at times the image has been co-opted into polemic, and the conclusions reached have both obscured the long and nuanced tradition of the church and belied the range and complexity of the issues involved. The debate over the circumstances of Terri Schiavo’s death offers a case in point. In the midst of ever-developing health care technology, what constitutes extraordinary means? At what point do such measures compromise a life of dignity? When is the extension of life no longer of value? These and many other such questions have no easy answers.

The example of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin has much to offer as we proceed. In December 1983 Cardinal Bernardin was invited to Fordham University to discuss the implications of the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response. He viewed his talk as an opportunity to imagine a Catholic ethic of life. His lecture meant to offer an examination of the need for a consistent ethic of life and a probing of the problems and possibilities which exist within the church and the wider society for developing such an ethic.

Cardinal Bernardin was careful about the language he used and the claims he made. In keeping with the spirit of a university, he said, I have cast my lecture in the style of an inquiry. He understood the idea of a consistent ethic of life that extended from womb to tomb as a proposal made in broad strokes. To generate a particular application to any given issue would require much additional hard work and earnest conversation. The spectrum of life cuts across the issues of genetics, abortion, capital punishment, modern warfare and the care of the terminally ill, he stated. These are all distinct problems, enormously complicated, and deserving individual treatment. No single answer and no single response will solve them. Paradoxically, a consistent ethic of life demands specificity of case and diversity of solution.

The church must do more than simply react to the issues of the day, Cardinal Bernardin argued; it must help shape the discussion with questions, images and principles that illuminate, inspire and challenge. And Catholics can and should be prophetic in their challenge of contemporary mores, never more than when the lives of innocent persons are at stake. Yet in today’s divided, either/or world, our faith calls us to precision in our claims and temperance in our rhetoric. What will make us truly prophetic in this conversation is not edicts but example, the willingness to wrestle with complexity and show love for all. You will know them by their deeds.... Any sound tree bears good fruit (Mt 7:16, 18).

An ethic of life for today also calls for poetry. Church people are like other people, the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes. The deep places in our livesplaces of resistance and embraceare not ultimately reached by instruction. Those places of resistance and embrace are reached only by stories, by images, metaphors and phrases that line out the world differently, apart from our fear and hurt. The language of metaphor and story finds a place for the held tensions and contradictions, loveliness and mystery of human life that are missing from the discourse of argument alone. So a film like Dead Man Walking, about the prison ministry of Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., moves viewers to consider the good by being faithful to the complex fullness of what is beautiful and what is true. As Catholics, we are a sacramental people, our life of faith grounded in and nourished by story and gesture, word, object and image. We have great riches to draw on and to share.

To build a culture of life, we must commit ourselves to what a culture is: a body of mutually sustaining and self-critical symbols and practices, in dialogue with the broader world, that enable us to understand that world and inform our practices within it. No one image or idea can bear the weight of the whole conversation. Culture of life is easily oversimplified. The seamless garment, an image Bernardin coined at Fordham to suggest the indivisibility required of a Catholic ethic of life, has been taken by some to imply that all issues are of equal priority. A broad reservoir of metaphors is required.

Some people, church leaders like Cardinal Joseph Bernardin two decades ago or Sister Helen Prejean today, may lead the way in our endeavor. Yet the development of an ethic and culture of life is the responsibility of all. We call on our poets and theologians, our bishops and our families to explore symbols and stories that might deepen our practice of life and our society’s vision of the same.

Comments

Fr. Leonard F Villa | 9/21/2005 - 9:17pm
I think your editorial, A Culture of Life, clouds rather than clarifies two life-issues: You mention the Terri Schiavo case and in that context say there are no easy answers about ordinary/extraordinary means; the value of human life and so forth. However the Church has given a clear authoritative answer in the case of persons like Schiavo in the PVS state:

The administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act. Its use, furthermore, should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory, insofar as and until it is seen to have attained its proper finality, which in the present case consists in providing nourishment to the patient and alleviation of his suffering (Pope John Paul II re PVS patients, March 31 2004.)

Even when speaking of a consistent ethic of life, the death penalty and acts of abortion and euthansia are not on the same plane. Abortion, and euthanasia are instrinsically evil as taught by the Church. The death penalty is not. Catholic doctrine provides for the death penaly albeit in extremely restricted circumstances. (CCC #2267) These are binding points of reference in articulating the culture of life which you ought to have cited.

(Rev.) Michael D. Place | 2/21/2007 - 9:35am
As staff theologian for Cardinal Joseph Bernardin from 1985 until his death, I commend the editorial “A Culture of Life” (9/25) for reminding us once again of Cardinal Bernardin’s efforts with regard to a consistent ethic of life. In particular I applaud the observation that “no one image or idea can bear the weight of the whole conversation.” No one was more aware of this than the cardinal.

As regards images, for example, the cardinal spoke of his dying as his most important homily. The photos of the frail, dying cardinal anointing the sick, after having been anointed himself, and the stories of his ministry to fellow cancer patients evoked a sense of peace that only God could give and no homily could explain.

As regards ideas, the vocabulary of consistent ethic was complemented by other proposals such as the Common Ground Initiative. A church torn by acrimony could not be a credible witness or effective partner in public discourse about protecting and enhancing human dignity.

What held so much of this together was a hopefulness that was captured, in a small measure, in his pastoral on Catholic health care, “A Sign of Hope,” a hope sustained by the conviction that because of God’s love for us we can live with confidence in the midst of alienation and chaos. I would suggest that without hopefulness our attempts “to explore symbols and stories,” as you helpfully propose, will be less than effective. Bernardin’s hopefulness was quite personal: as inviting as his blue eyes and as robust as the operas he loved. But it also reflected his appropriation of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, in particular the image of the church as leaven. Redemption was possible in a sinful world.

As this conciliar perspective is replaced by a profound pessimism about what some consider to be the moral bankruptcy of the United States and western Europe, Bernardin’s hopefulness is viewed as being outdated, if not dangerous. Without hopefulness, it is understandable that the complexity of a consistent ethic or the labors of Common Ground-type dialogue can seem to be a waste of time.

In a few weeks we will celebrate the ninth anniversary of Cardinal Bernardin’s death. Perhaps it is time for us to ask what does the Christian virtue of hope mean today. Is it naïve to trust in that which is unseen, or is this the confidence that is an appropriate platform for God’s grace?

Fr. Leonard F Villa | 9/21/2005 - 9:17pm
I think your editorial, A Culture of Life, clouds rather than clarifies two life-issues: You mention the Terri Schiavo case and in that context say there are no easy answers about ordinary/extraordinary means; the value of human life and so forth. However the Church has given a clear authoritative answer in the case of persons like Schiavo in the PVS state:

The administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act. Its use, furthermore, should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory, insofar as and until it is seen to have attained its proper finality, which in the present case consists in providing nourishment to the patient and alleviation of his suffering (Pope John Paul II re PVS patients, March 31 2004.)

Even when speaking of a consistent ethic of life, the death penalty and acts of abortion and euthansia are not on the same plane. Abortion, and euthanasia are instrinsically evil as taught by the Church. The death penalty is not. Catholic doctrine provides for the death penaly albeit in extremely restricted circumstances. (CCC #2267) These are binding points of reference in articulating the culture of life which you ought to have cited.

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