During my years as a student in Washington, DC, I lived next door to the complex then housing the National Catholic Conference of Bishops, which in turn bordered on the “Holy Land Shrine.” It was an interesting street. The Secretary of the NCCB as it was called then was a young bishop, Joseph Bernardin, who was a very good neighbor and joined us for dinner on many occasions. He performed the friars’ ordinations to the diaconate and priesthood, and he committed himself to celebrating my class’s ordination to the priesthood. In the months before my ordination, he was named Archbishop of Cincinnati, but he agreed to return to Washington for our day. He asked to meet with us at the seminary prior to the ordination at a large suburban Maryland church borrowed for the occasion. The meeting at the seminary went overtime—Bernardin had just been named one of America’s 50 most influential people by Time Magazine—and we talked about the Church and the country we would be serving as priests.
As you might expect, over the years I had more than passing interest in the ministry of Archbishop—soon to be Cardinal—Bernardine, who went on to Chicago and became something of the voice of reason in the U.S. Catholic Church. His years of national influence concurred with the three decades immediately following Roe v. Wade in 1973, a time of great concern, obviously, for many Americans, not just Catholics. However, I can recall that in my pastoral years abortion was not my highest moral concern. That would have been the issue of mutually assured mass destruction by nuclear weapons; the Cold War was still an overarching fear among the American populace, and in about 1986, under Bernardine’s leadership, the United States Bishops undertook a pastoral letter on the morality of nuclear arms. I was asked by my bishop at the time to serve on his advisory committee in preparation of the document. [The issue of nuclear weapons, interestingly, came up in last night’s presidential debate.]
At about this time Bernardin coined a phrase that would have significant repercussions in all moral discussions of the sanctity of life: “the seamless garment of life.” One of the Chicago Cardinal’s teaching gifts was synthesizing Catholic moral life. He was certainly no manualist. If we think back to the early paragraphs of the Catechism (published about three years before Bernardin’s death in 1996) it is hard not to be amazed by the language employed to describe the majestic riches of the human person, endowed by the nature of divine creation to come to an understanding of goodness, moral truth, and the divine. This is the “anthropology” of the Catechism and everything we say about human life springs from our created nature.
The focal point of the Seamless Garment metaphor is that the value of life is consistent regardless of age or later circumstance. Bernardin had many critics, particularly in the Pro-Life leadership, who argued that his broadening of moral concern for all of life—and particularly to certain classes of people such as those on death row—would water down both catechetical and civil efforts on behalf of the unborn. One very touchy issue—highlighted in the book/film Dead Man Walking—was advocacy of the sanctity of life of convicted killers facing execution. It took a brave soul to argue that the life of a man on death row commanded the respect of an unborn child.
I would agree that reflection on this point is jarring, but when has the pursuit of moral truth not been so? Perhaps a more palatable example might be that of nuclear weapons. Catholic teaching before the nuclear age had always carried a mandate about the killing of noncombatants, though as I read Carlos M.N. Eire’s Reformations (see home page) it is clear this moral concern was frequently ignored in the breech. The sheer expanse of the destructive power of one nuclear weapon makes any distinction between combatants and non-combatants morally and tactically impossible. The atomic bomb at Nagasaki destroyed a Jesuit novitiate.
The threat here is a moral stance that allows for a bifurcation of lives—which do we protect, and which do we justify terminating. Time does not permit me to examine the variety of slippery slopes currently in place which tolerate, allow, or even justify the taking and risking of lives, in society as a whole and even in some strains of Catholic thought. The inconsistency, however, does not help the promotion of the Pro-Life cause, particularly in the eyes of outsiders who look to the Church as a kind of moral beacon.
Cardinal Bernardine addressed the need for a unified pastoral message on the sanctity of all life at a speech at the University of St. Louis in November, 1984:
Abortion is taking of life in ever growing numbers in our society. Those concerned about it, I believe, will find their case enhanced by taking note of the rapidly expanding use of public execution. In a similar way, those who are particularly concerned about these executions, even if the accused has taken another life, should recognize the elementary truth that a society which can be indifferent to the innocent life of an unborn child will not be easily stirred to concern for a convicted criminal. There is, I maintain, a political and psychological linkage among the life issues—from war to welfare concerns—which we ignore at our own peril: a systemic vision of life seeks to expand the moral imagination of a society, not partition it into airtight categories.
I will continue this discussion on Wednesday, focusing upon the positive steps that Catholics in general, and catechists in particular, may consider in advancing the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of all life.