Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

could we please change the subject?

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Feb 05, 2008

What's the problem with the "consistent ethic of life"? Nothing, in the abstract. Every participant in moral discourse has a duty to be consistent (i.e., not to advance contradictory claims). Yet why do we Catholics get repeated calls for a consistent ethic of life -- and not, say, for a consistent ethic of charity, or a consistent ethic of inclusion, or a consistent ethic of peace? For that matter, why aren't we urged to go the whole hog and embrace a "consistent ethic of virtue" that requires us to push for government-funded Eucharistic Adoration as part of the school lunch program? We're right to suspect that those who dish out this advice to us are more alarmed by the prospect of our success than our failure. Quite simply, folks who are embarrassed or threatened by the pro-life vote want to shush orthodox Catholics from speaking out against abortion and other forms of legalized murder, and an effective way of doing this is to call our Catholicism into doubt. They want us to change the subject.

To repeat: consistency in one's ethical commitments is a good thing, and recent popes have given us excellent guidance in defending human life across the board. But too often the "consistent ethic" language is employed to smother pro-life action even as it pretends to incite it. Far too many progressivist Christians keep mum about abortion and euthanasia for forty month stretches, and then when there's an election underway cram the "life issue" full of Leftist entitlements in order to stuff it down our throat like a sock. As one specimen among many, here's a forward-thinking Christian ethicist, coaching us in consistency:

If we are consistent, we must speak and act concerning abortion and euthanasia but also concerning welfare and immigration, sexism and racism, cloning and health-care reform, trade agreements and sweatshops, the buying and selling of women for prostitution, genocide and many other issues. Based on our ancient Scriptures and attentive to contemporary experiences, the consistent ethic of life provides an ethical framework for confronting the moral dilemmas of a new millennium. It helps us to promote the full flourishing of all life.

All the key distinctions are blurred here. The built-in fuzziness helps to camouflage the truth that, by their nature, absolute moral norms have priority over moral norms that are not absolute. Moral absolutes, as John Finnis writes

are negative norms (praecepta negativa) which hold good always and on every occasion (semper et ad semper), whereas the many other essential and affirmative moral principles and norms (praecepta affirmativa) hold good semper sed non ad semper -- are always somehow relevant but leave it to your moral judgment to discern the times, places, and other circumstances of their directiveness.

As an example of an affirmative moral norm that is true, but not absolute, Finnis offers the following:

"Feed your children," for example. This moral norm is true, forceful, but not absolute. When the only food available is the body of your neighbor's living child, one (morally) cannot apply that norm in one's action; nor does one violate it by not applying it. (Moral Absolutes, CUA,1991)

A look at the list of "consistent ethic of life" imperatives cited above will show that some (such as those concerning abortion, euthanasia, and genocide) are demanded by an absolute norm of the first type: the norm forbidding the direct taking of innocent human life, whereas others (e.g., issues of welfare and immigration ) may fall under an affirmative but non-absolute norm (see Leviticus 19:34), while still others (e.g., health-care reform and trade agreements) are too vague to know what moral good is being addressed or what principles, if any, are in play. It is obvious that, in contrast to legalized murder, the latter issues not only permit but require prudential and empirically adjustable remedies. It is also obvious that the role of government as a means to achieving a certain end is essential in the case of restricting harms upon citizens, but eminently debatable in the case of extending benefits to them.

But if you pretend the garment is seamless, such that ends and means are indistinguishable, you can kneecap the folks pursuing those ends that make you uncomfortable. A pro-life physician might fully acknowledge his duty to care for the poor and discharge it by giving them hundred of hours annually of unpaid care; the same doctor might oppose a given proposal for health-care reform on the grounds that it adds thousands of bureaucrats to the public payroll while failing to deliver improved service to those who need it most. It's absurd to accuse him of heartlessness, yet by blurring the key distinctions he can be made out to lack a "consistent ethic" of life -- not because he seeks the wrong ends, but because he rejects those means his betters have disingenuously ranked on the same level as the ends they are meant to serve.

Too harsh? Try this thought experiment. Imagine a bishop with a long history of economic conservatism who, on every occasion a controversy about immigration policy is before the public, puts himself before the news cams with this pitch:

"I fully embrace the Gospel imperative to welcome the stranger in our midst. Thus I'm calling my fellow Catholics to a Consistent Ethic of Hospitality. No Catholic should lock his car, his house, or his bedroom door, because in doing so he 'shuts out' the stranger and prevents him from sharing our life to the full. I'm dismayed to see locks on the property of many self-proclaimed Catholics -- including, I regret to say, some of my brother bishops -- so fixated on a single issue that they cease to care about the alien once he has crossed our borders. A consistent ethic of hospitality demands open windows, open wallets, open cupboards."

So, would you see this as a good faith effort on the part of our churchman, or as an attempt to derail the opposition by confusing them about their Catholic duty and by obliging them to commit to spurious entailments they feel guilty about rejecting?

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