From the Publisher: Giving Consistency a Bad Name

Once again, Cardinal Bernardin has lectured on “The Consistent Ethic of Life” (February 10, in Washington) to the “new class” within the church, described by him as “diocesan social action directors and staff.” Once again, the UPI and several other newspapers “misinterpreted” the Consistent Ethic. So, two days later, the Cardinal sent his text with an explanatory letter to “All Bishops.”

Why this “Consistent Misinterpretation”?

The UPI reporter saw the lecture as a “sharp response [to] conservatives in the Church.” Others reported it as an attack upon certain bishops. It certainly does read like an attack upon “conservatives.” It certainly does read as if the Cardinal is “in some way downplaying” a strong commitment to “protection for the unborn.” It certainly embraces the way Democrats define moral issues.

The lecture, given to “directors” of social action, is activist politics at work. To talk “theology” to such a group is to give ideological marching orders: “Here is what we are for; here are our priorities; here’s the rationale; go do it!”

And just what are these activists supposed to do? Everything at once. Every issue “between birth and death.” Every issue given equal importance. Every issue granted equal theological certainty. The Cardinal: “We are simultaneously committed to a diverse set of objectives which many individuals and institutions in U.S. society find irreconcilable. We are committed to reversing Roe v. Wade and reversing the arms race. We are convinced that we cannot have a just and compassionate society unless  our care extends to both sides of the line of birth: We must protect the basic right to life and, at the same time, promote the associated rights of nutrition, housing, and health care which enhance the lives we have saved.”

Later the Cardinal says: “We also know that a minimum wage law is absolutely necessary.” We “know”? The scholarly dispute here—whether a minimum wage in practice helps the middle class and hurts the unskilled poor—is broad and deep. The minimum wage “absolutely necessary”? Like life itself? The Consistent Ethic brings every issue down to one same level.

Politically, the Cardinal’s agenda is so clear that, in professional honesty, journalists cannot afford to miss it: “The Consistent Ethic provides a grid for assessing party platforms and the records of candidates for public office.”

What party platform could possibly be excluded by that “grid”? Cardinal Bernardin has just boasted that the grid is “comprehensive.” You bet it is. Every politician in the United States can claim to be included under it. No circus tent is larger. And what is the Cardinal trying to refute? “Properly used the Consistent Ethic will refute decisively claims that we are a ‘one-issue’ constituency.” Reporters know which issue that is.

How comprehensive is the Consistent Ethic? It “provides a framework for addressing the central budgeting trade-off: defense spending vs. social spending.” Again: “The Budget, in a very real sense, is a moral document; it puts a price tag on what we value as a nation.” The Budget “a moral document”? Like a pastoral letter? Actually, the Budget does not express what we value as a nation, but only what we judge to be the proper role of the federal government. Government is not co-terminus with nation, nor state with society. The first law of good government, like that of medicine, is “to do no harm.”

Many American citizens, possibly even a majority of public policy scholars, judge from experience that certain types of “social spending” are doing harm to the poor, not helping the poor; and some “defense spending” is necessary, some not. From the injunction governing abortions, “Thou shall not kill,” there is a clear and certain line. But no clear line tells anyone how much “social spending” and by whom, or under what conditions, truly nourishes the human spirit. Or, on another extremely difficult issue, which measures best deter unjust aggression and secure the peace. Conservatives and progressives are both for peace. They differ in prudence.

Here is where the alleged “Consistency” rips apart. Abortion and the minimum wage are simply not on the same level. The line between some moral principles and their command for action is straight, certain, and clear; abortion, for example. Most other issues featured in the Consistent Ethic do not display so straight a line. They are necessarily subject to diversity of opinion, uncertain consequences, and prudential judgment. To treat both disparate types as equals brings “Consistent” into disrepute.

The Cardinal claims for the prudential judgments of the left the same moral certainty that is present in the nonpartisan injunction against abortion. The “Consistent Ethic of Life” covers this unbridgeable chasm with scenery canvas. That is why journalists see through it. If they step out on it, they fall through.


Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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