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An inspiring vision, but devil is in the details

By Joseph Cardinal Bernardin
John Langan, S.J., Editor
Georgetown University Press, 208 pages, $17.95 paper


Congratulations to Jesuit Fr. John P. Langan for selecting and editing 15 addresses, written and delivered by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, a titan of the American Roman Catholic scene.

These selections are masterful. Consequently, this work is destined for historic value. In one source readers are presented with significant components of Bernardin’s fears, hopes, dreams and the moral values that dominated his thinking from 1983 to 1996. Those familiar with his moral passions will find this book a handy summary of what he loved so much. For those not familiar with the cardinal, this book will function as an insightful introduction to his moral imagination and his personality.

Given Bernardin’s impact on the American religious and political scene, this volume belongs in the library of every Catholic college or university (and other libraries as well).

Langan’s introduction lays out the book’s aims:

  • to provide a compact (though admittedly incomplete) record of an important moment in American Catholic history;
  • to gather texts that speak to a wide American audience concerned with important moral issues affecting their lives;
  • and to present Bernardin’s “consistent ethic of life” to students of Christian ethics and the life of Roman Catholicism.

A Moral Vision for America achieves each aim brilliantly, especially the last one.

“Consistent ethic of life” is not a self-evidently meaningful term. Just what is it? A major contribution of this book is the composite answer given to that question.

The foundation of Bernardin’s “consistent ethic of life” is the belief that human life is sacred and meaningful because God is its origin and destiny. Consequently, human life’s sacred value as understood within the traditions of Roman Catholicism must be consistently recognized, appreciated and affirmed across a variety of different moral contexts.

To do so requires a fundamental bedrock of broad attitudes and a social atmosphere capable of sustaining such affirmations. A great deal of Bernardin’s efforts were aimed at engendering and cultivating such attitudes and atmosphere.

Other fundamentals of his “life-ethic” include its prophetic style and the need for public witnessing to it. After all, to be prophetic is to be public.

He also called for living out this “life-ethic” with civility and courtesy, not questioning the motives of others and assuming good will on the part of all. Even though these latter points were raised within the context of qualities needed for discourse between religion and politics, I judge extending them in general to the “life-ethic” a fair and reasonable move.

Furthermore Bernardin envisioned a comprehensive framework (conceptual and spiritual) that would interrelate a vivid spectrum of related life issues: abortion, nuclear deterrence, the homeless, the helpless, the hungry, the poor, health care, social/medical/sexual ethics, the federal budget, the needs of children, assisted suicide, euthanasia and capital punishment.

Bernardin imagined a major goal for this “life-ethic”; namely, the development of coherent relationships between moral principles and public policy choices.

Intriguingly, Bernardin did not elaborate the specifics of such an ethic. He broadly outlined his vision but summoned and challenged philosophers, theologians, poets, scientists, technicians, strategists, political leaders and citizens to spell out the substance of a consistent ethic of life.

One finds a number of surprises in these addresses:

  • Despite the numerous times Bernardin refers to official teachings of Roman Catholicism regarding moral issues, there is the inexplicable absence of any mention of the role of individual conscience. The term appears in the index only once and does not refer to Roman Catholic decision-making. Roman Catholicism teaches that one must follow a sincerely informed conscience. How does individual conscience relate to the “consistent ethic of life”? No answer to that question appears in any of the addresses.
  • Bernardin also seems to have a very limited understanding of what ethics means. He states that “ultimately ethics is about principles.” However, ethics is also about (but not limited to) good exceptions to good principles, moral imagination, feelings and the exercise of conscience.
  • A truncated comprehension of ethics may help account for his simplistic treatment of abortion controversies. In answering his own question about what kind of society we wish to be, he expresses a classic version of either/or thinking: “one that destroys its unborn children, or one that commits itself to a decent life for the most vulnerable in our midst.” Is that it? Only option “A” or “B”?
  • His claim that “all Catholics are bound by the moral principle prohibiting directly intended abortion” assumes that this principle is an absolute admitting of no legitimate exceptions and excludes any recourse to individual conscience. Both his assumption and exclusion are highly questionable.
  • Bernardin apparently envisioned, for lack of a better term, a civil-theocracy for America. By this I mean he hoped that moral positions taken by the Roman Catholic church regarding life issues would become law. He argues that he is not seeking to impose the religious beliefs of one denomination on society as a whole; however, if he had his way, the end result would be the same. Moreover, he states that a “consistent ethic of life,” provides a means for “assessing party platforms and the records of candidates for public office.” This is reminiscent of the tactics of the Moral Majority in the 1980s and of the Christian Coalition in the 1990s. Whether one wishes to be associated with such tactics is a serious question.
  • Bernardin fails to define significant terms, although he uses them freely, for example: abortion, euthanasia, “our culture,” and “natural death.” His use of the phrase “from the moment of conception” is simply biologically incorrect. Given the gravity of the moral issues connected with this terminology, one would expect a careful and nuanced understanding of the words to be present; however, there is none.

Doubtlessly, readers will find their own surprises within these pages. Suffice it to say Bernardin’s thinking is not without problems.

Problems notwithstanding, this book is eminently worth reading, studying and probing. Since the addresses are arranged chronologically, we can trace Bernardin’s flow of concerns over time. One cannot but be touched by those addresses given as he faced his own impending death.

As a finale, the book concludes with Bernardin’s last major project, “Faithful and Hopeful: The Catholic Common Ground Project.” With dignity and calm this dying cardinal summoned and challenged his own diverse, at times quarrelsome, denomination to come together to attempt mutual understanding expressed as “common ground,” doing so with civility and courtesy, not questioning the motives of each other and assuming good will on the part of all.


William F. McInerny, Ph.D. is professor of theology and religious studies at Rockhurst College, Kansas City, Mo. His specialty area is theological ethics. He has taught within that and related areas for 15 years.

National Catholic Reporter, January 15, 1999