The following is a transcript of a Raised Catholic Podcast episode. To listen to the episode, click here.
Today is episode 76: Consistent Life Ethic
Hello friends. If you took a poll about the political priorities of the American Catholic Church, most people would readily respond that we are a “pro-life” church. The goal of ending abortion is prevalent in our messaging from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to national Catholic outlets to Catholic social media right down to many pulpits and even church bulletins. It’s a focus of many Catholics’ political donations, their volunteer hours, and the candidates they support, and it is the singular reason why many Catholics backed the Supreme Court justices who are expected to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
At the same time, many are increasingly finding the term ‘pro-life’ problematic, and friend, you can count me among them, because that term does not accurately describe the movement as it exists today, both inside and outside of the Catholic Church. There are logical fallacies and outright hypocrisy throughout the American pro-life movement today. We want to save babies in the womb, but neglect to look at the societal causes that might lead a person to make that decision. We want those babies to be born, but then we don’t support programs which would help provide for families after that birth: funding for childcare, other economic supports, a living wage, educational opportunity. We preach about the inherent value of each human life, but then we’re pretty quiet about the real threats to those lives once they’re born – the wide proliferation of guns and mass shootings in places like schools, churches, and grocery stores, systemic racism, our treatment of refugees, and in 2020, the National Prayer Breakfast actually awarded Catholic Attorney General Bill Barr with the Faithful Christian Laity award following his reinstatement of the federal death penalty. Yikes.
If one believes that all human life is sacred, and if that belief drives our words and actions and donations as it does with so many American Catholics, then it makes sense to apply that belief consistently, so in today’s episode, we will look at what is known as a consistent life ethic.
Simply said, a consistent life ethic walks out what many cradle Catholics say they believe: that every life is sacred. It calls for action to defend and support each life as a member of the human family, a daughter or son of God. First conceived by Catholic pacifist Eileen Egan in 1971 as a holistic reverence for life, she describes the philosophy as a ‘seamless garment.’ Drawing on the Scripture from the Book of John, Egan held that issues such as abortion, capital punishment, militarism, euthanasia, social injustice, and economic injustice all demand a consistent application of the moral belief of the sacred value of people. Egan said, “The protection of life is a seamless garment. You can’t protect some lives and not others.”
But we do that, don’t we, friends? We prioritize some lives over others. We put our individual freedoms above the welfare of other humans. We look the other way at the mistreatment of someone who lives somewhere else or who looks or lives differently from the way in which we live. We become tribal, entrenched in our camps. We forget, so often, that each life is sacred and that we belong to each other. I’ll admit it, I do this, all the time.
In the wake of the recent massacre at Robb Elementary School in Texas, plus racially motivated mass shootings in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, and a church in California, all within the last couple of weeks, I wonder if we can call ourselves a pro-life culture or a pro-life Church. Do our responses to these horrific events reflect our belief that each life is sacred? Do we just move on, as individuals and as church? I’ll admit, I feel the numbing that many of us do, the exhaustion over the fact that nothing ever seems to change, the obvious cultural prioritization in America of individual freedoms over the welfare of human life. Hard to make the case on almost any front you can think of, that we are a pro-life culture, and the messaging of our church, so strong and specific on the laws involving abortion, feels so much less muscular on almost any other life issue you can think of. If you take in the messaging from the USCCB and so many loud public Catholic voices, it would be hard to conclude that we believe that every life is sacred. I’m not sure our actions show that we do. And I’ll be honest, I know that mine don’t.
But as we take the step back that we so often do in the face of tragedy, it’s an opportunity once again to take stock and to really look at what it is we value. After all, we get the culture and the society we deserve, as each one of us builds it every day with our decisions, our actions, our purchases, and our votes. As we say in the Catholic Cursillo retreat movement that I’ve been a part of for almost twenty years, if the ways in which we spend our time, talent and treasure were a comet leading us somewhere new, where would that new place be? What is our ideal and how are we moving toward it each day with our decisions? Are we moving toward a culture of life, or away from it? Or is American culture reflective of a truth Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago told an audience way back in December of 1983. “When human life is considered ‘cheap’ or easily expendable in one area, eventually nothing is held as sacred and all lives are in jeopardy.”
If you were born and raised Catholic as I was, you may have been exposed to quite a lot of teaching about abortion which was framed in the language of “the least of these,” a defense of life which cannot defend itself. Taken from the Book of Matthew chapter 25, the argument draws on the stark words of Jesus about who and who will not enter the Kingdom of God, based on how we treat one another.
Speaking of those who saw their sister or brother in need and did nothing to help, Jesus says,
“For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”
Jesus offers this direct connection – how we care for others is how we will experience eternal reward or punishment, and you really can’t get much clearer than that, friend, but in the American Catholic Church today, where we clearly favor unborn lives over those which are born, which ignores the beauty of Catholic Social Teaching, where debate over liturgical forms and practices is more common than pastoral care, where we turn from our responsibility to each other in favor of cementing and preserving our individual rights, we find a Church desperately in need of consistency when it comes to the value of life. It’s all too easy to offer only thoughts and prayers in the wake of tragedy that affects people we don’t know, but that is not the standard that Jesus calls us to. He calls us to love others like they are family because that is what we actually are. If we did that, our response to every life issue, from abortion to the death penalty to systemic racism, to economic and social injustice, and to guns, would look radically different than they do today. We would not be able to turn away, and I pray we become a Church that does not, because otherwise we have fundamentally lost our witness and our way.
Thank you for listening today, friends. If you need me, you can find me on Instagram @kerrycampbellwrites or on my blog at mylittleepiphanies.com. Thanks for sharing, rating, reviewing, and subscribing to this podcast as all of that helps more people to find us and I truly appreciate that, so thanks. If you’d like to support Raised Catholic financially by throwing a few bucks my way, there’s a way for you to do that in the show notes, along with lots of resources about how to engage with this topic more deeply for yourself, so do check all of that out. For now, let’s pray together.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.
Oh God, as a human family we raise up to you each life who is suffering and each life who has been lost in places near and far, for reasons we know and understand and those we don’t. Help us to see each other as the family we are, and to act accordingly. We pray in the name of Jesus and wrapped in the mantle of His Mother, Mary, amen.
Thanks for listening today, friend, and I’ll see you next time.
This week we’re looking at the philosophy of a Consistent Life Ethic: what it means, what it includes, and what an application of this ethic might look like in practice.
If you’d like to connect with me, find me on Instagram or on my blog. If you’d like to help support this podcast financially, there’s now a way to do just that, and thank you – visit me on my page at buymeacoffee.com! Thanks as always for sharing, subscribing, rating, and reviewing, as this helps our community to grow!
Here are some resources I hope will help you to engage with this week’s topic in a deeper way for yourself:
1. On ‘the least of these’, by gotquestions.org
2. Consistent Life Ethic basics and history from Wikipedia
3. Journals exploring the seven themes of Catholic Social Teaching, from From Here Media
4. “A Consistent Ethic of Life as a Moral Vision,” by Awakening Project
5. Song: By Our Love, by KING & COUNTRY
6. Song: Magnified (Acoustic), by Ginny Owens
7. Journal prompt:
If I believe that each life, including my life and the lives of people who think and live differently from me, is a sacred creation of God, then how would that change the way I speak, work, think, donate, operate on social media, volunteer, interact, and live?