As the Church faces up to the profligation of nuclear weapons and advances in embryo experimentation threats to life new to our age — Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the Archbishop of Chicago, looks for an allencompassing ethic of life.
DURING the past year, with the express purpose of helping to shape a consistent ethic of life in our culture, I have been exploring the linkages among a range of human life issues. I do not underestimate the intrinsic intellectual difficulties of this endeavour, nor the delicacy of the question — ecclesiastically, ecumenically and politically. Rut I believe the Catholic moral tradition has something to say in the face of the multiple threats to the sacredness of life today. I am also convinced that the Church is in a position to make a significant defence of life in a comprehensive and consistent manner.
The United States bishops' pastoral letter on the Challenge of Peace provides a starting point for developing a consistent ethic of life, but it does not provide a fully articulated framework. The central idea in the letter is the sacredness of human life and the responsibility we have, personally and socially, to protect and preserve the sanctity of life.
Precisely because life is sacred, the taking of even one human life is a momentous event. Although Catholic teaching has allowed the taking of human life in particular situations by way of exception, in recent decades, the presumption against taking human life has been strengthened and the exceptions made ever more restrictive.
Fundamental to this shift in emphasis is a more acute perception of the multiple ways in which life is threatened today. Obviously such questions as war, aggression, and capital punishment have been with us for centuries and are not new to us. What is new is the context in which these ancient questions arise, and the way in which a new context shapes the content of our ethic of life.
The dominant cultural fact, present in both modern warfare and modern medicine, which induces a sharper awareness of the fragility of human life, is our technology. To live as we do in an age of careening development of technology is to face a qualitatively new range of moral problems.
War has been a perennial threat to human life, but today the threat is qualitatively different due to nuclear weapons. We now threaten life on a scale previously unamiginable. From the inception of life to its decline, a rapidly expanding technology opens new opportunities for care but also poses new potential to threaten the sanctity of life.
The technological challenge is a pervasive concern of Pope John Paul II. expressed in his encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, and continuing through his address to the Pontifical Academy of Science in November, 1983, when he called on scientists to direct their work toward the promotion of life, not the creation of instruments of death. The essential question in the technological challenge is this: in an age when we can do almost anything, how do we decide what we ought to do?
The even more demanding question is: in a time when we can do anything technologically, how do we decide morally what we never should do?
Asking these questions along the spectrum of life from conception to death creates the need for a consistent ethic of life, for the spectrum of life cuts across the issues of genetics. abortion, capital punishment, modern warfare and the care of the terminally ill. Admittedly, these are all distinct problems, enormously complicated, and deserving individual treatment. No single answer and no simple response will solve them.
The purpose of proposing a consistent ethic of life is to argue that success on any one of the issues threatening life requires a concern for the broader attitude in society about respect for human life. Attitude is the place to root an ethic of life. Change of attitude in turn can lead to change of policies and practices in our society.
A consistent ethic seeks to build a bridge of common interest and common insight on a range of social and moral questions. It is designed to highlight the intrinsic ties which exist between public attitudes and personal actions on one side, and a public policy on the other.
Effective defence of life requires a coordinated approach to attitude, action and policy. The consistent ethic theme seeks to engage the moral imagination and political insight of diverse groups and to build a network of mutual concern for defence of life from conception to death.