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Living Theology in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Volume 6, Number 2
Summer 2001

Moral Theology


Is There a “Consistent Ethic of Life?”

David Heim


For a sermon on abortion, a minister decided to rework an antiwar slogan of the 1960’s. Instead of asking “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” he asked, “What if there were abortion clinics and nobody made use of them? What if abortion were a legal choice and nobody took it?” (Richard Hays cites such a sermon in The Moral Vision of the New Testament.)

Like those utopian protesters of the ‘60s, the preacher wanted to push people’s thinking beyond the usual boundaries of political debate—beyond, in this case, talk of women’s rights, and fetal viability. He wanted people to imagine a “pro-life” society that was defined not by rules and regulations but by an entire way of life. If a world without abortion is what we seek, then we need to think about what would it take to build a world in which no one would want an abortion even if one were available.

Can we imagine what a society would be like in which abortion was an option that nobody took? Presumably it would be a society in which every expectant parent—including the unmarried teenager—would feel so supported materially and emotionally by family, friends, church and community that the option of abortion would not loom as the only way to preserve one’s hope for the future. It would also be a society in which people were grateful for every spark of human life and every stage of human development. And it would probably also be a society that not only welcomed human fetuses but invested in schools and child care and greatly respected all parents and families and teachers.

Since we are fallen creatures, it is not possible to build such a world or even fully to imagine it. But trying to imagine such a world is not meaningless activity. Trying to imagine such a world reminds us in a vivid way that being “pro-life” involves more than passing laws—though passing laws might be part of our effort.  Being “pro-life” demands conversion to an ethic of life, an ethic that would need to pervade all our activities, including how we treat our neighbors and how we fund our schools.

Expanding our imaginations in this way is perhaps best done by poets and novelists rather than philosophers and theologians. One of the most compelling “pro-life” works in recent years is P. D. James’s novel “The Children of Men,” which has nothing directly to do with abortion. It is about a future society in which human beings have mysteriously lost the ability to reproduce. The last generation of children have reached their 20s, the schools have closed, the playgrounds are empty, and the rulers of the nations are left with the task of shutting out the lights on human civilization. The novel is chilling in lots of ways, but James’s apocalyptic vision underscores the sheer wonder of human reproduction, and enables us to see with fresh eyes the miracle and blessing of new life. For all the deformations of the society James imagines, it needs no laws against abortion: its inhabitants would be thrilled by the mere rumor of new life.

A more prosaic way of expanding our imaginations and helping us appreciate the life that God has created is the “consistent ethic of life” philosophy developed and popularized by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. Bernardin introduced the term soon after the U.S. Catholic bishops issued their 1983 pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace.” The focus of that document was nuclear war and the morality of nuclear deterrence. Reviewing the conditions of a “just war,” the bishops concluded that it is wrong to use weapons of mass destruction on civilians and that therefore even the threat of using such weapons—the basis for the nuclear standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union—is morally suspect.

“The Challenge of Peace” generated controversy in the church and beyond, and Bernardin sought to capitalize on the public debate by enlarging it. Above all, he wanted to connect the church’s defense of the sanctity of life in the case of war to its defense of the sanctity of life in the case of abortion, capital punishment, welfare policy, homelessness, health care, job creation and the treatment of the terminally ill. The moment was ripe, he thought, for the church to articulate the “systemic vision” that lay behind its various social statements.

Bernardin wanted to emphasize that being “pro-life” is not just the name for a position one takes on one contested issue but an attitude that springs from a biblical vision of the dignity of the human person, made in the image of God. Bernardin was well aware that many people who oppose abortion quarrel with the Catholic bishops’ criticisms of nuclear deterrence. And some of those who oppose the death penalty support the right to abortion. And many who oppose euthanasia might resist government programs for the poor. One of Bernardin’s aims was to get people who support the church’s position on one of these issues to consider the cogency of its stance on the others.

The idea of a consistent ethic of life carried from the start a polemical edge. To call for a consistent ethnic of life is to imply that some people have an inconsistent ethic of life and that this inconsistency represents a moral and logical deficiency.

On this point, reservations might well be lodged. Is there really a “systemic vision” behind the church’s views? After all, abortion, capital punishment, and nuclear deterrence  (to take three of the issues Bernardin named) are very different sorts of issues, involving very different moral categories. Debate over the death penalty, for example, involves issues of crime and punishment and law and social order—none of which is directly raised by the issue of abortion, which involves questions about the status of the fetus. It is not at all clear that someone who opposes abortion and supports the death penalty is being inconsistent. At least, the charge of inconsistency would need to be argued at considerable length.

Consider also that for many Christians, a consistent ethic of life entails pacifism. To those Christians, Bernardin himself is inconsistent insofar as he accepts the mainstream Catholic “just war” tradition, which allows for a theological defense of military action in certain cases.

The “consistent ethic of life” is not, then, a magic wand of ethical clarification that can be wielded to resolve a variety of moral dilemmas. There is no way around thinking through the specifics of each issue.

The operative word in Bernardin’s phrase is not “systemic” but “vision.” The consistent ethic approach urges us not so much toward logical consistency as toward a wide-ranging vision, an attempt to think through the implications of a broad range of actions and to think about the society created by those actions.

The ruling vision of an “ethic of life” might well be taken from Luther’s interpretation of the Fifth Commandment.




You shall not kill.

What does this mean for us?

We are to fear and love God so that we do not hurt our neighbor in any way, but help him in all his physical needs.














David Heim

Executive Editor, The Christian Century