Respect for Life: The Consistent Life Ethic in Catholic Social Teaching


Life issues, in any form, have typically proven divisively controversial in general public discourse, and they have been no less so among Catholics, in particular. A more all-encompassing respect for life, which has been articulated in recent decades as a "consistent life ethic," is therefore both a telling indicator of intra-church polemics (particularly in terms of its reception) and a much-needed third way between them. While advocacy of the consistent ethic of life can be found among a diverse and growing group of scholars and activists committed to the connections among peace and life issues [1], its promulgation in the Catholic world has been most commonly associated with Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, who famously advocated the idea in the 1980s using the metaphor of a "seamless garment" (a Biblical reference to the robe worn by Christ, for which Roman soldiers gambled at the crucifixion). Despite a deeply entrenched tendency to separate certain issues that was revealed by the predictably split reaction of some of Bernardin's fellow bishops [2], this more holistic ethic is in fact well grounded in the social tradition of the Catholic Church.

Bernardin's eloquent call to consistency, then, was not an entirely new idea; rather, his innovation was to systematize the connections that had been at least implicitly present in Catholic social teaching since its modern origins. Beginning with Leo XIII in the late 19th century, the popes have put forth systematic articulations of church teaching on social issues. In papal documents on a wide range of subjects, the values from which the consistent life ethic arises are undeniably present, even if the consistent life ethic as such has not been systematically explicated. The complementary issues examined in the documents are connected, at times explicitly, by a principled respect for the intrinsic and God-given dignity of all human life.

The concept of human dignity is a strong theme throughout the social documents of the Catholic Church, and it is this theme that serves as a starting point for the Church's commitment to the protection of life. The universal dignity of all human persons and peoples is, in its broadest sense, the fundamental principle that underlies everything the church teaching has to say about human lives and their value. As soon as one begins to unpack this principle, its connections to a broad range of specific life issues are immediately apparent. This is evident, for example, in the encyclical Pacem in Terris, in which Pope John XXIII notes the impossibility of any natural superiority of some people over others, "since all enjoy an equal natural dignity." He then immediately applies this statement on an international scale, concluding "that countries too do not differ at all from one another in the dignity which they derive from nature." [3] Three decades later, John Paul II writes in the encyclical Centesimus Annus of "a human dignity common to all," which leads him to emphasize dialogical rather than polemical approaches to conflict, and to call peace and prosperity "goods which belong to the whole human race." [4] The explicit foundation of John Paul's recognition of universal dignity here is the very traditional belief in the imago Dei, the belief "that every individual . . . bears the image of God and therefore deserves respect." [5] This belief also served as a basis for the theological anthropology of the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes. [6] As we will continue to see, the universality of human dignity leads to a wide-ranging respect for life in the social documents.

In paradox with this universality is a certain particularity of emphasis: while Catholic social teaching consistently affirms that all human beings bear equal dignity as creatures made in the image of God, it also manifests a specific concern for those whose dignity is in danger of being violated. Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum, widely considered the foundation of Catholic social teaching, focused specifically on the rights of workers. Leo portrayed the right to a living wage as not only a justice issue but also a life issue by naming the exploitation of workers through the imposition of inhumane conditions as a form of violence. [7] Leo's influence is clearly reflected in the writings of John Paul II during his papacy a century later, in which he similarly connected the living wage to basic principles regarding respect for life, pointing to just wages and working conditions as both the measurement of a just system and the best means of preventing violent uprising [8], as well as making the logically obvious but sometimes omitted inference that the responsibility to earn a living presupposes the right to do so. [9] John Paul also reechoed Leo's emphasis on workers' rights and the dignity of work, which has its source in the dignity of the person. [10]

Paul VI also built on the principle of the dignity of workers, applying the principle to a specific social issue by calling on Christians in all countries to recognize the humanity of those who migrate in order to find work. Such recognition is particularly important considering that such people are often put at a disadvantage by immigration policies. [11] This call is a natural result of what he refers to as the "duty of solidarity" with all who suffer from any form of impoverishment, a duty he applies to individuals as well as nations. [12] The moral duty of individuals and governments to support the poor is well-founded in the Catholic social tradition from Leo XIII to Vatican II and beyond. [13] Far from being tangential to the protection of life, the tradition's discussion of responsibility toward the economically disadvantaged points toward a broadly holistic life ethic.


Images, from top to bottom, attributed to: Biblioteca de la Facultad de Derecho y Ciencias del Trabajo Universidad de Sevilla, some rights reserved; US Army Africa, some rights reserved; Bren Buenaluz, some rights reserved.

It is because such an ethic is rooted in universal human dignity that the social documents are able to articulate a broad, robust understanding of "the right to life." In a key development of this concept, John XXIII broadens it well beyond a right simply to remain alive to include a right to the necessary means for living a dignified life. [14] In the same way, John Paul II makes it clear that one's right to life extends through the entirety of one's natural lifespan and includes the rights to develop in the womb and be born, to grow up in a healthy environment, to develop one's abilities through education, and to earn a living to support oneself and one's family. While he is clearly speaking here of the rights of the individual, he immediately connects these rights to the need to honor them within socio-political systems in view of the common good. The common good "is not simply the sum total of particular interests; rather it involves an assessment and integration of those interests on the basis of a balanced hierarchy of values; ultimately it demands a correct understanding of the dignity and the rights of the person." [15] Thus a pro-life perspective, in its fullest sense, is inseparable from a concern for social justice.

The current pope, Benedict XVI, affirms "the strong links between life ethics and social ethics" [16] in Caritas in Veritate, in which he explicitly draws on various sources within the social tradition marked out by his predecessors. He eventually expands these links to include ecological concerns: while continuing to affirm the uniqueness of human dignity, he also points out the interdependence of human life and the entire created order: "Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others." [17] This development of church teaching on life issues further underscores their interrelatedness.

When dealing with such a complex web of interrelated issues, attempts to achieve consensus within magisterial bodies can sometimes reveal the unfortunate artificial divisions that often separate among these issues. In view of this, however, the well-rounded articulation of reverence for life in the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) is all the more impressive. Starting from the biblically grounded assertion that "the love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor" [18], the Council boldly notes that there are no exceptions to the forms in which one's neighbor can appear: a neighbor can be "an old person abandoned by all, a foreign laborer unjustly looked down upon, a refugee, a child born of an unlawful union and wrongly suffering for a sin he did not commit, or a hungry person who disturbs our conscience by recalling the voice of the Lord: 'As long as you did it for one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it for me' (Matt. 25:40)." In a more negatively but equally consistent statement, they condemn a broad range of personal and systemic forms of violence:

Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on the body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator. [19]

Viewed in its broader context, this statement emphasizes all the more strongly the Council's reaffirmation of the breadth of every person's right to life, which includes the right to a life worthy of one's intrinsic human dignity in service of the common good. [20]

A similarly broad perspective was articulated by the 1971 Synod of Bishops convened by Paul VI as an implementation of Vatican II's call for increased collegiality. [21] This synod produced the document Justice in the World, which articulated a view of large-scale justice as integral to the message and calling of the Gospel. Within a context of describing various dimensions of social injustice, the synod names opposition to both abortion and war as "significant forms of defending the right to life." [22] While it is evident from the statement's immediate context as well as from elsewhere in the Catholic social tradition that a respect for life grounded in a recognition of human dignity is significantly broader than these two particular issues, these issues have often received a great deal of attention, both in the social documents and in wider public discourse. Given these issues' tendencies to elicit polemics, the connection drawn between them by the 1971 synod was a significant statement. Such polemics unfortunately become more readily apparent in the U.S. bishops' extensive treatment of peace and life issues, however. This may point to a particular set of pastoral concerns that need to be addressed among American Catholics, not the least of which is this very polarization between different groups concerned with defending life.

One additional concern that is apparently on the bishops' minds is how to address with pastoral sensitivity those members of the Catholic Church who are also members of the armed forces, or whose employment is otherwise dependent on the nation's military apparatus, while also attempting to move the church's teaching on peace toward a more consistent and prophetic call. For this reason, the U.S. bishops' 1983 letter, The Challenge of Peace, is remarkably nuanced in many places, with the validation of Catholic members of the military appearing almost as a pastoral disclaimer within a message advocating nonviolence as normative. Yet when they rightly attempt to draw connections among the various phenomena that endanger life, particularly war and abortion, as part of the application of this basic nonviolent principle, they are clearly struggling for a balanced perspective. It is at this point that the document becomes most contradictory, noting in certain places how both war and abortion (among other forms of violence) can desensitize society to the dignity of human life, but then disconnecting the issues by yielding to the perennial temptation to debate which is worse. [23]

This discontinuity, which likely reflects some division among the bishops on these issues, is made all the more apparent by the statement that immediately precedes the section in which they deal with abortion: an admonition to pacifists not to "insist on conclusions which may be legitimate options but cannot be made obligatory on the basis of actual Church teaching." [24] Granted, they are aiming here for a middle ground between absolute pacifism and a more hawkish extreme, but this particular nuance unfortunately leads them into inconsistency in the defense of life. Calling for a consistency that they themselves are missing, the bishops "plead with all who would work to end the scourge of war to begin by defending life at its most defenseless, the life of the unborn." [25] While such a connection between life issues is commendable, it would be a much stronger statement if juxtaposed with a plea in the other direction, for those who would defend unborn life to also concern themselves with the promotion of peace. [26]

Although these issues, as previously noted, have not been systematically connected within the Catholic social documents, there is nevertheless a precedent for drawing such connections. It is worth noting that abortion and arms races are both referred to as "scandals," the former by John Paul II in Centesimus Annus [27] and the latter by Paul VI in Populorum Progressio [28]. Lest it be thought that such statements reflect differing personal obsessions of these popes, it may also be recalled that Paul VI devoted an entire separate encyclical, Humanae Vitae, primarily to reproductive issues and that John Paul II situated the "scandal of abortion" in a broader social context by demonstrating clear connections between reverence for life and social justice.

As we have seen, John Paul articulates the "right to life" in its broadest sense, applying it both to the entire natural span of life and to "the right to live . . . in conformity with one's transcendent dignity as a person." [29] In speaking of the tragically manifold ways in which this right is violated, he makes clear that he is "referring not only to the scandal of abortion," but also to the loss, even in democracies, of "the ability to make decisions aimed at the common good." [30] Even when focusing on abortion in particular, John Paul does not speak about it in a vacuum, but rather contextualizes it ecologically and economically. Flowing out of concerns about the arrogant and short-sighted anthropology that results in environmental destruction, John Paul's discussion of procreation and the family is grounded in the need for what he terms "an authentic 'human ecology.'" He identifies as a problem a mechanized and monetized (that is, non-ecological) conception of human individuals and societies, in which children may be perceived as mere market commodities. In this way, his critique of the widespread recourse to abortion flows into an equally strong critique of the "'idolatry' of the market." [31]

Paul VI, for his part, is perhaps most infamously known for his controversial stance on artificial birth control in Humanae Vitae. It is unfortunate that this controversy has largely overshadowed his strongly prophetic statements on the duty to the poor that exists on the part of individuals and nations. Speaking of this duty in terms of international justice and peace leads him to pronounce a ringing denunciation of the wastefulness of militarism:

When so many people are hungry, when so many families suffer from destitution, when so many remain steeped in ignorance, when so many schools, hospitals, and homes worthy of the name remain to be built, all public or private squandering of wealth, all expenditure prompted by motives of national or personal ostentation, every exhausting armaments race, becomes an intolerable scandal. We are conscious of our duty to denounce it. Would that those in authority listened to our words before it is too late! [32]

The buildup of armaments, then, is a twofold threat to life, both because of armaments' use and because of expenditure on armaments that results in failure to meet genuine human needs. In response, Paul proposes a concrete twofold solution involving "worldwide collaboration" to reallocate funding being spent on arms to serve the world's poor. [33]

This suggestion is one of many examples of the movement toward a stronger endorsement of nonviolence throughout Catholic social teaching. This teaching has undergone a subtle yet significant shift throughout the 20th century from a prioritization of just war doctrine toward a more holistic integration of justice and peace. [34] To describe this development as a shift means that it has not entailed a discontinuous break from previous teachings. Properly understood, even the Augustinian just war tradition was never meant to be a means of justifying war (let alone a carte blanche), but rather a set of conditions imposed on any recourse to violence in order to limit its inevitably harmful effects. At the same time, the ease and frequency with which the just war tradition has been misappropriated through the former interpretation has given rise to the need to rearticulate it in a way that narrows the concessions made to violence. In light of this need, the progress that the magisterial teaching has made in narrowing the allowances for armed conflict (and consequently legitimating, even if not necessitating, a pacifist position) is not negligible. Yet this progress still leaves considerable room for development of Catholic doctrine toward a more consistent refutation of violence, which, as John Paul II insightfully noted, "always needs to justify itself though deceit, and to appear, however falsely, to be defending a right or responding to a threat posed by others." [35]

The occasional gap in consistency is at times particularly pronounced when the magisterial stance toward armed violence, which can be seen as either nuanced or compromised (or perhaps both), is juxtaposed with the more unequivocal stance taken regarding issues related to procreation. Still, the issues here are more complex than is often appreciated by Catholics of all political persuasions. While the popes and bishops to tend to display a noticeably more uncompromising attitude toward abortion than other forms of violence [36], they also tend, for the most part, to address it in relation to other social issues rather than in the decontextualized manner in which the subject is too often approached in the political sphere. We have seen a strong example of this in John Paul II's broadly defined pro-life position articulated in Centesimus Annus [37]. His successor Benedict XVI, in Caritas in Veritate, attempts to maintain the same breadth [38] while also confronting the difficult problem of overpopulation -- a challenge that had previously been taken up at Vatican II in Gaudium et Spes, with very similar conclusions. Population growth poses an unshakable dilemma for the consistent life ethic and perhaps its greatest challenge, inasmuch as the defense of life in this context contributes to an unsustainable rise in the human population that in turn becomes a new threat to life. Both Benedict and the Council recognize that this is problematic; the closest either manages to come to a proposed solution is to place responsibility for procreative decisions in the hands of parents rather than the state. [39] There is indeed no clear and easy answer to the population dilemma, but Catholic social teaching affirms that no solution that regards any category of human life as inherently expendable can be morally permissible.


Photo by Elvert Barnes; some rights reserved.

The refusal to allow for the expendability of any human life, which is axiomatic for the consistent life ethic, ultimately ties back in Catholic social teaching to its axiom of the intrinsic dignity of all human life as created in the image of God. The primacy of human dignity within church teachings, as we have seen, leads to a broadened view of what it means to respect life, necessarily encompassing the right of all human beings to live according to that dignity. Through this fundamental principle, the Catholic tradition offers a relatively balanced perspective that is unfortunately lacking in much of popular discourse, both among Catholics and in the broader civil sphere. The current challenge to the application of consistent life principles, particularly in the United States, is therefore the artificial compartmentalization of life-related "issues," which are too often split along the lines of highly politicized ideologies. [40] What is needed in order to transcend such polemics is an increase in voices, at both grassroots and magisterial levels, capable of prophesying from the center. Catholic social teaching offers a clear precedent for such a prophetic stance. Perhaps the next step should be a more systematic articulation of the life-affirming principles contained in the social tradition, with a view to furthering the church's commitment to opposing all types of violence -- or, more positively stated, to respecting the fundamental dignity of human life in all circumstances.

Julia Smucker is an MA student at Saint John's School of Theology in Collegeville, Minnesota. She is honored to count herself among a small but growing number of Mennonite Catholics, and to have been dubbed the Anti-Dichotomy Queen.


[1] For a view of the movement in its current form, see the Consistent Life (formerly Seamless Garment Network) website,

[2] Lisa Sowle Cahill, “The ‘Seamless Garment’: Life in Its Beginnings.” Theological Studies 46.1 (March 1985), 64-80.

[3] Pacem in Terris, 89.

[4] Centesimus Annus, 22-27.

[5] Ibid, 22.

[6] Gaudium et Spes, 12.

[7] Rerum Novarum, 34.

[8] Laborem Exercens, 18-19.

[9] Centesimus Annus, 43.

[10] Laborem Exercens, 6-9; Centesimus Annus, 4-11, 23.

[11] Populorum Progressio, 68-70; Octogesima Adveniens, 17.

[12] Populorum Progressio, 45-49.

[13] See especially Rerum Novarum 23-24, Pacem in

Terris 56, Gaudium et Spes 88.

[14] Pacem in Terris, 11.

[15] Centesimus Annus, 47.

[16] Caritas in Veritate, 15.

[17] Ibid, 51.

[18] Gaudium et Spes, 24.

[19] Ibid, 27.

[20] Ibid, 26.

[21] From the introduction to “Justice in the World”, in David J. O’Brien and Thomas A. Shannon, Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2010), 304.

[22] “Justice in the World” in O’Brien and Shannon, 309.

[23] The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, 284-289.

[24] Ibid, 283.

[25] Ibid, 289.

[26] A more consistent connection, building on The Challenge of Peace six months after its publication, can be found in a lecture given by Bernardin at Fordham University, published in Consistent Ethic of Life: Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, ed. Thomas Feuchtmann et al. (Lanham, Maryland: Sheed and Ward, 1998), in which he stated, “The principle which structures both cases, war and abortion, needs to be upheld in both places. It cannot be successfully sustained on one count and simultaneously eroded in a similar situation,” 5.

[27] Centesimus Annus, 47.

[28] Populorum Progressio, 53.

[29] Centesimus Annus, 47.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid, 37-40.

[32] Populorum Progressio, 53.

[33] Ibid, 51-55.

[34] For an overview of the approach taken to armed conflict (both state-sponsored and revolutionary) in the Catholic social documents, see Pacem in Terris 109-119, 161-162; Gaudium et Spes 75-85; Populorum Progressio 48-65; Octogesima Adveniens 3; Evangelii Nuntiandi 37; Centesimus Annus 14, 18, 23-25.

[35] Centesimus Annus, 23.

[36] As previously noted, this juxtaposition comes out most strongly in the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace, 280-289.

[37] Centesimus Annus, 39, 47.

[38] The connections among life issues in Caritas in Veritate are most explicit in 15, 28 and 51.

[39] Gaudium et Spes, 87; Caritas in Veritate, 44.

[40] Bernardin’s approach to the consistent life ethic in fact began with the connection between abortion and war, but “quickly expanded…to include many issues from all of life.” (Kenneth R. Overburg, S.J., “A Consistent Ethic of Life,”

#volume1issue2 #unjustwar #euthanasia #torture #suicide #abortion

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