by Christy Yao
Growing up in Catholic circles, I’ve always had a vague idea what the Consistent Life Ethic (CLE) was, and knew to varying degrees that I subscribed to it. As I got older, I started learning more about the CLE, and identifying more strongly with it. I had tried to research the history of the CLE, but had come up disappointed in the lack of sources I could find. While volunteering at the Cardinal O’Connor Conference this year, I was excited to find that there was a talk exactly titled “The History of the Consistent Life Ethic.” I quickly made sure someone could cover for me at the table during the talk and enthusiastically attended.
“The History of the Consistent Life Ethic” was given by Mary Halan Fiorito, a lawyer who is the former director of the Respect Life Office of Chicago under Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the person who originally coined the term “Consistent Life Ethic.” Fiorito discussed misinterpretations of the Consistent Life Ethic that have led to many disliking it. For example, in 1994 Mario Cuomo gave an infamous speech at Notre Dame seemingly using the Consistent Life Ethic to justify voting for pro-choice politicians. The CLE has also been criticized for not putting enough emphasis on abortion. Fiorito countered this by saying that the CLE does not say that all issues are equal, but that each life issue has to be looked at separately. She said that the way Cardinal Bernardin organized his Archdiocesan offices showed this. There wasn’t a general “Pro-Life” office for every life issue in the book, but separate offices for different issues, making sure that each got unique attention to the problem at hand.
Fiorito finished her talk by stressing how we cannot forget the unborn in our quest to live the Consistent Life Ethic. She told the story of Julie Lesh Wiley, whose writings and work added tremendously to the CLE. Wiley was the keynote at a Catholic Peace and Justice Conference when another speaker held up well-known pro-choice figure Sr. Agnes Monsure as a model of peace and justice. After the talk finished, Wiley asked the speaker why she hadn’t taken into account Monsure’s position on abortion. The speaker did not recognize Wiley and said she should really listen to the keynote speaker Julie Lesh Wiley later that afternoon, and then she would understand the need for social justice for the born, not just the unborn. Wiley revealed she was in fact the very same person. It was clear then as it is now that the Consistent Life Ethic is about caring about both those already and yet to be born.
Fiorito did a wonderful job in discussing how the CLE can be a great force for good. She discussed how every issue within the CLE framework is important, and focusing on one does not make any of the others less valuable. Each instance of human dignity is indispensable, and cannot be traded for profit, politics, or ideology.