AT THE HEIGHT of the culture wars in the 1980s, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago gave a lecture at Fordham University on something he called “the consistent ethic of life.” Fortunately for those of us captured by this vision, a New York Times reporter happened to be in the audience. The next day’s headline read: “Bernardin Asks Catholics to Fight Both Nuclear Arms and Abortion.”
It got a lot of people talking. Then, as now, it was an incredibly countercultural message that disrupted the liberal/conservative binary of secular political imagination. But Bernardin’s views, though novel in a U.S. context, were articulating the principles of an ancient faith: consistent nonviolent protection and support for life in every circumstance. Within the politics of U.S. culture wars, this means refusing to make distinctions between a child dying of a treatable disease and a child killed by abortion. Instead, we insist that Christ is always with the least among us and that we must let these little children come to him. Every last one.
The most famous animal-lover
As a Catholic professor of ethics, I’ve spent most of my career thinking about what this consistent protection of life means for bioethics. As a result of my research, I’ve come to believe that the “bio” in bioethics must include how we treat the lives of animals. Or as I prefer to say: how we human animals should protect and care for nonhuman animals. After all, humans are animals too.
I’m not the only one who’s arrived at this conclusion: In his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis appealed to a consistent life ethic to underline the urgency of addressing the global climate crisis, which threatens the lives of so many. As you might expect from a pope who named himself after the most famous animal-lover in the church, Pope Francis explicitly included nonhuman animals as intrinsically valuable parts of God’s creation in need of protection and care. “It is not enough,” he says, “to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves.” Several chapters later, Pope Francis calls on Christians to “forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.”
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The National Latino Evangelical Coalition has voted to support repeal of the death penalty, calling it an anti-life practice. Urging their 3,000 congregations to support efforts to end capital punishment across the country, NaLEC joins an increasing number of Christians across the country and internationally who are realizing afresh the moral problems with the death penalty. Most recently Pope Francis went beyond the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church to call the “death penalty inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.”
“After prayer, reflection, and dialog with anti-death penalty organizations like Equal Justice USA,” said Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of NaLEC, in a news release. “we felt compelled to add our voice to this important issue. As Christ followers, we are called to work toward justice for all. And as Latinos, we know too well that justice is not always even-handed.”
How refreshing to see Roman Catholic Archbishop Thomas Wenski’s May 29 letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy urging that the new carbon pollution rules on existing power plants should “protect the health and welfare of all people, especially children, the elderly, as well as poor and vulnerable communities from harmful pollution emitted from power plants and from the impacts of climate change.” The Miami archbishop was speaking on behalf of the U.S. bishops in his role as chairman of the U.S. bishop’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.
Since last Monday and even in the months leading up to the release of the new EPA rules governing carbon pollution, there’s been a battle royale in the media and the blogosphere between the fossil fuel industry (and their supporters) and the environmentalists (and their proxies).
Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler wrote a piece last week defending the death penalty. In his 1,200-word argument for why Christians should support the death penalty, he does not mention Jesus a single time.
There are plenty of other problems with the scriptural maneuvering used to justify the contemporary practice of the death penalty with a few verses from the Bible, in the same way that a few verses were misused to justify slavery. For starters the biblical death penalty was required not just for murderers, but also for folks that committed adultery, disrespected their parents, collected too much interest, had premarital sex, and disobeyed the Sabbath. But I want to stick with the nagging problem of Jesus, the greatest obstacle for pro-death penalty Christians.
In a recent Barna Poll, fewer than 5 percent of Americans think Jesus would support capital punishment, and fewer than a quarter of young Christians support it. Nonetheless some Christians find ways to sidestep Jesus, the lens through which all of us who claim to be Christians should interpret the Bible and the world around us.
The botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on Tuesday has refocused the nation on the inherent contradictions in the death penalty. But here in Wisconsin last week, an opera helped focus the attention of one community on the many human issues woven into the debate over crime and punishment.
In real life at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, a mix of lethal drugs injected into the body of Lockett caused seizures rather than immediate death. On stage in the opera version of Dead Man Walking, the drug machine clicks, hums, and whirrs with efficiency, leaving the fictional character Joe DerRocher dead on the stage.
Dead Man Walking — the book by Sr. Helen Prejean about her work with prisoners on death row and the families of their victims — became an award-winning movie in the mid-1990s starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. It was recreated as an opera in 2000 and since then has played in 40 cities.
What happened in Madison, Wis., last week was more than the presentation of an opera. It was the culmination of six weeks of some 20 events engaging about 1,500 community members in discussion of many facets of the criminal justice system. The two performances of the opera itself drew about 3,000 people. It was a classic example of art engaging life.
Capital punishment itself is not so much of an issue in Wisconsin – the state has banned it since 1853. But Wisconsin does have the highest rate of black male incarceration in the nation. Its prison system tilts far more toward punishment than toward treatment and rehabilitation. It imprisons twice as many people as its neighboring and demographically similar state of Minnesota.
Last week, the men on Tennessee’s death row, four of whom have scheduled execution dates in the near future, invited Gov. Bill Haslam, the man who signs the death warrants, to join them for prayer
The backdrop for the story is that Tennessee has more executions scheduled in a year than the state has had in the past 50 years. Last week as Christians around the world remembered Good Friday, the day Jesus was executed, legislators in the Bible Belt state passed a bill to reinstate the electric chair (which would make it the only state to require death by electrocution). The only thing that could be more troubling would be if Tennessee decided to start crucifying people again. I even heard one politician defend his position saying, “It is God’s job to judge them, but our job to get them to Him.”
The election of Pope Francis in March heralded a season of surprises for the Catholic Church, but perhaps none so unexpected – and unsettling for conservatives – as the re-emergence of the late Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin as a model for the American Catholic future.
While there is no indication that Francis knows the writings of Bernardin, who died in 1996, many say the pope’s remarks repeatedly evoke Bernardin’s signature teachings on the “consistent ethic of life” – the view that church doctrine champions the poor and vulnerable from womb to tomb – and on finding “common ground” to heal divisions in the church.
VATICAN CITY — Of all the novelties that Pope Francis has brought to the Vatican, few have endeared him to the public — and unsettled his aides — as much as his penchant for picking up the phone and calling someone out of the blue.
The pontiff with the pastor’s touch has phoned his cobbler in Argentina to inquire about a shoe repair, called to cancel his newspaper subscription, and phoned a woman who was raped by a local police officer to counsel her.
Just this week, Francis phoned a pregnant Italian woman whose fiancé had pushed her to have an abortion.
Anna Romano instead dumped the guy, wrote to the pope about her problems, and on Sept. 3 received a surprise call from the Holy Father, who offered encouragement and even said he would baptize the baby if she couldn’t find a willing priest.