The Theological Foundation: Systematic Defense of
Some commentators, while very positive about the substance and structure of the call for a consistent ethic, have urged me to focus on its underlying theological foundations. I see the need for this and will comment here on two aspects of its theological substance, leaving for the next section some more detailed moral commentary.
The consistent ethic grows out of the very character of Catholic moral thought. By that I do not mean to imply that one has to be a Catholic to affirm the moral content of the consistent ethic. But I do think that this theme highlights both the systematic and analogical character of Catholic moral theology. The systematic nature of Catholic theology means it is grounded in a set of basic principles and then articulated in a fashion which draws out the meaning of each principle and the relationships among them. Precisely because of its systematic quality, Catholic theology refuses to treat moral issues in an ad hoc fashion. There is a continual process of testing the use of a principle in one case by its use in very different circumstances. The consistent ethic seeks only to illustrate how this testing goes on when dealing with issues involving the taking of life or the enhancement of life through social policy.
The analogical character of Catholic thought offers the potential to address a spectrum of issues which are not identical but have some common characteristics. Analogical reasoning identifies the unifying elements which link two or more issues, while at the same time it recognizes why similar issues cannot be reduced to a single problem.
The taking of life presents itself as a moral problem all along the spectrum of life, but there are distinguishing characteristics between abortion and war, as well as elements which radically differentiate war from decisions made about care of a terminally ill patient. The differences among these cases are universally acknowledged; a consistent ethic seeks to highlight the fact the differences do not destroy the elements of a common moral challenge.
A Catholic ethic which is both systematic in its argument and analogical in its perspective stands behind the proposal that, in the face of the multiple threats to life in our time, spanning every phase of existence, it is necessary to develop a moral vision which can address these several challenges in a coherent and comprehensive fashion.
If the theological style of the consistent ethic is captured by the two words, systematic and analogical, the theological rationale for the ethic is grounded in the respect we owe the human person. To defend human life is to protect the human person. The consistent ethic cuts across the diverse fields of social ethics, medical ethics, and sexual ethics. The unifying theme behind these three areas of moral analysis is the human person, the core reality in Catholic moral thought.
It is precisely the abiding conviction of Catholic ethics about the social nature of the person that ties together the emphasis—in the pastoral letter on the economy—on society's responsibility for the poor, the insistence of the bishops that abortion is a public not a purely private moral question, and the constant refrain of Catholic ethics that sexual issues are social in character.
The theological assertion that the person is the imago dei, the philosophical affirmation of the dignity of the person, and the political principle that society and state exist to serve the person -- all these themes stand behind the consistent ethic. They also sustain the positions that the U.S. Catholic Bishops have taken on issues as diverse as nuclear policy, social policy, and abortion. These themes provide the basis for the moral perspective of the consistent ethic. It is the specifics of that moral perspective which now must be examined.
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