The Ethical Argument: The Logic of Linkage
The central assertion of the consistent ethic is that we will enhance our moral understanding of a number of "life-issues" by carefully linking them in a framework which allows consideration of each issue on its own merits, but also highlights the connections among distinct issues. This is the moral logic of an analogical vision.
In essence the consistent ethic is a moral argument, and, therefore, its principles and perspective must be constantly measured and tested. The consistent ethic rejects collapsing all issues into one, and it rejects isolating our moral vision and insulating our social concern on one issue. What has been the response to the moral argument of the consistent ethic?
First, it has generated precisely the kind of substantive debate in the Catholic community and in the wider society which I believe is needed. The response began immediately after the Gannon Lecture in the press and weekly journals; it has now moved also to scholarly journals. Second, the range of the commentary has run from the ethical theory of the consistent ethic, to debate about its specific conclusions, to assessment of its contribution to the public witness of the Church in U.S. society.
A particularly extensive analysis of the theme appeared in the "Notes on Moral Theology" in Theological Studies last March. This annual review of scholarly writing on moral theology has been highly respected for many years. Among the many commentaries on the consistent ethic, I cite this one because it engages bishops and theologians in the kind of disciplined debate which is needed if our theology is to be authentically Catholic, intellectually responsive to contemporary moral challenges, and pastorally useful to the Catholic community and civil society.
In a time when continuing respectful dialogue is urgently needed between bishops and theologians, I believe the kind of theological interest generated by the two pastoral letters of the U.S. bishops and the consistent ethic proposal is a healthy sign. The Theological Studies articles on the consistent ethic were a wide-ranging survey of several specific questions. On the whole, I found the commentary quite positive and very helpful. I lift it up for consideration by others even though I do not agree with every conclusion drawn by others.
One of the areas where I differ is the critique of the moral theory made by Fr. Richard McCormick, SJ. He supports the perspective of the consistent ethic, calling it "utterly essential," but he believes that I give the prohibition of direct killing of the innocent too high a status. Rather than calling it a basic principle of Catholic morality, Fr. McCormick would designate it a moral rule, "developed as a result of our wrestling with concrete cases of conflict." Furthermore, he argues that the rule has been formulated in teleological fashion, by a balancing of values which yield some exceptions to the presumption against killing.
While I do not consider it my role to engage in a full review of the moral theory of the consistent ethic, I think the reduction of the prohibition against the intentional killing of the innocent to a status less than an absolute rule is not correct. As I argued in the Gannon lecture, the justification of the use of force and the taking of human life is based on a presumption against taking life which then allows for a series of exceptions where the presumption is overridden. But within this general structure of reasoning, for example in the Just War doctrine, the direct killing of the innocent has not been regarded as a legitimate exception.
This means, as Fr. John Connery, SJ. and others have observed, that Catholic teaching has not ruled out the taking of life in all circumstances. There is a presumption against taking life, not an absolute prohibition. But the cutting edge of the Just War argument has been its capacity to place a double restraint on the use of force. One limit is based on the calculation of consequences (the principle of proportionality) and the other based on an absolute prohibition of certain actions (the principle of non-combatant immunity).
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