Remembering Cardinal Bernardin’s Approach to American-Catholic Dialogue

At Vox Nova, Kelly Wilson  recalls Cardinal Bernardin’s Gannon Lecture at Fordham University entitled, “A Consistent Ethic of Life:  An American-Catholic Dialogue.”  He summarizes parts of Bernardin’s argument, thusly:




Both the Catholic teaching on war, and on abortion, must be seen in light of an attitude of respect for life. An explicit connection between the two is the principle which prohibits the directly intended taking of innocent human life. Bernardin notes that as the fetus is judged both human and not an aggressor, Catholic teaching concludes that direct attack on fetal life is always wrong. This informs the quest for legal protection of the unborn. The same principle against the directly intended taking of innocent human life has led the American Bishops, in “The Challenge of Peace,” to identify that directly intended attacks on civilian centers are always wrong. Such attacks would be wrong even if an American city had been hit first and anyone asked to execute such an attack is bound to refuse. Bernardin notes one observer of “The Challenge of Peace” who identified the “astonishing challenge to the power of the state” found within, but the principle prohibiting direct and intentional attacks on the innocent must be upheld in defending both those inhabiting a womb and those inhabiting a settlement.

Some, believing that nothing justifies the direct and intentional attack on the innocent, have no difficulty applying the principle to abortion. Drawn into a conversation about national security, however, and the principle is subordinated. Others have no difficulty applying the principle to the strategies of national security, but when drawn into a conversation about abortion, the principle is similarly subordinated. To Bernardin, the “viability of the principle depends upon the consistency of its application.”


I imagine that some people, in reading that excerpt, recalled Emerson’s quote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”  However, I don’t find anything foolish in Bernardin’s argument, except perhaps the type of foolishness associated with the “folly of the cross,” which involves self-sacrifice and accepting and choosing God’s ways over our own.

On a side note, I’m working on a syllabus for a course entitled, Catholicism in Contemporary America.  I especially appreciated seeing this post by Kelly because I’m hoping to incorporate Bernardin’s discussion of American-Catholic dialogue into the course.  It is, of course, the subtitle of this lecture, but it is often less remarked upon.  Yet, Bernardin states near the beginning of the talk,

“Fordham is an American Catholic university, an institution which has consistently fostered the work of enriching American culture through Catholic wisdom and has simultaneously sought to enhance our understanding of Catholic faith by drawing upon the American tradition.”

What a statement about the mission and responsibility of Catholic universities in the U.S.!

Comments are closed.