Among the most prominent of Pope Francis’s American appointments of bishops, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago recently gave a riveting talk in an auditorium adjacent to Holy Name Cathedral on the corner of Superior and State streets in the River North neighborhood. On the eve of a week that took him from Chicago to Mexico City to Cambridge, England, the cardinal discussed both the vision of his predecessor as Archbishop of the Windy City, Joseph Bernardin (1928-96) and the dire needs of our contemporary age.
Cardinal Bernardin had famously argued for a “consistent ethic of life” which drew inspiration from the seamless garment of Christ, for which the soldiers cast lots. Such a view argues that the sanctity of life can never be frayed or rent as piecemeal, but rather extends from womb to tomb. Thus, the church ought to be “consistent” in its condemnation of realities that stand in contradistinction to such a posture: abortion, capital punishment, assisted suicide, and euthanasia.
Not without its critics, especially those who framed their critique in terms of the hierarchy of truths where not all moral issues have equivalent gravity, the “consistent ethic of life” approach had wide purchase in theological circles in the 1980s and 1990s.
Cardinal Cupich has in this presentation and elsewhere elaborated and built upon Cardinal Bernardin’s vision, arguing that today the church ought to espouse a “consistent ethic of solidarity.”
If this central principle of Catholic social teaching is adopted as a foundational reality for Catholics, its role in our lives uniquely positions us to transcend the political and ideological divides that are cleaving the world of the 21st century.
As Pope John Paul II put it in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, the duty of solidarity “is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.” When approaching our neighbor, even one of political opposition, we should be more concerned with serving him than exploiting him or oppressing him for one’s own advantage. All of this rests upon the absolute validity of “recogniz[ing] one another as persons” (38-39).
Cardinal Cupich argues that consistently applying such an ethic provides one means of overcoming the disparate silos of various social ills like violence, racism, and nationalism (distinct from patriotism) which stand in opposition to the Catholic perspective on our shared common home. They also help us climb out of the isolating echo chambers of social media and selective news gathering only from like-minded people, which can lead to severe psychological and moral dangers. Responding to a question I posed, he proffered both a searing critique of the “signs of our times” and an inspirational view of the role of Catholic higher education in forming men and women ready and able to overcome such challenges and to transform society.
Authentic and consistent solidarity calls for radical and committed collaboration and cooperation, often with those shunned by the elite of society, and sometimes of very different mindsets from our own. If we consistently apply this ethic in every aspect of our lives, the fault lines of division can in fact be crossed and healed, and then perhaps our smartphones can be beat into ploughshares and barbed wire into pruning hooks.
Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.