When Cardinal Joseph Bernardin died in 1996, he was mourned by millions as a man of compassion, courage and integrity. By that time, however, his greatest effort to change the scope of Catholic moral thought was already fading from the assault it had received from fellow bishops and the Vatican.
It was his 1983 proposal for a widening of the church's pro-life cause from a nearly exclusive concern for abortion to a related set of causes: economic injustice, capital punishment, euthanasia and stopping unjust wars. A "consistent ethic of life" which gave attention to a cluster of analogous threats. Abortion was tacitly accorded a certain priority but lost exclusivity. Bernardin's "life" ethic was broad, liberal and aimed at breaking the mold of single-issue politics with which the church in America had been identified.
The suggestion that abortion was being demoted or relativized set off a fury of reaction from top prelates and prominent lay people. Bernardin's position was attacked as a scheme to elevate leftist causes to the same level as the one holy cause. Bernardin was scolded and belittled. The "consistent ethic" was effectively crushed as a challenger to prevailing notions of what Catholicism considered most significant
Had it remained on a front burner, Donald Trump might not have been elected president.
Though Pope Francis essentially endorsed the Bernardin vision, urging Catholics to dwell less singly on abortion and gay rights while spotlighting poverty and economic oppression, the revival received too little backing in the U.S. church to make much different by the 2016 elections. For the most part, abortion occupied the foreground by itself, the fulcrum for alone deciding whom to put in the White House. Trump promised to install the Supreme Court justice who would put an end to abortion and for many Catholics, that was all they needed to know A majority of Catholics voted for him, largely on that basis I think it's safe to say.
Bernardin's larger understanding of valid Catholic ethics, if taken seriously, could have stopped that. Taken in its original variety, it might have prompted a wider consideration, more complicated, to be sure, but more reflective of the real world dilemmas with no easy answers. How is it possible to measure the gravity of abortion against the suffering and unnecessary deaths of the vast numbers of people suddenly deprived of health insurance (an implicit Bernardin emphasis) or food stamps, or an unsafe environment or living wages or degraded schools? Is there a turning point where even the uncertain prospect that Trump can keep his one promise to his Catholic and evangelical backers loses its absolute, ironclad hold on their loyalty?
Bernardin never wavered in his opposition to abortion but his mind and heart saw a bigger picture. He projected it on the screen of American Catholicism, it got trounced by absolutism, and although fragments and partial images float around, it never became the focal point that would make the Catholic social mission more likely to deal with the hybrid realities that surround us. Without that painful nuancing, mad men vowing to meet our simplistic needs will prevail.
The multiple life web may be reconnecting, on the verge of a comeback. It does manifest itself piecemeal in the ministries of thousands of Catholics on the front lines awaiting a new birth of ethical vision.
How it could happen is speculation to say the least. Given the absence of anything like rigorous, comprehensive religious education in any of the churches. Christians general learn very little about things like Catholic Social Teaching and stop learning anything beyond their 12th year when confirmation sends them off while their education goes on elsewhere. It's hard not to believe that those Christians who stuck with Trump for religious reasons never reached anything like religious adulthood. We pay a big price for that.