A Double-Edged Defense of the Consistent Life Ethic
Kudos to Nick Neal, a board member for the Consistent Life network, for combating the nonsensical and utterly counterproductive notion that to defend life in one arena requires opposing it in another. He previously did so in response to David Pakman’s hasty claims of correlation between maternal death rates and the outlawing of abortion, as well as his general skepticism of the political cohesiveness of the consistent life movement. (He has since noted that his description of the America First Committee more closely “defines the anti-imperialist league of the late 19th century,” but the point served by such examples stands.) And now in an essay titled, “Comparing Evils and Condemning them Both,” which appears in the latest issue of Life Matters Journal (p. 21-23), Neal responds to Scott Klusendorf’s claims that the consistent life ethic “has damaged the pro-life cause” and has even somehow “justified the killing of millions of unborn children.” Uh … what?
Neal’s response to this absurdity is, thankfully, more articulate than my own. Of particular concern to me, and also in my opinion the strongest part of Neal’s argument, is the point at which he deals with Klusendorf’s appeal to Catholic theology in support of his skewed vision of what defending life can and cannot mean.
Scott brings up the Catholic doctrine about contingent evils vs. intrinsic evils. This is supposed to be a death blow to consistent lifers since the consistent life ethic originated out of Catholicism and many consistent lifers are Catholic. However, what Scott never addresses is what are the evils of war and the death penalty contingent on? Under what circumstances has the Church stated such practices are evil? Well, an inconvenient fact that Scott often overlooks is that Pope John Paul II condemned the Iraq War, as well as the very concept of preventative war, in no uncertain terms. He did so not because he was a pacifist, but because he recognized that attacking countries based on suspicion and taking more lives than were lost in 9/11 violates just war tenets that state that wars have to be defensive and that the casualties have to be proportional to the crime. Pope John Paul II also condemned the death penalty in Evangelium Vitae, a document beloved by pro-life Catholics, stating:
“It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
When the Pope says that the one condition justifying the death penalty is practically non-existent in the developed world, that’s a pretty good indicator that the death penalty in a developed nation such as America goes beyond the moral limits of punishment. So the consistent life ethic is not merely some opinion held by liberal dissenters. Pope John Paul II may not have held all these acts of homicide to be morally equal, but he still held all of them to be immoral. (By the way, I would like to see Scott argue that Pope John Paul II “set us back decades” in the struggle for unborn rights [as he said of Cardinal Bernardin].)
I echo Neal’s conclusion that Klusendorf “is making an idiotic move in expelling consistent lifers from the pro-life movement. By arguing that in order to be pro-life you must not oppose other forms of legalized homicide, he narrows the movement–especially by making support for an unpopular war a requirement for being in the movement.” Such a move is idiotic because it draws a battle line that makes enemies of allies. Even if one does not fully agree with the consistent life ethic, to make support of certain forms of violence a requirement for opposing certain others is doubly self-defeating, both by discussing issues in a vacuum and ignoring their interrelations (an approach thoroughly contrary to that of any of the social encyclicals), and by alienating those of common cause.