Coherence, Calvinball, and the Consistent Ethic of Life

A consistent life ethic (CLE) should consider the totality of an act: not simply the consequences, but also the intention, the object chosen, and the circumstances of the act. Charles Camosy deserves our respect for boldly declaring the case for CLE, but the devil remains in the details. Without agreement on those details, the consistent life ethic remains as unpredictable and random as Calvinball.

Given the impossibility of God’s commanding anything contrary to reason, the internal consistency of true religious teaching is self-evident. No true religious teaching can contradict any other true religious teaching, just as no true religious teaching can contradict the moral law. Consequently, the so-called “seamless garment” or “consistent life ethic” (CLE) of Roman Catholic ethics is no more than a catchphrase for the obvious.

If only it were so.

Ever since Cardinal Joseph Bernardin popularized the notion of a “consistent ethic of life” in the 1980s, many suspected it would be misused to create a false moral equivalence between abortion and other moral issues. Certainly some Catholic politicians use the “seamless garment” of CLE as cover for their support of abortion. “While I’m privately opposed to abortion,” they might say, “I cannot impose my religious beliefs on others. Incidentally, I support the full use and authority of the law to restrict the sale of flavored e-cigarettes because of the dignity of children.” However bizarre this seems on its face, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), to take just one example, doesn’t seem to grasp the perversity of this scenario. Of course, Durbin is hardly alone in failing to protect the unborn while still trumpeting Catholicism.

In fact, given its misuses and vagueness, one might judge CLE to be something akin to “Calvinball,” the game in which rules constantly change for the benefit of the rule-maker. Even if through no intrinsic fault of the theory, proponents inherit the burden of demonstrating that CLE can be more than a tool for unfaithful Catholic politicians to avoid breaking ranks with the Democrats’ zealotry on abortion.

In his recent book, Resisting Throwaway Culture: How a Consistent Life Ethic Can Unite a Fractured People, Charles M. Camosy, a theologian at Fordham University, takes up that task. He’s honest about the challenge—the “Calvinball” image is his—while retaining a daring sense of the promise of CLE. Not only does he address the most disputed issues of the day—sexual ethics, reproductive technology, abortion, the poor and the immigrant, ecology and animal well-being, euthanasia, and state-sponsored violence—he also suggests that a “revitalized” CLE “could demonstrate how to unify a fractured culture around a vision of the good.” American politics, he notes, are fractured, polarized, and spiteful, but the Church could take the lead, particularly given the pontificate of Pope Francis, which “has demonstrated that the tradition’s insights and values are attractive outside Catholicism.” The Catholic social vision, says Camosy, is really all we have left “to resist the forces that are tearing us apart.”

However risible the claim that Francis’s popularity will convince millennials to embrace the Catholic position on contraception en masse while leaving vicious partisanship behind, Camosy’s attempt to demonstrate the political charms of CLE is so half-hearted and unsupported that it’s best to simply skip his Pollyannaish introduction and begin with the ethical arguments themselves.

In the subsequent chapters, Camosy boldly supports the hard claims of CLE. Unlike those who use CLE as an excuse to avoid difficulties, Resisting Throwaway Culture does not shy away from presenting and defending the Catholic positions on euthanasia, reproductive technology, and abortion. The chapters are somewhat formulaic in structure, with each providing a snapshot of an issue and its cultural manifestations before giving a critique and answering the usual objections against the CLE position. The quality of the discussion is somewhat uneven, although Camosy is particularly cogent in the chapter on abortion, in which he addresses the ethics of abortion directly, while also examining background cultural problems of poverty, access to health care, and the abuse of women. He rightly insists on the place of mercy and forgiveness in a consistent ethic of life; for while the rights of the unborn are unalienable, so, too, is the dignity of the mother, and the Church always offers mercy and the opportunity for redemption. Ethics is not exhausted in the principles governing an action, but also includes the principles of a whole life, including the rehabilitation and inclusion of those who have acted wrongly.

In the various chapters, Camosy positions moral issues within the cultural situation. For instance, random sexual encounters are no doubt wrong, but it’s also the case, sadly, that many young people have been formed in a climate of pornography, sexualized entertainment, and a relentless, ubiquitous culture of violent sexuality, in which depersonalized and drunken hook-ups are normalized. For those deformed by a cultural catechesis training them to view sex as just another consumer good, a new imagination and way of life is needed, one in which “encounter and hospitality” are valued and lived out in stable communities of friendship and family.

Throughout the book, Camosy wisely places disputed moral claims within an account of human well-being and its necessary virtues and practices. Given the culture’s failure to share a vision of the good, and given the strains and exhaustion of institutions such as the family, school, and parish, he reminds us that debates about assisted suicide, for instance, occur within a larger context in which human life is viewed as a commodity that can be bought and sold. Absent a thoroughgoing account of human dignity, some lives-as-commodities are likely to be discarded as lacking value in comparison to those of the powerful, the rich, or the “desirable.” He’s right to link how the life of an undocumented immigrant is viewed and how we value the unborn; he’s right to link violent pornography to the violent dismembering of the unborn child; he’s right to link reproductive technology and how we view the taking of life through state action.

But as some Catholic politicians have long recognized, turning attention to larger, structural issues can be an efficient way to confuse the issue, and at times Camosy makes it seem that “capitalism,” or “neo-colonialism,” or “consumerism,” or a “throwaway culture” bears final responsibility—that the real villain is a lack of “encounter,” and that individual persons and their actions somewhat recede into the background. I don’t doubt that pornography and sexual trafficking are caught up into structures of capitalism and consumerism, and that the ability to “click” or “swipe” in the sexual marketplace contributes to the moral blindness and complicity of many. Still, however lacking in the virtues of “encounter” or “hospitality” he may be, the pornographer has in fact acted and chosen—and the object of his choice is intrinsically wrong. The pornographer owns that choice, even if conditioned by social systems and structures. Similarly, financial insecurity may very well prompt some to seek an abortion, sell eggs, or rent a womb, and such distress ought to prompt us to provide medical care, welfare, and living wages. Still, directly and knowingly procuring an abortion remains a moral wrong.

A consistent ethic of life considers the totality of an act: not simply the consequences, but also the intention, the object chosen, and the circumstances of the act. Camosy insists that the circumstances of the act be remembered, and how those circumstances inter-relate within a cultural story and the institutions of a culture. Even then, however, the object of the action—the proposed object chosen, both means and ends—is morally essential. And some choices are always and everywhere illicit, no matter how much we might sympathize with the agent who chooses wrongly while living in fear, scarcity, or ignorance.

I am not claiming that Camosy dissents from the doctrine of intrinsically evil actions, which is an essential aspect of CLE. But neither does he address it with anything like full attention. Consequently, the book gives the impression that CLE is mostly about structures of injustice and big, somewhat vague virtues such as “encounter.” Without denying the rightful place of those discussions within CLE, human agency—the drama of an agent deliberating about which proposal to choose—is an essential component of a sound consistent life ethic. It is on this very point that the unscrupulous misuse of CLE to muddy the waters, render false equivalence, and end up defending evil acts. The Durbins and Pelosis of the world are more than happy to condemn structures of evil, and there might be some (extremely limited) reasons to think that the virtue of hospitality could woo some over to the CLE cause. But unless and until the actual rightness or wrongness of acts is fully understood, what exactly is CLE advocating?

In the end, Camosy deserves our respect for boldly declaring the case for a consistent ethic of life, but the devil remains in the details. Without agreement on those details—and that agreement seems not forthcoming—the consistent life ethic remains as unpredictable and random as Calvinball.

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