Consistent Life History: Being Across the Board
by Father Jim Hewes
In 1978, Frank Staropoli and I founded the Diocesan Human Life Commission, in the Catholic Diocese of Rochester, with our charter clearly being what was later called a “consistent life ethic” (CLE) or a “seamless garment.” This was five years before Cardinal Bernardin’s famous speech at Fordham. We called it at that time “being across the board.”
The Commission developed many exciting efforts. Notable was the development of having a CLE parish contact in pretty much every parish in the Diocese; this was an impressive undertaking because these parish contacts would effectively help to publicize and implement various endeavors of the Human Life Commission.
There was a reorganization within the diocese, which caused friction with the efforts of the Human Life Commission. Frank Staropoli left the Commission in 1984 and I left in 1985, after serving for seven years as the chairperson. Sadly, not long after this, the diocese disbanded the Human Life Commission.
Fr. Jim Hewes
Why Didn’t They Stay?
I wondered why these various members didn’t stay. As I began to investigate and reflect, specifically with the pro-life people, I discovered an important factor in what I believe had transpired.
At one point, the pro-life groups and the social justice/peace groups had a common area of concern for human life. But people in the social justice/peace groups had evolved more into a progressive/liberal philosophy and political stance in their approach to the life issues. Over time, this position had hardened.
Then these progressive groups would not welcome or even consider dialoguing with pro-life people, but the Fundamentalists, Evangelicals and the political conservatives were more than ready to welcome them with open arms.
Then the Right to Life people, over time, without almost any connection or relationship with people with other points of view (such as those involved in social justice/peace) became more conservative and hardened in their political position.
Thus, we have the “breach” in today’s reality. I truly believe that there was a time when there was a window of opportunity for dialogue and even change (for both sides, but especially for pro-life people). But they were turned away because of a lack of openness by the progressive/liberal/ peace/social justice groups.
Unfortunately, both sides developed a certain blindness and deafness, and each hardened their position. This is the true source of the breech.
This divide hasn’t changed much over the years, outside of the people and organizations connected to the Consistent Life Network. That is my take of being involved in this area for the last 50 years.
Several years later, in 1992, an amazing thing happened with the Diocese of Rochester Synod. Each parish and faith community (like the Newman Centers on College Campuses, etc.) submitted their top five priorities for the Diocese for the next five years, and sent them into the Diocesan Pastoral Center. They were then tabulated into 54 issues (the consistent ethic of life was not one of them). Then there was a gathering at the Convention Center where these priorities were discussed by over 1,000 representatives from parishes, and the top 18 were voted on and listed. Next, there was an open session in which any person could make the case for one more issue to be added for discussion for the final general session; another 18 were listed (consistent ethic of life was one of them). Then all present voted on their top issue.
Surprisingly, Consistent Ethic of Life was voted in. and become part of the final 19 possible priorities. Five would be acted on as the priorities by the whole diocese. When all the final votes were counted, amazingly Consistent Ethic of Life received the second highest number of votes overall.
Because of this, eventually a full-time Life Issues Coordinator was hired by the Diocese for the first time.
She instituted a banquet where a “Vita Award” was given out each year to those people in the diocese who embodied and witnessed to an aspect of the consistent life ethic. Also, the Consistent Life Ethic Grant fund was made possible by the Consistent Life Ethic Dinner. In my view, this outcome must have happened by the workings of the Holy Spirit. There were some members of the Human Life Commission that felt this also came about because of the foundation the commission had laid years before.
When I was speaking back in the early 1970’s for the Right to Life Committee, I had to spend the first 15 minutes of every presentation explaining why the pro-life position wasn’t just the Catholic Church imposing its morality on the country. The strong Evangelicals involvement came later. I’ll never forget the first Leo Holmsten Award, for which Leo was the first recipient (he died not too long after this). He was a doctor who had worked at Planned Parenthood and then changed dramatically, becoming an outspoken pro-life advocate. He was also an Evangelical Christian. In his acceptance speech that night, he thanked the Catholics for being in the forefront of this issue and movement for so many years.
One of the remarkable accomplishments of the Human Life Commission was bringing the pro-life Christian groups together, to work in a more coordinated and focused way on the Life issues.
For more of our posts from Jim Hewes, see:
For more of our posts on the recent history of the consistent life ethic, see:
Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-life Movement Before Roe v. Wade (review of book by Daniel K. Williams)
The Adventures of Prolifers for Survival: Scorned by Mobilization for Survival