Fr. Hehir and the “Seamless Garment”

Feedback on our last post, “Fr. Bryan Hehir: Early Influences and “Private Morality” has been so positive–one commenter said it was “one of the best and most informative posts this blog has ever had”–that we’d like to build on it by today covering the infamous “consistent ethic of life” (aka “seamless garment”) ideology that Fr. Hehir helped establish.  It occurs to us now that perhaps we should have started the blog in March with even more of the historical context, but as they say, “better late than never.”  You will see the close tie-in with the effects of John Courtney Murray’s writings and the “consistent ethic of life” that has given air-cover to a generation of pro-abortion “Catholic” politicians in just a few paragraphs.

We’ll start with another excerpt from the chapter on Fr. Hehir from the 2001 book, “Religious Leaders and Faith-Based Politics” where Fr. Hehir and other observers of his work were interviewed, but we’ll end with something more recent from Cardinal O’Malley.

The chapter mentions Hehir’s “considerable” role played while at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in changing the public policy focus for U.S. bishops starting in 1983.  Fr. Hehir’s influence moved the bishops from an almost exclusive focus on opposing abortion to a broader “consistent ethic of life” approach where abortion was dealt with in conjunction with other threats to life and human well-being like poverty and nuclear war:

Shortly after Roe v Wade a major rift developed within the U.S. [Catholic] hierarchy.  It was split over whether the fight against abortion ought to serve as the principal overarching focal point of its agenda or whether the issue should be addressed in conjunction with other threats to life and human well-being such as poverty and nuclear war.  This disagreement continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s, with “conservative” bishops like Cardinal Law, Cardinal O’Connor, and bishop James McHugh of Camden supporting the former approach and progressives like Cardinal Bernadin embracing the latter posture.  As one would expect, Hehir sided with the progressive camp…

Shortly after the pastoral on war and peace had been issued. and no doubt trying to take advantage of the momentum it bad generated within the hierarchy. Cardinal Bernardin undertook another major initiative intended to broaden the bishops’ pro-life agenda beyond abortion. On 6 December 1983. he delivered a lecture at Fordham University entitled “The Consistent Ethic of Life: An American-Catholic Dialogue.” In it, he argued that the contemporary world confronts us with a whole range of threats to human life and well-being for which it is necessary to formulate a consistent and comprehensive response, By way of illustration, he linked the bishops’ opposition to abortion to their recent statement on nuclear weapons and went on to draw a further connection with their rejection of capital punishment.  Without equating them,  he suggested that the bishops’ stands on all three issues reflected a commitment to the support and defense of human life-what he called “a consistent ethic of life:’ Bernardin would deliver several more addresses in this vein over the course of the next few years, expanding the range of issues encompassed  within this “consistent life ethic”. He included opposition to euthanasia and pornography as well as support for greater governmental efforts to fight poverty and provide health care to the poor. The result of his effort was quite novel: an expansive vision of what it means to be truly pro-life and a broad social agenda that cuts across the dominant ideolological stances of the Right and the Left on the U.S. political spectrum.

As one would expect, in undertaking this initiative Bernardin received the invaluable assistance of Bryan Hehir. Indeed it is fair to say that this initiative was chiefly the product of their long collaboration. After working together over the years, the two men had become close friends. According to John Langan, who knew both men well, it is impossible to say which of them actually came up with the idea of the consistent ethic, though the basic substance of the idea was something they had long shared. What is clear. however, is that it was Hehir who was responsible for developing the idea in a systematic fashion.  The addresses that Bernardin gave on the subject were thus largely Hehir’s work and heavily reflect his thinking . For although it is true that abortion, war, the death penalty, and so on are life-related issues, the logical connection among them is far from strict. For example, according to Church teaching, abortion entails the taking of an innocent human life: the death penalty, on the other hand involves the execution by the state of someone guilty of a capital crime. It is not self-evident that opposition to the one should automatically demand opposition to the other. Accordingly. it was necessary that Bernardin receive assistance in order to formulate his conception of the consistent ethic in a rigorous and systematic fashion. Hehir supplied this.

Predictably, Bernardin’s initiative proved controversial. Leading opponents of abortion within the hierarchy such as O’Connor and Law feared it would weaken the bishops’ commitment to fight abortion. They also feared that pro-choice Catholic politicians would point to their support for other elements of the Church’s social agenda as a way of deflecting criticism of their pro-choice position — a fear that, as it turned out, proved well founded.

Beyond that problem, part of Hehir’s rationale for the “seamless garment” approach—namely his belief that the credibility and effectiveness of the Church’s teaching on abortion would actually be “enhanced rather than diminished by placing it in the context of a broader social agenda”—was also proven wrong.  The book acknowledges (p. 215) that the effect of Fr. Hehir’s recommendations on public policy had “proved quite minimal,”  and as of the time of the book’s publishing, the ‘consistent ethic of life’ had not yet succeeded in diminishing public support for abortion.   Moreover, this chapter also notes Fr. Hehir’s “crucially important” and “principal influence” roles in the Bishops’ peace and economic pastorals.  Both of them were intended to make a significant impact on public policy.  In the end, the impact is described as “utterly negligible.”

So we got no positive impact from the “seamless garment” and instead it gave decades of pro-abortion politicians air-cover for their positions.  Thanks a lot.  Fortunately, the “seamless garment” went underground for a decade from 1998 to 2008, but then it was dusted off in the 2008 presidential campaign, and in 2009 when President Obama spoke at Notre Dame, as George Weigel described in this National Review piece Obama and the ‘Real’ Catholics last year:

What was surprising, and ought to be disturbing to anyone who cares about religious freedom in these United States, was the president’s decision to insert himself into the ongoing Catholic debate over the boundaries of Catholic identity and the applicability of settled Catholic conviction in the public square. Obama did this by suggesting, not altogether subtly, who the real Catholics in America are. The real Catholics, you see, are those like the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who are “congenial and gentle” in persuasion, men and women who are “always trying to bring people together,” Catholics who are “always trying to find the common ground.” The fact that Cardinal Bernardin’s undoubted geniality and gentility in bringing people together to find the common ground invariably ended with a “consensus” that matched the liberal or progressive position of the moment went unremarked — because, for a good postmodern liberal like President Obama, that progressive “consensus” is so self-evidently true that one can afford to be generous in acknowledging that others, less enlightened but arguably sincere, have different views.

And whatever Bernardin’s intentions in formulating what came to be known popularly as the “seamless garment” approach to public policy, the net effect of the consistent ethic of life was to validate politically the intellectual mischief of Mario Cuomo’s notorious 1984 Notre Dame speech (“I’m personally opposed, but I can’t impose my views on a pluralistic society”), and to give two generations of Catholic politicians a virtual pass on the abortion question by allowing them to argue that, hey, I’m batting .667 on the consistent ethic of life.

Hold that thought.  Now fast-forward just a few months after that Notre Dame speech to the fracas over the funeral for Sen. Ted Kennedy to see traces of the “consistent ethic of life” resurrected. We have already covered what Fr. Bryan Hehir said about the Kennedy funeral in our post Fr. Hehir and Ted Kennedy: False Teaching ‘Emboldens’ Greater Evil. Here is a short quote from him once again in the Boston Globe on August 28, 2009.

If you look back over his long career, most of his life was taken up with domestic social policy and social welfare issues, and on those issues the church had a lot of overlap with him,’’

And from Cardinal Sean O’Malley about the funeral:

Needless to say, the Senator’s wake and Catholic funeral were controversial because of the fact that he did not publicly support Catholic teaching and advocacy on behalf of the unborn. ­­­Given the profound effect of Catholic social teaching on so many of the programs and policies espoused by Senator Kennedy and the millions who benefitted from them, there is a tragic sense of lost opportunity in his lack of support for the unborn. To me and many Catholics it was a great disappointment because, had he placed the issue of life at the centerpiece of the Social Gospel where it belongs, he could have multiplied the immensely valuable work he accomplished.

Hopefully, this trip down “memory lane” is enlightening for you, as we have lots more to come there.  In the meantime, we are clearly still suffering from the effects of Fr. Bryan Hehir’s “seamless garment” in 2010, and are not sure how making the issue of life the “centerpiece of the Social Gospel” is fulfilled by the Archdiocese of Boston continuing to feature a speaker at Bryan Hehir’s upcoming Social Justice Conference who publicly backed the pro-abortion politician, Kathleen Sebelius, for Health and Human Services Secretary.  We have not said our last on that topic.

Obama and Sebelius

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I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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