A Seamless Garment That Fits

The Voice of Faithful Catholics

Cardinal Bernardin in 1996 (AP)

It has been the taunt of those advocating the moral legitimacy and legalization of abortion since the modern pro-life movement began: “You’re not pro-life; you’re just against abortion. You couldn’t care less about the lives of mothers or children after the nine months of pregnancy are over.”

The accusation as made is truly false. In the first place, anybody who ever visits or volunteers with a lifecare center will know that telephone counseling is not simply a matter of making arguments to women not to abort, but involves the support of women in crisis who are often pushed toward the option of abortion by boyfriends, husbands, or family members. Words of affirmation and reason are certainly involved, as well as the great gift of seeing by ultrasound that what is inside them is not a what but a who. So too are recommendations and referrals to sources of medical, financial, and emotional help if the mother is keeping her baby, to options for adoption for those who do not believe themselves capable of taking care of the child whom they are carrying. Many lifecare centers have on hand donated clothing, diapers, baby formula, beds, strollers, and other things needed for mothers to care for their children. A number collaborate with groups providing free housing for homeless pregnant women. Along with material tools of motherhood are classes on childcare. The pro-life center’s purpose is to assist women in saying yes to the human life within them—letting it live and caring for it.

Those who have taken up full-time work advancing the legal recognition and protection of innocent human life are neither opposed nor uninterested in the welfare of mothers and children after the birth has occurred. Many of their efforts have centered around the fact that the American abortion industry has largely involved unregulated medical practice leading not only to the deaths of babies but also to the maiming of many women seeking abortion, as the writer Will Saletan, an uneasy pro-choice journalist, has detailed in a series of articles for the center-left magazine Slate. Many other efforts have resulted in laws allowing desperate women who have given birth alone to drop off their babies at hospitals when the women are worried that they cannot care for the child. To be pro-life is to care about the medical, emotional, and spiritual health of women as well as the life and health of babies. 

The More Sophisticated Criticism and the “Seamless Garment”
While the criticism is easily dispatched in its narrower form, another version has also continuously circulated, particularly by more sophisticated critics of the pro-life movement and the Catholic Church in general. This is that while pro-lifers might care about mothers and babies in the earliest stages of life, they don’t really care about human life in all its phases.   Pro-lifers, they say, are obsessed only with babyhood, not middle age or old age.

The strangeness of this claim can be seen by looking at the numbers involved in legalized abortion. While some individual pro-lifers do spend the vast majority of their work on the issue of abortion itself, this is because the task is so monumental. According to the Guttmacher Institute, Planned Parenthood’s public policy arm, the number of abortions in 2013 was the lowest since 1973—but that still meant over one million abortions in the United States. Compare this number to those cited in the Center for Disease Controls 2011 report on causes of death for 2010. Deaths from poisoning (46,047), injuries (187,464), motor vehicle accidents (33,783), and firearms (32,351), when added together, total less than 30 percent of the deaths from abortion in 2013, yet who would accuse people working full-time to reduce deaths in one of these areas of not caring about others? The charge is simply absurd. That one spends most of one’s time working on one societal problem does not indicate unconcern with others.

The pro-life movement has certainly not limited itself to the issues of abortion, in any case. The new threats of euthanasia, either direct or in the form of assisted suicide, and health rationing by insurance companies, hospitals, and state and national health services have been resisted in large part by the pro-life movement, which opposes the killing of the innocent adult or sick child just as much as it opposes the killing of the child in the womb. Additionally, many in the pro-life movement have taken on the causes of limiting or eliminating the death penalty and also limiting the use of force by nations in wars.

Pro-life leaders from the 1970s on have been anxious to assure people that their cause is one that does embrace the totality of human life. Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was the most famous proponent of talking about a “seamless garment” or “consistent ethic of life” as the way of thinking about the pro-life cause. His first sustained speeches to articulate this position, as the chairman of the U. S. Bishops’ committee on pro-life concerns, were in lectures at Fordham University and St. Louis University in 1983 and 1984. In these lectures, as well as several books, Cardinal Bernardin urged Catholics and pro-lifers to think about the different threats to life under the rubric of a “seamless garment” all united by a thread of reverence for life. In Bernardin’s writings, he was careful to note that he was not trying to equate every threat or destructive reality. He asserted: “A consistent ethic of life does not equate the problem of taking life (e.g., through abortion and in war) with the problem of promoting human dignity (through humane programs of nutrition, health care, and housing). But a consistent ethic identifies both the protection of life and its promotion as moral questions” (March 11, 1984 address). He noted that he wanted to keep moral questions distinct, but see them through a wider lens.

The unfortunate result, however, was that the “Seamless Garment” argument was used by many Catholics precisely to treat all issues as the same, theoretically at least. The late Catholic writer Joseph Sobran complained that the consistency usually only worked one way. If you supported the welfare state, you were thereby opposing abortion even if you worked to keep it legal by your other political actions. The “Seamless Garment” in practice became a disguise by which people who wished abortion to be legal were able to claim to be authentically pro-life while deriding others who did work for the legal protection of the unborn, but who had different prudential judgments about when a war was just, when the death penalty can be used, or what means best helps the poor get out of their poverty.

In other words, the failure to make distinctions that Bernardin said was not part of a true consistent ethic of life was precisely what happened. Every individual issue of concern was weighted the same and people who did not oppose abortion or euthanasia claimed that those who did not oppose the death penalty in toto or a particular social program were really not pro-life while pro-abortion and pro-euthanasia activists were. This issue has been brought up repeatedly, notably a decade ago when some bishops began attempting to apply canon law about the worthy reception of holy communion more consistently by informing Catholic politicians whose votes and public actions favored legalized abortion and euthanasia that they were ineligible to receive communion. Such bishops were told they were “politicizing the sacrament” since they did not deny communion to those who supported the war in Iraq or who did not favor the complete abolition of the death penalty. Cardinal Ratzinger, then prefect of the CDF, responded in a 2004 document, “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion, General Principles”:

Not all moral issues have the same weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

That same year the Church published the Compendium of Social Doctrine. It was similarly clear about the distinctions between the issues. Paragraph 570 says that “a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.” These laws and programs obviously concern abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage. Paragraph 571 provides a contrast: “The Church’s Magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions.” It is here that we find all the other questions of human flourishing, the answers to which will vary depending on the context of the situation and the prudence of the individuals making judgments.

A Seamless Garment that Fits
The failure of the “Seamless Garment” was that, despite the explicit words of its founder, it was turned into a one-size-fits-all pro-life tee shirt that would fit those who were for abortion and euthanasia but be used to strangle actual pro-lifers who disagreed with others on what the Compendium calls “contingent questions.” If there was consistency in the consistent ethic of life, it was largely political. But Cardinal Bernadin and others who wished a more consistent attitude toward issues were not wrong in principle. Pope St. John Paul II issued a similar call in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. There the pope analyzed in a holistic way what he called a “culture of death” pervading modern and particularly western society, to which a “culture of life” should be proposed. St. John Paul was absolutely clear on the distinctions. All issues call for care and thought but certain actions must never be done: “Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral” (EV 57).

The culture of life is not a matter of a checklist in which all items are the same. The protection in law and culture of the innocent is paramount and categorically different from other issues in that only one response to challenges to it can suffice—no! But mere protection of human life is not the end of the culture of life. The promotion of flourishing and care for all life, especially life that is weak, poor, sick, and aged must follow: “Where life is involved, the service of charity must be profoundly consistent. It cannot tolerate bias and discrimination, for human life is sacred and inviolable at every stage and in every situation; it is an indivisible good. We need then to ‘show care’ for all life and for the life of everyone. Indeed, at an even deeper level, we need to go to the very roots of life and love” (EV 87).

This reaching to the roots of life and love means that consistent charity, in the sense of acts of love, must be preceded by consistent charity, in the sense of the cultivation of the gift of love poured into every Christian’s heart at baptism. St. John Paul makes clear that the beginning of a true culture of life will involve a cultivation of a “contemplative outlook” that will instill “a deep religious awe to rediscover the ability to revere and honor every person” (EV 83), seeing in each one “the image of God’s glory … the sign of the living God, an icon of Jesus Christ” (84). Reverence and honor to Christ’s living icons will be given in the coin of service, love, and above all mercy. A truly consistent ethic of life is merely the broader application of what Catholics have always known as the works of mercy, which have been directed both to bodily and spiritual concerns. Giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked and sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead—the corporal works of mercy—must always be done in connection with instructing the ignorant (what St. John Paul calls a “work of education”), admonishing sinners and doubters, comforting the afflicted, forgiving wrongs, and, above all, prayer. Prayer must be the foundation of any lasting works, large or small.

Threading Together the Garment
I personally like the notion of a culture of life better than a garment. A culture is something that grows. But for those who prefer the image of a seamless garment, it may be better to talk about making a seamless garment of life for our society. Given that image, we may ask what kinds of threads we need.

St. John Paul insisted we start with a thread of consistency in our families and those immediately around us, where “there is an everyday heroism made up of gestures of sharing, big or small, which build up an authentic culture of life.” This heroism is especially seen in what he calls “the invincible love” of ordinary mothers who suffer and pass on the best of themselves in giving birth and raising children (EV 86).

From these families and small circles of friends in which authentic self-giving is practiced must come larger threads that encompass groups that are not easily cared for by the family. St. John Paul talks at length about the particular duties of health-care personnel and those involved directly in political life, as well as the work of educating couples preparing for marriage, providing education and counseling for already-formed families, and caring for the elderly and terminally ill. He also notes that there are many more specific tasks that must be met by initiatives devised by those who will need “skill and serious commitment”:

When life is challenged by conditions of hardship, maladjustment, sickness or rejection, other programs—such as communities for treating drug addiction, residential communities for minors or the mentally ill, care and relief centers for AIDS patients, associations for solidarity especially towards the disabled—are eloquent expressions of what charity is able to devise in order to give everyone new reasons for hope and practical possibilities for life (EV 88).

The list of initiatives here clearly does not exhaust the needs that are out there and ever-changing. To these lists we might add addressing addictions to pornography and confusion about sexual identity, programs for general education and job training for those who have been economically left behind, and ministry to prisoners and those who have been in prison.

A Coat of Many Bright Colors
I can’t list all of the kinds of threads needed to fit the garment together because I don’t know what they are. The way in which needs are discovered, programs are made, and needs are met is the cultivation of those prayerful eyes that look out and see Jesus in disguises that are sometimes subtle and sometimes distressing. But the cultivation of those eyes must be accompanied by the cultivation of minds, too. As the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain observed concerning art, “piety is no substitute for technique.” The renovation of a Catholic vision of education in which faith and reason are seen as complementary is essential to coming up with creative answers to the needs of our time. A world that is increasingly complex will require technically complex solutions. We will need a lot of threads, and some of the materials for them may be made of complex synthetic fibers.

Three more things must be said about the character of those fibers, however. First, Catholics and pro-lifers must continue to figure out how to make some of them very bright so they can be seen by others. The use of older and newer forms of media in ways that will change the dominant narratives about life issues are necessary. So too are the cultivation of arts, high and low. As St. John Paul observed, “Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colors, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen.” The seamless garment must be beautiful if people will willingly wear it.

Second, the specifically Catholic and Christian elements of these fibers must be plain. While collaboration with all people of good will is necessary, institutions and initiatives must be directed by those with a similar vision of and service to Christ. To be mere social workers is to betray the spiritual ministry that is the consistent pro-life task.

The third point, related to the second, is that those creating these initiatives must figure out ways of funding their projects without government aid so that they won’t be forced to accept immoral conditions of the funding. The diocese of Tulsa’s Catholic Charities is in the forefront of recognizing this need for freedom to act in accord with Catholic teaching and toward a real human flourishing of head, heart, and body. It’s that full flourishing in freedom that will characterize a Seamless Garment that fits.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared in the Winter 2014 (Vol. IV. No. 4) issue of Bellarmine Forum Magazine (posted February 5, 2015) and is reprinted with permission of the Bellarmine Forum. (Photo credit: Cardinal Bernardin in 1996 / AP photo)

David Paul Deavel


David Paul Deavel is associate editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture. He earned a Ph.D. in theology from Fordham University and has taught at the University of St. Thomas (MN) and the St. Paul Seminary. His writing has appeared in a number of books as well as a wide variety of popular and scholarly journals.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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  1. glmcreations says:

    One primary reason for condemning prolife folks, by many in the Church, is that abortion is an intrinsic evil. There is no nuance, no accepted different views, no dialogue possible-it is crystal clear that it is murder to kill a child in its mother’s womb. Even the Catholic Bishops in their voting documents, obtuse and obfuscating as the words may be in a veiled effort o make the faithful believe they can vote for a prodeath politician, refer to only two evils as “intrinsic” – abortion and racism. With the Democrat RETA policy – racial eugenic targeted abortion-those in the Church who are and who further Democrats know they must negate the prolife message and must, as much as possible, marginalize the prolife warriors. The data does not lie – over 55% of abortions in the US are racist, inclduing 17,000,000 dead Black babies and 12,000,000 dead Hispanic babies. Those in the Church, hierarchy, bureaucracy, laity who have other agendas, eg those who hide behind “social justice,” “gospel of the family,” or “seamless garment,” know they must ignore our country’s RETA policy and they must provide Church cover to Democrats [all of them] and prodeath members of other parties; and they must downplay the abortion issue and must cast its proponents as “obsessed” and extreme wingnuts. “God does not lose battles” {JM Escriva] and He won’t lose this one. Guy McClung, San Antonio

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